Sunday, August 23, 2009

KAGEMUSHA (Akira Kurosawa, 1980, Japan) A nameless thief becomes a shadow; spared crucifixion for minor crimes, he must become an empty vessel, a vaporous vassal submerged in the penumbra of a dead warlord. Lord Shingen was known as the mountain, a leader whose granite power was the unmovable foundation of his Takeda clan, sacrificing his own desires for the greater cause: uniting the warring factions by seeing his flag raised over Kyoto. He wishes to spare the country rivers of blood and mountains of dead…but first must stabilize his own power base. This rogue’s physical appearance is remarkably similar to Lord Shingen, and he is utilized as a double when Shingen dies: though an outsider and treated as such, he is slowly transformed by the Takeda clan tradition, losing his own identity and becoming a reflection of his master. At first, the Generals despise this thief and banish him, but he grovels and pleads for the chance to save the Takeda clan before spies can deliver the message of Shingen’s death. He then assumes the mannerisms and etiquette of the dead Lord so well that he fools even the concubines and his enemies. But his arrogance will be his downfall; though he deceived an entire nation…he cannot trick Shingen’s stallion, a metaphor concerning natural selection that balances the elemental order of the world. Director Akira Kurosawa has captured the quicksilver ghost of human nature, examining the contradictions inherent in our species, from wickedness and murder to the gentle love for a grandchild. How can the bloody hand that wields the sword also lovingly caress another? How can the lips that command mass murder also speak delicate praise and affection? This beautiful celluloid vision just glows with oversaturated colors, blurring the line between surreal dreams and the impersonator’s reality, the cinematography peeling away the raw sinew and muscle to expose the abstract: greed, jealously, betrayal, honor, duty and, amongst the lowest of the hierarchy…loyalty. Kurosawa doesn’t focus upon the majestic spectacle of battle; instead, we become voyeur into the tiny lives of mighty men, governed by the same emotions that defy social status or consanguinity. Finally the shadow is exposed to the light of knowledge and cast out, and Shingen’s brother leads the clan to its terrifying end. The final Battle of Nagashino is mostly held off-screen, as Kurosawa lingers upon the aftermath of annihilation: mountains of death in the vague shapes of men and horses, some struggling for their last breath in the cold morning air, the heat of their lives evaporating into the ether, forgotten and alone. But the shadow thief shows true honor and dies in a single attack upon the fortification, his body eventually joining his master in the raging torrents of entropy. (A)

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