Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 180 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: August 18, 2009
Review Date: August 2, 2009
Acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa emerged from the relatively black period of the 1970s (which included critical dismissals of previous works and a suicide attempt) with Kagemusha, a generally acknowledged return to form for him. Though clocking in at three hours, Kurosawa’s film is not dull, and he’s craftily balanced domestic scenes with only a few participants with epic scenes of battle and confrontation featuring a cast of thousands. It might not be the greatest film he ever directed (I prefer several of his earlier works and Ran), but it’s a grand enterprise filled with surprises and delights.
In 16th century Japan, the life of a convicted thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) is spared when his closeness to the appearance of the head of the Takeda clan Shingen (also Tatsuya Nakadai) is noted. When Shingen is injured and later dies, Takeda clansmen decide to make the thief masquerade as the warlord known as “The Mountain” so that the clan can maintain its appearance of power against the invading, belligerent Tokugawas. The double has his work cut out for him trying to pull the deception off in dealing with the dead warlord’s grandson, his mistresses, and his horse as well as spies for the Tokugawa clan who suspect something is wrong with the old warlord. The double must also deal with mutiny in his own ranks as Shingen’s embittered, recognition-seeking son Katsuyori (Tsutomu Yamazaki) resents being passed over as heir in favor of his young son (Kenichi Hagiwara) and wants to prove his own worth as a warrior since his real father isn’t actually there to stop him.
Though known throughout his career for his impressive handling of epic battle scenes, Kurosawa’s strongest moments in Kagemusha are the more quietly handled, formally staged and shot domestic scenes. We see the family grow to care for the double as if he were the real deal, and we see him gain little by little in strength and confidence, especially when he spearheads a successful standoff against the warring Tokugawas. But as is so often the case, ego gets the best of even the strongest as we enter the film’s final third. Kurosawa’s direction of the battle scenes is exemplary, but what guts it took to resist showing the bloody slaughter in progress (which inevitably brought Japan together after centuries of clan wars) and instead focus the camera on the horrified expressions of onlookers to the carnage! Then, we’re allowed to be horrified ourselves at seeing the resultant massacre, much more effective in retrospect than it would have been in a more traditionally directed montage of bullets and blood. The director indulges himself perhaps a bit in staging a lengthy Noh theater piece as well as a gripping nightmare sequence as the double struggles with his identity, neither of which adds much except length to the film wonderfully directed as both sequences undoubtedly are. But with a story this riveting (co-written by Kurosawa and Masato Ide) and a production this grand, it’s hard to quibble about excessive running time. (The film was trimmed by about twenty minutes for its premiere U.S. engagements.)
Performances of the key players are simply magnificent. Tatsuya Nakadai gets a showcase in the film’s very first scene, a split screen confrontation between the look-alikes which offers a bravura opportunity to play two completely different people who look exactly the same which the actor seizes brilliantly. One can literally see the jealousy burning the insides of Tsutomu Yamazaki alive as he plays the son passed over despite years of victories and obeisance. Kota Yui as the younger Takeda brother who trains the double on etiquette and demeanor offers a solid, soothing presence. Masayuki Yui and Daisuke Ryu as leaders of the rival Tokugawa and Oda clans may be more one dimensional in construction but are riveting nevertheless on-screen.
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Much of the film features wonderful sharpness and fine object clarity in close-ups and medium shots though long shots are something of a disappointment in comparison to the best high definition transfers. Color richness is wonderfully achieved in most of the shots (reds, blues, and yellows predominate) though the surreal nightmare scene does have some blooming reds (likely intentional). Black levels are very deep adding to the vivid quality of the accompanying images. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 31 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 sound mix certainly offers some startling effects piped into the rear channels, and the music has an openness to it that gives the entire soundfield some unexpected expansiveness. Occasionally gunshots take on an echo-y, hollow distortion that sounds surprisingly unnatural compared to the thundering hooves of the hundreds on horseback that are mixed with the gunfire. Still, there is a great deal of body to the audio here that I wasn’t expecting for a film of this era.
The audio commentary is provided by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince, and it’s a dilly covering all of the important biographical information about the man and history of the production’s rocky road to financing and inevitably being made. There’s also scene-by-scene analysis and a thorough discussion of samurai history present in the film and how it was changed for dramatic purposes.
With one exception, the bonus features are presented in 1080i.
“Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa” is a 19 ¼-minute featurette with George Lucas and Francis Coppola interviews in 2004 detailing their involvement with Kurosawa down through the years including watching his films when they were young, meeting him for the first time, and all about seeing that Kurosawa had financing for his project when he couldn’t secure financing on his own.
“Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful to Create” is part of an on-going documentary on the production of his various films. This offers 41 ½-minutes of discussion on the making of this important picture in his filmography.
“Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity” is a fascinating 43 ¾-minute montage of the 200 drawings, sketches, and paintings Kurosawa made waiting for financing that inevitably served as storyboards for his film. The pictures are linked together with a running audio storyteller and actors reciting lines from the script. The montage was arranged by Maseyuki Yui.
“Vision Realized” takes twenty-four of the storyboards and pairs them with their counterparts from the finished film. These are presented in 1080p.
There are five Suntory Whisky commercials which were made while Kurosawa was shooting the film. They range from ½-minute to 1-minute in length each.
Three trailers are available for individual viewing. The U.S. trailer runs 1 ½ minutes while the Japanese teaser trailer is 3 ¼ minutes and the theatrical trailer is 3 ½ minutes.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The enclosed 40-page booklet features an extensive cast and crew listing, a series of remarkable miniature reproductions of Akira Kurosawa’s paintings for the film’s memorable scenes, an appreciative essay on the man, his life, and his film by critic Peter Grilli, and an interview with Japanese film scholar Tony Rayns held with the director shortly after the film premiered.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of world cinema’s great masters has one of his great films come to high definition in Criterion’s Blu-ray version of Kagamusha. Featuring wonderful video and audio along with many worthwhile bonuses and a collectible booklet, this one can’t come more highly recommended!
Edited by MattH. - 8/3/2009 at 03:28 am GMT