No Kurosawa production was as troubled or as difficult as Kagemusha (though Dersu Uzala presented more logistical problems). For many years, it did not even appear that it was going to get made; even after funding was in place the film was beset by a number of misfortunes.
After the economic failure of Dodes’Kaden, Kurosawa had made Dersu Uzala in Siberia with Soviet funding. Although the latter film had solid box office numbers from around the world, it had performed poorly in Japan, making it almost impossible to attract funding from any Japanese studio. It was only after two self-proclaimed followers of Kurosawa, Frances Ford Coppola and George Lucas, managed to persuade Twentieth Century Fox (which was indebted to Lucas because of the success of Star Wars) to provide some funds. The foreign funding shamed Toho into contributing the rest of the funds.
But numerous problems awaited the project. The film had originally been conceived as something of a comedy in the spirit of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and had been written with Shintarô Katsu, a talented comic actor (his extremely long-running film series playing Zatôichi, the Blind Swordsman is one of the most successful in Japanese film history), in mind. On paper, it was a marriage made in heaven. Katsu gave Kurosawa a talented box office draw who would bring a subtle comic dimension to his film, while Katsu would play a far more serious role than any he had undertaken.
Unfortunately, Katsu alienated Kurosawa on the first day of filming when he tried to videotape his own performances. After Kurosawa demanded that he stop, Katsu stormed off the set. Fearing that Katsu’s antics did not bode well for the future, Kurosawa fired him immediately.
There was one actor who could easily have stepped into the role and excelled in it: Toshiro Mifune. But while Mifune had gotten over his spat with Kurosawa after Red Beard, Kurosawa remained implacable. Unwilling to mend his relationship with Mifune, Kurosawa instead turned to an actor he knew well, stage actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who had previously played villains in Yojimbo and Sanjuro as well as the police detective in High and Low. He was in fact a great actor, both on stage and in films such as Kobayashi’s epic The Human Condition and Harakiri. But he was all wrong for Kagemusha, tending to overact and failing to communicate the emotional depth needed. Unfortunately, casting in the lead role was not the end of the film’s problems.
Two other major losses included Masaru Satô, who had been in charge of the music for his films since the death of Fumio Hayasaka in 1955, and the man who is the greatest of all Japanese cinematographers, Kazuo Miyagawa. Kurosawa and Satô disagreed passionately about the direction the music in the film should take, and Satô pulled out of the project, resulting in the weakest soundtrack of any Kurosawa film. Miyagawa had worked with Kurosawa only twice before (he was most closely associated with Mizoguchi, in films like Ugetsu and Bansho the Baliff). He helped put the Japanese on the world stage through his extraordinary cinematography on Rashomon, which was one of Kurosawa’s final single-camera films. He then provided some of the finest camerawork in any Kurosawa film in Yojimbo. But his diabetes was affecting his eyesight and he had to quit. Kurosawa regular Takao Saitô took over the “A” camera (he had been scheduled, as he had been at times in the past, to man the “B” camera), but it was yet another loss on the film.
Kurosawa himself was directly responsible for one of the more glaring problems in the film: the weak acting. Issuing a nationwide call for talent, Kurosawa put amateur or inexperienced actors in key roles. Although there were a few veteran actors in the film — such as Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played Lord Shingen’s brother — far too many roles were given to people not up to the challenge.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that the script itself was lackluster. The twin stories of the film — a thief who is first asked to serve as the double for the warlord Lord Shingen and then undertake the role permanently; and the complete destruction of a clan in a single horrendous battle — are not bad, but the story lacked much in the way of character development. Some have speculated that Kurosawa’s insistence on being faithful to the watercolors that he did of the film while seeking financing may have made his vision for the film unnecessarily narrow. Those beautiful but static images limited what he was able to do in production. The film became less about the story and characters and more about mimicking his storyboards. (Many scholars have felt that the same thing was true of Ran, though to a lessened degree.) But in the end, as one Kurosawa scholar has noted, we are presented with something that we look at rather than care about.
The film contains some memorable set pieces, such as the dream in which the thief is pursued by Lord Shingen and the horrendous battle in which the clan is destroyed at the end (a scene that puts many viewers in mind of Picasso’s Guernica). But for long-time fans of Kurosawa, the film is a disappointment.
Sadly, contains the farewell performances of two of Kurosawa’s most important actors. One was Takashi Shimura — who appeared in more films by Kurosawa than anyone else, including his debut film Sanshiro Sugata – most memorably as Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, in Ikiru and as Kambei, the leader of the samurai, in Seven Samurai. Shimura was suffering from severe emphysema during filming and could manage only a tiny role. Kurosawa told others that he would have given Shimura a larger role, but he feared that it would “break him.” He would die the next year.
The other major Kurosawa regular making his swan song was Kamatari Fujiwara, who had appeared in very nearly as many films as Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, most notably as Manzo the peasant in Seven Samurai and as one of the two peasants in The Hidden Fortress. His role as the physician attending the mortally wounded Shingen is so small that if you don’t know to look for him, you might miss him.
Despite the difficulties in making the film and the weaknesses in the final film, Kagemusha represented a comeback for Kurosawa. Dodes’ka-den (1970) had been a financial and critical failure while Dersu Uzala, despite its Oscar, had been a box office failure in Japan. Kagemusha was a financial success (and would have been a larger one had Twentieth Century Fox put it in more theaters and in more cities). Although Kurosawa had some trouble financing Ran (underwriting for the film would come from France), he would never again experience struggle to the degree he had between the end of Red Beard and the filming of Kagemusha to come up with the money to make a film. Had the film not succeeded, we might not have seen the four additional Kurosawa films that were made in the next 13 years. — Robert Moore