- Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080p/24
- Audio Codec: English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 (48kHz/24-bit)
- Subtitles: English
- Region: A
- Discs: 1
- Studio: Criterion
- Release Date: August 18, 2009
- List Price: $39.98
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Akira Kurowsawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha languished in the master’s mind and in his paintings for over a decade. Developing the concept for the film during a period when he had garnered a reputation for being too difficult to work with and had begun a failed independent studio, which would bar him from attaining funding for his films, Kagemusha might never had come to fruition if not for the financial backing of Kurosawa’s big-name international admirer’s George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
As a consequence if its long gestation period, Kurosawa had Kagemusha all planned out in a detailed series of storyboards, if one could call them that at all. Being originally a painter, when he found himself unable to create films, he threw himself back into his first love, and the end result was a series of detailed sketches and watercolors that served as the basis for what was to become his first color film, Kagemusha.
Retelling a historical tale of the feudal Japanese warlord Takeda Shingen who is shot and killed after which a look-alike thief is put in his place to ward off rivals, Kagemusha is more a technical triumph than anything else. Made up of meticulously framed scenes, radiant splashes of color and Kurosawa’s famous multi-camera shooting, the film often times looks like a series of paintings.
There are moments in the three-hour-long film that feel a little drawn out, but they indubitably add to resolutions further down the line. Tatsuya Nakadai’s portrayal as both the thief and Takeda Shingen is well acted, given that he was not the first choice for the role. And, even as the battle scenes are more lavish than epic, it’s easy to see that Kurosawa’s technique was still in top shape, even after such a long layoff, as well as where he would eventually head in the stronger films to come, such as Ran.
But, beyond the film’s technique is the film’s underlying humanity, its study of the human psyche through the kagemusha, as he struggles to serve his dead lord by becoming the man and suppressing his own identity. There are questions hanging in the air during the entire film, and those are, what does it mean to be? What makes us who we are? Is it how we act or what we look like? The people we love or love us? Kagemusha is able to fool even the closest people around him; he even begins to fool himself into believing he is Shingen, but his true nature cannot be stifled entirely, and eventually, things begin to go wrong.
Kagemusha may not be Kurosawa’s greatest film, but it is visually stimulating to watch and should be on the short list of films to see from this late master of cinema.
Kagemusha comes to Blu-ray with its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio retained in an AVC/MPEG-4 1080p/24 encoding from The Criterion Collection. The film’s original 35mm source has been nicely cleaned up and retains a wonderful film-like quality with a strong, consistent grain structure and fine amount of extended detail. Kurosawa’s color palette for Kagemusha looks splendidly vibrant with a dazzling array of hues and well-delineated shadings. Black levels are inky, even in darker scenes where graininess is a bit more pronounced, but shadow detail is still strong. Flesh tones are also natural throughout the presentation.
The film’s original Japanese-language 4.0 soundtrack has been fully restored for this release in a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 (48kHz/24-bit) mix. The film’s dialogue is clean and full, often with a surprising amount of ambient effects panned into the two rear channels. The film’s lengthy battle scenes fill the soundstage with the rumbling sounds of galloping horses and gunfire. If your speakers can reproduce it without a subwoofer, the mix has an extended low frequency response particularly noticeable in the percussive instruments of Shinichirô Ikebe’s score.
Criterion has provided this Kagemusha release with a good amount of supplements that delve into the film’s history and offer up an understanding of Akira Kurosawa.
The Supplements available on this release are:
- Commentary — Audio commentary by Stephen Price, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa recorded in New York City in 2004. I do not comment on audio commentaries very often, because most of them are not worth listening to, but Price’s commentary is one of the few exceptions. He is entertaining, despite his tendency towards loquaciousness. A ot of information can be gleaned from Price, not only on Kurosawa’s method’s during the filming of Kagemusha, but also on the feudal period in Japan.
- Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 0:19.21) — 2004 interviews with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who signed on as the international producers of Kagemusha helping to secure much needed financial backing for the film.
- Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:41.21) — This is an archival making-of featurette on Kagemusha that offers a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage of Kurosawa at work.
- Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:43.44) — Created by Masayuki Yui (lesayu in Kagemusha), this presentation uses Akira Kurosawa’s intricately detailed watercolor storyboards to reconstruct his vision of the film.
- A Vision Realized (1080p/24) — Storyboard-to-film comparisons.
- Suntory Whiskey Commercials (1.33:1; 1080i/60) — Five commercials featuring Akira Kurosawa shot on the set of Kagemusha.
- U.S. Trailer (1.85:1; 1080i/60)
- Japanese Teaser (1.85:1; 1080i/60)
- Japanese Trailer (1.85:1; 1080i/60)
- In addition, the release comes with a booklet containing a detailed essay on Kagemusha, a lengthy interview with the director, and color photos of his Kagemusha paintings and sketches.
The Definitive Word
Criterion has offered up a solid Blu-ray release of Akira Kurosawa’s visually sublime samurai epic, Kagemusha. In the Akira Kurosawa canon, Kagemusha may fall just shy of some of his more beloved works such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, but the director’s use of color and his painterly visualizations in Kagemusha move it into a realm of its own, making it worthy of the Palm d’Or that it earned. This should be scene by any lover of film and this Criterion Blu-ray release is a great way to see it; highly recommended.