Film: Kagemusha [The Shadow Warrior] (1980)


Kagemusha is an epic war film by Akira Kurosawa set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history that tells the story of a petty criminal who is taught to impersonate a dying daimyō (warlord) to dissuade his enemies from attacking his now-vulnerable clan. The daimyō is based on Takeda Shingen, and the film ends by depicting the actual Battle of Nagashino in 1575.


In the five years after the release of Dersu Uzala (1975), director Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) worked on developing three film projects: a samurai version of King Lear entitled Ran (Japanese for Chaos); Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (never filmed); and Kagemusha, a screenwriting collaboration with Masato Ide about a petty thief who impersonates a feudal warlord. Kurosawa could not secure funding for Kagemusha in Japan until the summer of 1978, when he met with two of his greatest admirers: American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. After Lucas and Coppola persuaded 20th Century Fox to pre-purchase foreign distribution rights for $1.5 million, Toho Co. Ltd. (Tokyo) put up the bulk of the funding: 100 million yen ($5 million). With a $6.5 million budget, Kagemusha was the most expensive film made in Japan up to that time. It was also the most meticulously planned. In the years spent finding financing Kurosawa made hundreds of storyboard drawings and paintings mapping out the look of every shot and scene. Location scouting for a movie set in 16th-century Japan proved to be challenging; pervasive industrialization after World War II rendered much of the country visually unsuitable for a period film. Kurosawa visited dozens of medieval castles before choosing Himeji Castle (40 miles west of Kobe, on Japan’s main island of Honshu), Iga-Ueno Castle (40 miles southeast of Kyoto, also on Honshu), and Kumamoto Castle (on Japan’s most southwesterly island of Kyushu). Battle scenes were filmed on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and least developed island, utilizing hundreds of hand-picked extras and 200 specially trained horses, flown in from the United States. Many of the riders were female members of various Japanese equestrian organizations whom Kurosawa preferred because he found them more daring than most men.


As Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie notes, “Of all the films of Kurosawa, Kagemusha was the most disaster-ridden” (Richie, 1996, p. 205). Kurosawa’s cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, had to drop out due to failing eyesight brought on by diabetes. He was replaced by Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda (supervised by Asakazu Nakai). Next, Kurosawa and his composer, Masaru Sato, parted ways after intractable disagreements over the film’s score. Sato was replaced by Shinichiro Ikebe. Then Shinaro Katsu, Japan’s leading comic actor for whom Kurosawa wrote the starring roles of Shingen and the thief, quit or was fired (accounts vary) on the first day of shooting. Stage actor Tatsuya Nakadai was hired to replace Katsu. Though disrupted by a typhoon and by Nakadai falling off his horse and spending time in the hospital, the nine-month shoot in 1979 went only a week or so over schedule. For the climactic Battle of Nagashino, Kurosawa had to anaesthetize dozens of horses to simulate their having been slain on the battlefield; he had only a half-hour to shoot the battle’s aftermath before the horses started to wake up. Assembling a rough cut from daily rushes as he went along, Kurosawa completed the film’s final cut just three weeks after the shoot ended.

Plot Summary

During Japan’s Sengoku, or “Warring States,” period (c.1467–c.1603), Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), daimyō (i.e., feudal warlord) of the Takeda clan, meets with his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and an unnamed thief (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) whom his brother has saved from certain death using the thief’s remarkable resemblance to Shingen. The brothers decide that the thief could be an asset, as he could be used as a double for security purposes or could prove useful as a kagemusha (a political decoy). Later, Shingen’s army lays siege to a castle of rival warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui). One evening, on a visit to the battlefield, Shingen is shot by a sniper who has been tracking him. Before dying from his wound, he orders his army to withdraw and tells his officers that his death must remain a secret for three years. Meanwhile, unaware that he is dead, Shingen’s rival warlords—Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryû), Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), and Uesugi Kenshin (Eiichi Kanakubo)—ponder the meaning and consequences of Shingen’s withdrawing his army. Nobukado brings the thief to Shingen’s officers, suggesting that the thief serve as a kagemusha and thus act as Shingen. However, Shingen’s officers feel that the thief cannot be trusted, so he is released. The Takeda leaders dispose of Shingen’s remains in Lake Suwa. Tokugawa sees the disposal of the remains and deduce that Shingen has perished. The thief overhears the spies and offers to work as a kagemusha for the Takeda clan. They accept. The spies follow the Takeda to their home, but are surprised to find the kagemusha acting as Shingen. Mimicking Shingen’s every mannerism, the thief effectively fools the spies, Shingen’s retinue, Takeda Katsuyori’s son, and even Shingen’s own grandson. During the clan council meeting, the kagemusha is instructed to listen to all of the generals until they reach an agreement and then simply agree with the generals’ recommended course of action and move to dismiss the council. Shingen’s son, Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), is bitter about his father’s lengthy, posthumous deception, as it puts a hold on his own inheritance and rise in the clan leadership. In 1573, the Tokugawa and Oda clans assault the Takeda lands, and Katsuyori defies his general and initiates a counterattack. During the Battle of Takatenjin (1574), the kagemusha rallies the soldiers and leads them to success. Becoming overconfident after his successes, the kagemusha tries to ride Shingen’s excitable horse, but is thrown to the ground. As soldiers rush to his aid, they notice that he is missing Shingen’s unique battle scars. The thief is shown to be an imposter, and Katsuyori assumes his rightful place as leader of the clan. Meanwhile, Oda and Tokugawa press onward in an effort to overtake the Takeda territory. Commanding his army, Katsuyori strikes against Nobunaga, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Nagashino (28 June 1575). Takeda cavalry and infantry attack in waves, but are defeated by the Oda troops who have hidden behind stockades. The thief, now exiled, witnesses the slaughter and makes a brave show of commitment to his clan by running at the Oda frontlines with a spear. The kagemusha is badly injured and dies while trying to pull the fūrinkazan from the river (the fūrinkazan is Shingen’s battle standard inscribed with “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain,” the four phrases from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain”).


Released in Japan on 26 April 1980, Kagemusha went on to become the country’s most popular film that year, grossing ¥2.7 billion at the box office (the equivalent of $13.6 million in 1980). Screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Kagemusha won the Palme d’Or, sharing it with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. The film premiered in the United States at the New York Film Festival on 1 October 1980 and then went into general release five days later but had poor box office returns; a three-hour epic about medieval Japan, Kagemusha had very limited appeal in foreign markets. It did, however, garner lots of accolades, including two Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction), a Golden Globe nomination (Best Foreign Language Film), and four BAFTA nominations, winning for Best Direction and Best Costume Design. Kagemusha also won France’s César Award for Best Foreign Film. Critics often remarked upon the film’s epic sweep, visual grandeur, and elaborate sense of pageantry but also noted its essential pessimism. As Roger Ebert noted, “Kurosawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors … depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. It is entirely unimportant, he seems to be suggesting, whether or not the beliefs are based on reality—all that matters is that men accept them. But when a belief is shattered, the result is confusion, destruction, and death” (Ebert, 1980).

Reel History Versus Real History

Kurosawa anchored Kagemusha in Japan’s complex medieval history but also took considerable artistic license with his source material. As portrayed in the film, Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) was a powerful feudal lord who waged war against his rivals, Oda Nobunaga (1532–1584) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), for control of Kyoto, Japan’s capital at that time. In the movie, Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies while laying siege to a Tokugawa clan stronghold (Noda Castle in Mikawa Province). Though it is kept secret, Shingen’s death causes the Takeda clan to break off the siege and retreat. In reality Shingen died on 13 May 1573, almost three months after Noda Castle surrendered (16 February 1573), and accounts vary as to the cause of death: a sniper wound sustained during the siege, or an old war wound, or possibly from pneumonia. In the movie Shingen’s corpse is submersed in Lake Suwa and his death is kept secret for three years. The historical reality is that Shingen was interred at Erin-ji Temple in what is now Kōshū, Yamanashi Prefecture. There was no interregnum during which a kagemusha impersonated the daimyō. Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori (1546–1582), took over as leader of the clan immediately after his father’s death and, as depicted the film, defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Takatenjin in 1574. As also depicted in the film, Katsuyori was decisively defeated at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Kurasawa’s rendition of Nagashino is fairly accurate. When Katsuyori’s cavalry force (numbering about 4,000) attacked, 3,000 Nobunaga riflemen, protected behind wooden stockades, opened rotating volley fire with their Tanegashima (matchlock muskets) and decimated the Takeda horsemen. When it was all over Katsuyori’s army of 15,000 had suffered some 10,000 casualties. Katsuyori also lost a dozen of his generals. Nobunaga’s skillful use of firearms to thwart Takeda’s cavalry is often cited as a turning point in Japanese warfare, indeed the first “modern” battle. What is inaccurate about the movie version: it omits the fact that the battle took place in heavy rain—which Katsuyori erroneously thought would wet the Nobunagas’ gunpowder and render their muskets useless. After his devastating loss at Nagashino, Katsuyori hung on for another seven years but his fortunes continued to decline. Katsuyori’s forces were finally destroyed by the combined armies of Nobunaga and Tokugawa at the Battle of Temmokuzan in 1582. In the aftermath Katsuyori, his wife, Hojo Masako, and Nobukatsu, one of his two sons, committed ritual suicide (seppuku). Daimyōs did indeed use doubles for security purposes but the story of the thief is pure fiction.