March 6, 2014

Akira Kurosawa: "Kagemusha", a Cry for Humanity

In his book, Something Like an Autobiography, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, in speaking of his old friend and collaborator Uekusa Keinosuke writes:
We're both crybabies, aren't we? Only now you've become a romantic crybaby and I'm a humanist crybaby.
I consider Kurosawa to be one of the great humanist directors, along with Frederico Fellini. By a humanist I mean someone who always looks deep into the complexities of human nature with great sympathy, using a sensitive development of character to arrive at universal themes. Both directors are fond of spectacle, which is part of the human comedy. I recently re-watched Kurosawa's 1980 film Kagemusha, which for me is one of the strongest indictments of the human folly and tragedy of war that I have ever seen. The word kagemusha means a "shadow warrior", a political stand-in. At the beginning of the film we see on the right a petty thief saved from execution because he looks exactly like the warlord Takeda Shingen.

Shingen died and the thief was asked to take on his impersonation full time for three years; only the closest aides and bodyguards knew of the substitution. The kagemusha becomes so close to his former lord in manner as to fool many. In this film we see how nobility and wisdom can be inherent in anyone, even a lowly thief; he comes to love the man he is impersonating, to love his principles, his people, and especially his little grandson and heir.

Shingen's son, Katsuyori, who was passed over as heir for political reasons, is full of raging anger and resentment.

When the thief is found out, he is ignominiously cast out, with no gratitude for what he had done. This has left an opening for Katsuyori to lead the clan.

But he is acting irrationally, urged on by his lifelong resentment and desire for glory. In one of the painterly scenes in this film, a horizontal band of color crosses the sky which the generals interpret as a warning not to go into battle, which their former lord had demanded, since "the mountain does not move".

Tragedy ensues: we see wave after wave of soldiers rushing into battle, hear the thundering horses hooves, see and hear the gunfire....

.....and know the horror by the shocked reactions of the generals watching the battle. Katsuyori in his vainglory and stubbornness sends more men and horses and more and more, only to die.

The kagemusha has followed the army and watches in desperation.

It is only when the battle is over that Kurosawa shows us the aftermath, a vast slaughter.

The camera watches men collapsing and horses trying to stand, all attempting to hold on to life. I don't think I've ever seen anything as horror-filled as the images of horses flailing, legs moving against a blue sky, accompanied by a powerfully mournful score. I have watched the final scenes over and over again and am moved each time: all this destruction, pointless. I think of this movie when I hear politicians urging war or "stronger action", clans or religions fighting each other, a government turning on its people.

When Kurosawa was a little boy there was a tremendous earthquake in Tokyo, the Kanto earthquake of  1923. His older brother took him to view the devastation so as to "conquer fear". He describes what he saw:
The burned landscape for as far as the eye could see had a brownish red color. In the conflagration everything made of wood had been turned to ashes, which now occasionally drifted upward in the breeze. It looked like a red desert.  
Amid this expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable. I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses. 
This terrifying scene must have stayed with Kurosawa his entire life; something like it is vividly brought to our eye in Kagemusha, the deaths here the result of human folly and stupidity.