Kagemusha may just be the most terrifying and iconic character ever created in Japanese cinema. Starring in the 1961 classic, Kurosawa’s film follows a shinobi (a ninja) who assumes a demon-like guise to exact revenge on those who hurt his master. Since its initial premiere, people throughout the world have been captivated by the film’s twisted brand of martial arts and dramatic storylines.
In honor of his 100th birthday, it’s only right that we look back at Kurosawa’s masterpiece and remember exactly what made it so great. Here are five things that Robert Pattinson said about the film. For more information on the character, click here.
1. It’s All About The Combat
The most important thing about Kagemusha is the fact that it’s all about the combat. The director, Kurosawa, wanted to explore the idea of evil as a physical opponent and how to fight against it. The character of Kagemusha embodies this conflict between good and evil, fighting off the flesh-eating demons who infest his village.
Though not his first foray into cinema, Kurosawa’s experience in film helped to shape his unique take on the art of combat and the concept of good versus evil. He saw how films like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai brought a sense of tension and excitement to viewers, and he wanted to harness this excitement and energy into a single, continuous shot. To accomplish this, he brought together several award-winning cinematographers and set designers for a crack team of experts, all of whom worked tirelessly to achieve Kurosawa’s unique vision. The result is one of the most stunning films ever made.
2. The Fighting Is Stunning
The fighting in Kurosawa’s film is absolutely breathtaking. It’s not often that we get to see such highly trained kung-fu stylists slugging it out with grace and skill. Whether it’s a knife fight or a boomerang challenge (both executed with perfection), nothing about the way the characters fight is something we see often in other films. There’s just something about Kagemusha that makes the battles feel more epic and exciting. It’s probably the fact that Kurosawa went out of his way to hire experts in various martial arts, including karate, jujitsu, and aikido, to fight for the good guys.
On the flip side, the bad guys are really just as talented, if not more so, than the heroes in the ways they handle themselves in combat. When the film opens, we’re immediately introduced to the terrifying Kenkoyamada character, who executes a perfect crane kick that sends his opponent flying. The only thing missing is the sound effect of him actually saying, “Yamada!” and craning his neck forward as he watches his opponent tumble through the air. It would have made the moment that much more satisfying.
3. The Villains Are More Vivid And Graphic
One of the interesting things about Kagemusha is that it not only explores the idea of good versus evil, but it does so through the lens of Japanese folklore and fairytales. The characters aren’t just fighting for justice, they’re also competing for the love of a beautiful woman. This is most notably demonstrated by the love scenes, where the two male heroes square off against each other, each one trying to prove himself worthy of the object of their affection.
What’s great about these scenes is that unlike most films, where the love interests are usually the ones tied up and restrained, here the women are in charge. Their passions are inflamed as they wrestle each other for possession, and this tension drives much of the action in the film. This isn’t to say that the men in the film are weak, far from it, but it would be nice to see more female heroes in this sense. In any case, as much as we might see this kind of conflict in a film, it’s still relatively rare. More often than not, women are shown as the ones needing the protection and security of a strong man.
4. The Villains Are More Complex, Not One-dimensional
One of the things that make the villains in Kagemusha so interesting are their motives. These are complicated characters, filled with both good and evil, which makes them that much more interesting. People always talk about the Hannibal Lecter character as being one of the most fascinating and complex villains in film history, and it’s easy to see why. Even though he’s a character from a novel, it would be great to see more screenwriters approach villains in the same way, with multiple layers of motive and complexity.
The majority of films have quite simple villains, who are either the product of an author’s fertile imagination or an actor’s over-the-top performance. The downside of this is that the films tend to be quite predictable. The good guys battle the bad guys, the good guys win, and that’s usually the end of it. Not so with Kurosawa’s villains. The best example of this is Shiro Nakamori, the foxy doctor who befriends and helps the hero reveal his identity. We soon learn that he’s not just an ordinary doctor, as he’s actually a descendant of a famous ninja clan, the Nakamori. He’s a highly trained and skilled practitioner of ninjutsu, who uses his wits as much as his medicine bag to outsmart his adversaries.
Nakamori is not the typical example of a villain. He’s not only good at what he does, he’s a valuable asset to the village. When the hero defeats him in combat, they don’t simply remove him from the equation. Instead, the villagers help to bind his hands and lock him away, which prevents him from harming them anymore. This makes his character that much more interesting. Even though he’s an enemy, the viewer understands why they want to keep him around. He’s a resource, their only chance at beating the monstrous Shiki, who eats humans and lives in the woods with his minions.
5. It’s All About The Craft
Kagemusha is full of incredible set pieces that are as much a part of the film as the combat and the storytelling itself. These are the things that made it such a memorable film, even today. One of the earliest films to utilize multiple sets, Kurosawa wanted to show the viewer that this was a fictitious village and that everything was constructed for the camera. Though there are no sound stages, there are definitely practical effects that are used to create a more realistic atmosphere.
The thing that impresses about the village and the people in it is how alive and interactive they seem. It’s almost as if the villagers are extras, and not just props. They really seem to inhabit this fictional world that Kurosawa has created. He’s even gone out of his way to create special effects that make the villagers appear as if they’re boiling inside their home, or that they’re growing extra teeth as they speak. Though he used the same prosthetic appliances for many of the villagers, he must have spent a great deal of time getting them just right.
It’s not often that we get to see such highly trained karate stylists slugging it out with grace and skill. Even now, over six decades later, the film’s unforgettable imagery and powerful storytelling still draw in new audiences interested in Japanese cinema. It would be great to see more writers and directors replicate what Kurosawa achieved with such originality. His legacy still lives on, and it’s only getting better with time.