Reel Rumbles: “Kagemusha” vs “Ran”
Akira Kurosawa called Kagemusha (1980) a “dress rehearsal” for Ran (1985), but considering Kagemusha’s content – its focus on shadows and dreams over genuine articles – it would be appropriate if, in this case, the sketch were better than the finished product. The only way to find out is a Reel Rumble between Kurosawa’s greatest full-color masterpieces.
Round One: Story
Kagemusha is a prince and pauper story. As the violent century of the 1500s comes to a close, Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the last holdout against Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s conquest of Japan. His death, whether through sickness, old age, or battle, would mark the end of an era for Japan and the emergence of a unified, modern state under a potentially tyrannical leader. So Shingen takes out a kind of insurance policy: a body double, or kagemusha. His doppelganger is a ragged thief (also Tatsuya Nakadai) whom Shingen pardons and grooms to be a lord. The film’s human drama derives from the nameless thief’s sudden change of fortune. But is his transition from outlaw to royalty lucky or unlucky? To be a kagemusha, the movie argues, is to lose one’s self without truly gaining anything. The last shot, in which the thief and a flag of Shingen float down a river and into history, may represent the ascendance of national identities over individual ones as the medieval era gave way to the modern.
Ran is Kurosawa’s version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which a king exiles his most loyal child and divides his kingdom between his remaining offspring, who are selfish and scheming. King Lear is an even more dense political text than MacBeth, which Kurosawa had brilliantly adapted in his 1957 film Kumonosu-jo. In Ran, the Lear analog Lord Hidetora (Nakadai again!) sinks into madness as his children drag his kingdom into a useless civil war. At the end of the film, Kurosawa sheds crocodile tears over the violence and suffering of the world, but his Buddhist dialogue and imagery stand in contradiction to the romantic, lovingly-staged battle sequences that dominate the film.
The Shakespearean origins of Ran notwithstanding, Kagemusha wins the story round. It asks us to ponder the flow of time and the uncertain influence of individuals in history, while Ran funnels us toward a religious message that is only loosely linked to the elegant carnage Kurosawa creates so well.
Round Two: Directing and Cinematography
Kurosawa established his directorial style decades earlier in his honored black and white classics, but in Kagemusha and Ran his action scenes reach new levels of magnitude, and he masters the use of color. Takao Saito oversaw the cinematography on both films, which manage to look simultaneously hazy and saturated.
Kagemusha opens with a breathless, symmetrical low angle shot that lasts for several minutes. The use of the same actor to play two characters imposes special technical demands on Kurosawa and his crew, but the result is so seamless that I had to look at the cast list to confirm what I was seeing. A dream sequence in intense purple hues stands out as a surrealist triumph. The movie ends, as Kurosawa movies often do, with a battle—smaller in scale than the battles in Ran, but more hellish. The spacing of the writhing wounded and the focus on dying horses, as well as humans, echo Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica.
Ran is a prettier film, if no less bloody. Its backdrops are Japan’s rolling green hills, which mounted warriors gallop over like painted figurines on felt. In this movie the grandest battle happens not at the end, but in the middle, when a fortress is set ablaze and three armies vie for its control as the ramparts collapse around them. Kurosawa creates chaos (the character ran means chaos, disorder), but he keeps it comprehensible through the use of brightly colored kimono and armor that allow easy identification of the three factions.
Kagemusha could have been compelling even with less masterful direction, but Ran would have been messy and confusing. For that reason, and not for any difference in quality, Ran wins the Directing and Cinematography round.
Round Three: Cast and Performances
Tatsuya Nakadai headlines both films. He does not have the passionate intensity of Toshiro Mifune or the affability of Takashi Shimura, the two actors most closely associated with Kurosawa. But he makes the characters of Shingen, the nameless thief, and Lord Hidetora his own, infusing them each with aching loneliness.
Nakadai’s portrayal of two men at opposite ends of the social spectrum is almost enough to decide the acting contest in favor of Kagemusha, but Ran‘s supporting cast raises an interesting complication. One of Kurosawa’s only shortcomings as a storyteller is his disinterest in creating women who are more than one-dimensional foils for men. Among his historical films, the most complex female role is probably Keiko Tsushima’s peasant girl in Shichinin no Samurai (1954), who unwillingly masquerades as a boy and faces a choice (or, more poignantly, a lack of choice) between her community and her lover. More true to form, Ran‘s women are either perfectly good or perfectly rotten. Yet they do play active roles in the story, delivering much of the film’s moralistic and expository dialogue, and are thus improvements over the mostly wordless women of Kagemusha.
That said, the most unexpected casting choice belongs to Kagemusha. In one scene Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu), looks up at a ridge and sees something that makes him smile. It is not his mustered army, as one might expect, but a handful of European priests reading from the Bible. It is hard to think of another Kurosawa costume drama in which the influence of foreigners during Japan’s Warring States period (1467-1603) is so much as acknowledged, let alone depicted. Even in Kurosawa’s excellent 1949 noir thriller Nora Inu, which takes place and was filmed during the American occupation of Japan, there is nary a non-Japanese face to be seen. But here Nobunaga looks up at the Europeans, smiles wrily, and says “Amen.” His canny support of the Jesuits and his prowess with Western weapons, he believes, will help him achieve victory over his rivals.
Toshiro Mifune’s falling-out with Kurosawa in the mid-1960s remains one of the great mysteries and tragedies of cinema history. Kurosawa’s films would never be the same without his wild-eyed muse. But Takashi Shimura, who headlined Shichinin no Samurai and Ikiru, continued to work with Kurosawa until the end of his life. His last role was a bit part in Kagemusha, cut from the initial Western release but available on the Criterion Collection DVD. His august presence finally decides this round in favor of Kagemusha.
And the Last Samurai Standing Is…
When Kurosawa said that Kagemusha was a “dress rehearsal” for Ran, I think he had in mind the technical demands of the movie. Ran is a bigger, more visually ambitious film than Kagemusha. By the 1980s Kurosawa had become somewhat estranged from the Japanese film industry, and had to rely on Western enthusiasts—most notably George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola—for funding. The dress rehearsal proved, perhaps more to himself than to his longtime admirers, that he could make an epic on the scale of Ran. But Kagemusha‘s historical content is far richer and broader than Ran‘s, and the diversity of its cast and strength of its performances are superior.
Kagemusha is at 32 on my Flickchart, and Ran is at 154. There they will stay, for now.