Accepting a Substitute

6 Nov 2013: Kagemusha (DVD, 1980, Akira Kurosawa)

As either depressing reminder of personal weakness or further testament to the spellbinding hypnosis of Kurosawa’s editing craft or well-matched synthesis of the two, my intention of watching this three-hour film in two blocks over the course of the day sublimated from solid plan to gaseous fantasy shortly before its halfway point. Nary a sequence feels overlong or lends itself to feelings of conclusiveness; this is the rare (though typical for Kurosawa) page-turning propulsion that is not so much an addled eagerness to know what happens next as a stupefied trance within what is already unspooling. Even though some of the acting is ham-handed mugging, like in others of Kurosawa’s samurai works, and even though the story ultimately feels like a minor letdown from its earlier promise – this is not the best of his films – the attention to visuals (Sternbergian flows of soldiers, wildly colored dream segments) and the respect for the viewer (given time and space to see and feel things) make the film monumental anyway. From the first few minutes it is clear that an ocean of directions and meanings for the story is possible, largely to do with the great and well-staged (an opening wide shot of three indistinguishable lookalikes) premise of body doubles that fosters an undercurrent of tense uncertainty as to whom we are really seeing at any given moment and when the twist will occur, something we must debate internally as much as the rival warlords onscreen. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge any work of art for this, but I was somewhat disappointed that this was not explored more and instead dissolved into a fatalistic elegy for dead warriors and a dead past. It’s certainly moving to watch waves of doomed soldiers commanded futilely by an inept and technologically outmatched strategist, and to linger as long as the (overcranked) camera does on the littered battlefield that results, but it’s not quite as interesting as it might have been if pushed further afield. That aside, the film is gorgeous and mesmerizing, with a gravitas and an aesthetic quality worth many hundreds of cinematic releases in recent years.

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