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  Directed by
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  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish
  Extras

    Kagemusha

    20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 152 mins . PG . PAL

      Feature
    Contract

    Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s most celebrated director, is universally recognised as one of the 20th century’s most accomplished filmmakers. During a career that spanned over 50 years, Kurosawa single-handedly introduced Japanese cinema to Western audiences; producing a string of highly influential, and more importantly, highly entertaining films. Coming to prominence in the West with his 1950 Venice Film Festival winner Rashomon, his application of Western filmmaking genres within feudal Japanese settings - including adaptations of Shakespeare and other works of Western literature – were to have a profound impact on American and European filmmakers. That is to say, they plundered his work mercilessly.

    One of the finest action films ever made and arguably Kurosawa’s best known film, The Seven Samurai (1954), provided the blueprint for the highly successful Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven (1960). Meanwhile, his own take on the Western genre - the satirical samurai-Westerns Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Tsubaki Sanjûrô (1962) - formed the basis for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and A Few Dollars More (1965). Maybe less well-known is that Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) was shamelessly plundered by George Lucas for his little 1977 sci-fi saga Star Wars.

    Always more popular in the West than in Japan and ever-ready to condemn the money-hungry Japanese studios for their suppression of artistic expression, Kurosawa constantly struggled to fund his films. After his 1974 Russian co-production Dersu Uzala, he turned to Hollywood luminaries Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas for help; the pair agreeing to bankroll and co-produce his next film - the 1980 epic Kagemusha.

    Shot on one of the largest budgets in Japanese film history, Kagemusha (The Double) saw the return of Kurosawa to the samurai film and in epic style. The film takes place in 16th century Japan where a ferocious power struggle, a battle for the county’s spiritual capital - Kyoto, is raging between warlord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai) and two rival clans. When Shingen is shot by a sniper during a lengthy siege, on his death bed he proclaims that his passing should be kept secret for no less than three years - lest the Takeda clan be destroyed by their enemies. Begrudgingly his powerful generals agree, and Shingen’s place is assumed by his kagemusha - his double or ‘shadow warrior’ - a former thief (again wonderfully played by Nakadai) bearing an incredibly likeness to the lord.

    And so this kagemusha takes on the unenviable task of full-time impersonator, repressing his own personality and assuming the mantle of impotent leader; successfully fooling Singen’s family and friends, and playing his part in battle. Even more remarkably, the clan seems to flourish under his rule; morale improves, and the clan’s unbeaten military record is maintained. But slowly the pressure starts to tell as the kagemusha, a common man elevated far above his station and plagued with pity and self-doubt, longs for his old life and his long forgotten sense of self...

    Like Kurosawa’s other samurai films, Kagemusha is decidedly anti-war and thematically Kurosawa questions the value of life in the context of the rigid class system that existed in Japan at the time. The futility of constant battles between rival clans is offset with the take-home sentiment that everyone, no matter the class, has an important contribution to the common good.

    Although not quite as impressive as the film which would follow it (another samurai epic and Academy Award winner Ran), Kagemusha is a wonderfully written, and visually resplendent, period character piece. With more dialogue and quiet introspection than action, those expecting a string of Kurosawa’s typically frenetic, and wonderfully choreographed battle scenes will be disappointed. While the battles we do see are typically realistic and grand in scale (employing literally thousands of elaborately costumed extras), this is a film of inner turmoil built of slow moving political and emotional machinations. It rewards the patient viewer.

      Video
    Contract

    A wonderfully visual director, Kurosawa’s films are well known for their lush, heavily detailed scenes and perfectly framed shots. So too Kagemusha displays all the hallmarks of the director in his prime. Sadly, drawn from source material that is feeling its age, Fox’s anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation of Kurosawa’s 1980 opus is less than ideal.

    Although the print used is remarkably clean - only the odd small fleck can be seen throughout – the principal problem with the source material is the abundance of film grain. Especially noticeable in the darker nighttime and interior shots, this grain is the image’s constant companion; reducing detail markedly in all but the most brilliantly lit exteriors. Shadow detail too is especially low - unfortunate given that several of the film’s crucial scenes, including a huge battle sequence, take place at night. Although the film-to-video process has not introduced any aliasing-related effects (a lack of sharpness helps here), telecine wobble is also a constant problem, indicating that the film was transferred to video some time ago.

    Colour, however, is spectacular. As in Kurosawa’s other colour films, the palette used here is lush and vibrant, and to be found in abundance in the elegant silk robes of the Japanese Shogunate and the vivid blue, red and green uniforms of Shingen’s wind, fire and forest regiments. Wonderful too are the oranges and reds of numerous sunsets; on one occasion casting spectacular god-rays between the silhouetted columns of marching soldiers. At all times the transfer meets the challenges of the vivid palette; free from bleeding and with perfectly rendered flesh tones.

    Thankfully, the digital compression process has not left its mark on the image, with no MPEG nasties visible throughout. The many instances of smoke and dust are handled well without hint of posterisation or macro-blocking, and the constant film grain has not led to shimmer or other interference problems. Overall, while the grain and lack of detail is disappointing, Kagemusha is still quite watchable. And while a digital re-master would have certainly done Kurosawa’s epic justice, well as they say, beggars can’t be choosers.

      Audio
    Contract

    In terms of audio Kagemusha has been remixed by Fox; teasing a serviceable Dolby Digital 5.1 (Japanese) track from the original stereo source material. I say 5.1, but with no discernible channel separation across the rear, it’s effectively 4.1.

    While dialogue is continuously clear and distinct from the centre channel, the majority of the foley effects, ambient sound and score are delivered from the front. Channel separation here is reasonable, with some rudimentary panning effects in evidence. Mixed to the rear channels is a patchy mixture of ambient sounds that include birds, running water, wind and crashing waves. With a proportion of these same sounds also emanating from the front channels, the resulting placement is somewhere just behind the centre of the soundstage. Not ideal, but effective nonetheless. The same is true of the film’s wonderful score, which features a mix of traditional instruments such as the shrill Japanese flute, clapping wood blocks and booming Taiko drums (all Kurosawa trademarks), and more Western-style classical pieces. The score also provides several opportunities for the subwoofer to rumble, adding depth to some of the larger drums.

    While less than perfect, the remix does provide a comparatively wider soundstage and more immersive viewing experience than we would have garnered from the original stereo mix. Yet, despite all the work, limitations in the source material are still evident; namely interference in the front channels at moments of highest-amplitude. The most notable of these instances is during the final battle where hordes of soldiers charge the enemy lines, and white noise is distractingly clear above the tumult. Uninspiring as these problems may be, they are simply a product of the film’s age and must be accepted as such.

      Extras
    Contract

    Sorry, no. Fox’s release is the barest of bare bones.

      Overall  
    Contract

    Nominated for two Academy Awards, Kagemusha is no slouch, but it's certainly not Kurosawa's best work either. Certainly for fans of the late director's other films it represents a must-see, but others may get a little bogged down in the film's slow pacing and heavy dialogue, and be disappointed by the less than flash transfer. Still, while we wait for other Kurosawa classics such as Ran or The Seven Samurai to become available in our region, it may well be the only example of the great master's work we have access to for some time. So, check it out! Your patience will be rewarded...


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      And I quote...
    "A great samurai period drama, but those expecting a Kurosawa action-epic will be disappointed..."
    - Gavin Turner
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Toshiba SD-2108
    • TV:
          Panasonic TC-68P90A TAU (80cm)
    • Receiver:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Amplifier:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Speakers:
          B&W 602
    • Centre Speaker:
          B&W CC6 S2
    • Surrounds:
          JM Lab Cobalt SR20
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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