I saw the director's cut about twenty years after I first saw the film.
Kagemusha is as magnificent now as before, but what has changed in the
meantime is my appreciation of the meaning of Shakespeare's plays. The
history plays and most of the tragedies were about the political dilemmas
facing the new Tudor state. The Elizabethan audience sat on the edge of
their seats waiting to see how political order might be restored once it had
been set in disarray. The Wars of the Roses sequence culminates in the late
political tragedies -- Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear. The question
is always the same. How is an impersonal modern state possible when its
leader is a person, the King? Or is rule by office compatible with the human
flaws of the person occupying it? Shakespeare was the client of a
conservative aristocratic faction, no rabble-rousing democrat he. But he
went so deep into this political question in the course of writing all his
plays that he dug deeper into this core issue of modern politics than anyone
Kurosawa approaches the same question through the notion of a double,"the shadow of a warrior", Kagemusha. Here the contrast between the office of the political leader and its personal incumbent is brought vividly to life in so many ways. The period is the Japanese equivalent of England's War of the Roses, the transition from feudalism to the beginnings of the modern state. The losing side in this case is the one that tries to resolve the contradiction of personality and office by a subterfuge, a thief masquerading as a lord. The winning side and founder of the Japanese state is the Tokugawa clan. The climactic battle symbolises the passage from traditional to modern warfare, as the horses of the losers are mown down by fusillades of gunfire. The credits run as the corpse of the double crosses a submerged flag whose abstract symbolism shows us which aspects of feudalism the modern state will borrow. Personality is vanquished.
The aesthetic vision animating this movie is incredible. There is so much to look at and admire, perhaps interpret. One striking feature for me was the persistent strong breeze ripping through the banners, a symbol of the winds of change running through 16th century Japan, contemporary to Shakespeare's period. Because this drama was made by and for the modern cinema, in many ways Kurosawa's masterpiece is better than Shakespeare.
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