Each samurai clan has its symbol and colors. There are more colors to distinguish each unit within the army. Kagemusha shows us hundreds of men and horses donned in bright red and purple and green all charging fearlessly into battle. The colors are astounding. Later, when the battle is over, their blood is bright as red paint (which it may just be), staining the grass, their armor, their faces. It’s an incredible display, and it’s appropriately glorious and awful.
There are two types of scenes in this film: those on the battlefield which are massive and epic in scope (how many extras must they have used?), and those focused on Shingen’s double. Shingen is the ruler of his clan, and before his death he asks that his death be kept a secret for three years. Shingen’s double looks identical, though he is only a thief and can hardly duplicate the late ruler. Shingen’s death must be kept a secret both at home and abroad. Abroad it creates fear, at home it creates strength. In the face of all of these massive battles, it is stunning and intimate watching this man attempt to fool others for the sake of their clan.
The process is slow. His double slowly grows more and more confident in his impersonation. At first he claims that impersonating him from morning to night would be too difficult mentally. By the third year, his double has almost become Shingen. There is great tension in these scenes. Sometimes we see foreign spies observing the double, attempting to tell if Shingen is in fact alive or dead. Other times, Shingen’s grandson or a general will put the double in a tight situation in front of a large audience. We’re eager to see if the double will be found out. He’s hardly as sharp as those around him. Everything he does is orchestrated by Shingen’s brother - thinking on his feet is not a strong point.
Akira Kurosawa’s later epic, Ran, which came five years after Kagemusha, also focuses intimately on one man’s consciousness. Ran better establishes itself however. It’s clear what each clan is doing and why they’re doing it. The greater battles and mistakes seem inevitable. Kagemusha suffers confusion from not thoroughly explaining itself. The viewer vaguely understands each clans’ goals and enemies, but the greater history and the specifics are lost. As such, while the possibility of war creates great tension, the power is lessened through uncertainty of the situation.
That all said, the film speaks to the foolishness of battle. Many men die for Shingen. When he is dead, many men die for his double. Were their lives more worthy when Shingen was alive? The unclear circumstances of the battle work with this notion in a way. The viewer cannot say why it matters that Shingen’s clan take a certain castle - perhaps the samurai rushing toward it cannot either.
There is an incredible sequence part way through the film that is a dream of Shingen’s double. It is a large set. Behind the double are wispy painted clouds that swirl together in messes of eerie color. The ground is covered in tiny hills of sand, and in many places it glows blue or red or yellow. It’s a stunning visual sequence. It seems to relate the battles. At times we will see the samurai covered in darkness while behind them the battle rages on, flashing bright red lights of fire or the setting sun behind them.
Kurosawa’s Ran is certainly a stronger film, though it’s hard to say Kagemusha is not a powerful film, and likely a film it was necessary to make in order to create Ran. The scope of these two films is stunning. Kurosawa has an amazing grasp on relating the larger battles and the intimate psychological moments. The true strength of these films comes down to their focus on a single man. The viewer can see how he relates to the world, and through that, we can see some greater truth of the situation, even when the character cannot.