Kagemusha (1980)

Some men are born to greatness, others don’t get any say in the matter. For all its setup as a sprawling war epic, Kagemusha hones in on what is likely the most insignificant and weakest person possible.

Shingen Takade (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the strongest lord of a pact of clans in Japan. His experience and leadership is the unifying force of the group. However, when he is mortally wounded, a body double named Kagemusha (also Tatsuya Nakadai) takes his place. Kagemusha is a thief and murderer, saved from crucificition in order to pose as the fallen lord.

Perhaps the most fascinating element is watching how posing as the lord slowly changes Kagemusha as a character. Initially, he is resistant and barely able to pose as the lord, the two so antithetical in their social position and status. However, as time changes and evolves, the position does have an effect on Kagemusha.

That is because, in some ways, the power of the position is its own force. One could argue it is a position of little worth if a thief can sit around and pretend to be the lord, but there is something about the manner of carrying oneself, the ability to simply remain calm and to listen that has an effect on the men.

It also changes Kagemusha as a person. Initially, he is a very selfish, greedy man. He uses the position in order to attempt to steal precious jewels. However, as he settles into the position, he begins to see the value and worth of the life. Kagemusha does remain some of his own person. His sense of humor comes through in a more muted way and he’s a bit livelier than the old master.

And while the position initially seems like it will have many perks, one of the recurring themes is the sacrifices that Kagemusha must go through in order to live as a lord. He is no longer his own, but now someone who must consider the lives of others before his own. To live as a lord may offer physical luxuries, but there is little freedom in the life. He is often forced to do things and be in situations that he would otherwise avoid.

Therefore, one of the recurring themes of the story is that Kagemusha is a man living in a constant state of crucifixion. Saved from the act of being crucified to death, his life is now one in which he must die to others again and again. It’s interesting to see such an overt reference to Christian concepts and ideology in this film. What’s even more intriguing is that it evokes this concept without using any symbolism.

As an examination and character story, Kagemusha is a rich, insightful film that examines how position and leadership do shape and inform ones identity. While many might imagine this life as wonderful and grand, the life of Kagemusha is one filled with many sacrifices in the calling of something higher and more important than himself.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing