by Jay Seaver
Akira Kurosawa would have reached the century mark this year, and while one needs no excuse to dive into this master's work - that so much is fantastic is reason enough - the anniversary is providing us with opportunities and reminders to do so. Hopefully, many will take advantage of the chance to not just revisit favorites, but to perhaps experience some of these films for the first time, as even potentially intimidating films like "Kagemusha" are brilliant for all, not just some elite.It does hit the audience with a little exposition right away, on how in 16th Century Japan, three leaders' factions sought to take the capital of Kyoto and unite the nation under their rule: Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), and Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui). Shingen's brother Nobukado Takeda (Tsutomu Yamazaki) bears a striking resemblance to him, and frequently serves as his double on the front lines. Quite by accident, Nobukado finds a man whose resemblance to the king goes beyond "striking" to "uncanny", and brings the uncouth thief (Nakadai again) into the palace to be trained to imitate Shingen. He is meant to only serve as an occasional decoy, but when a sniper's bullet strikes Shingen, his dying command is that his death not be announced for three years, lest Nobunaga and Ieyasu attack the Takeda clan while it is weak - and, perhaps, lest his son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) seize power as the designated heir's guardian.
"The prince, the pauper, and Akira Kurosawa."
There's a fair amount of history and politics to this film (more in some cuts than others - 20th Century Fox removed twenty minutes present in the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray; this review is of a Fox print), and it's impressive how clearly it is presented. Kurosawa and co-writer Masato Ide put a lot of balls in the air - not just one, but two rival lords, as well as the contention between Katsuyori and the rest of the court - but it's never overwhelming. Kurosawa is also very respectful of that history; he doesn't suggest that the fate of the nation turned on his fictional creation, although he does build a compelling story around him.
It's the sort of story that's frequently used for comedy, and Tatsuya Nakadai gives a wonderfully comic performance as the nameless thief. It's not broad of buffoonish, but there's always something amusing going on in his eyes: The look of an eager student at moments when the real Shingen would show wisdom, occasional panic, and simple pleasure at playing with Takemaru (Kota Yui), the grandson that was frightened by Shingen. But he also manages moments of dignity and tragedy, both as Shingen, whom we can see as both ruthless and noble, and later on, when the thief begins to feel like an important part of the clan, though he is not.
The thief doesn't quite serve as the audience's eyes into this world, but it's interesting the sort of remove Kurosawa puts the audience at. At times, we may identify best with the spies Nobunaga and Ieyasu send to observe the Takeda clan; like the thief, they aren't sure what the big picture is but do their best to process their part of it. We just see glimpses of the court politics that go on after Shingen's death; it's up to us to interpret a move by Katsuyori as a power play, since the generals don't describe it that way. And though some of the battles that play a part of the plot are epic in scope - such as the one at the end, 1575's Battle of Nagashino - there are few scenes of swords clashing; instead, we see the march to battle, snipers shooting from behind cover, and the carnage afterward. We see the thief's horror as he watches from a distance, and his fear as it threatens to escape its bounds.
It's an unusual epic that way; though it takes place over a period of years, and features kings, treachery, and battles, it is one where small moments are often the most memorable, and where the main character being a pawn in a much larger game is never in doubt. That's part of what makes Kurosawa's accomplishment, returning to film after a decade away, so remarkable; in a lesser filmmaker's hands, this could have been dour or somber. Instead, it's exciting from the get go, with a spirited exchange between Shingen, Nobukado, and the thief before the title and a messenger running to deliver news after. There's little chuckles in the middle of dramatic scenes. And between Kurosawa and the excellent cast, we seldom get a sense of simplistic heroes and villains; just people doing what comes naturally until, in the end, we see the effect that the experience has had on the thief.Those last few scenes arguably come after the emotional climax, but that's part of what makes an epic (along with its length) - it's still finding interesting angles all the way until the end. What Kurosawa does so well is make the audience feel the scale while also making it fun.
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originally posted: 04/09/10 10:18:57