Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is visually impressive but the plot is both weak and convoluted to the point that it is hard to follow or even really care about what happens. However, stylistically it is a very interesting film.
It as though Kurosawa had imagined it as a play and then was given millions to create it as an epic, which he then decided to keep in the format of a play with a few scenes of great color, movement and light. Much of the action takes place off-screen and instead of seeing action we are told about it. When the emperor is shot we hear about it and then later the would-be assassin explains to his interlocutors how he did it and we see him shoot a tree.
Vincent Canby's New York Times review astutely notes:
Kagemusha is majestic, stately, cool, and, in many of its details, almost abstract. It appears very much to be the work of a director who, now seventy years old, is no longer concerned with the obligations of conventional drama or even with moral questions. He is, instead, contemplating history, not as something to be judged but, rather, acknowledged and, possibly, understood.We keep being told about war but never really see it. Instead riders on horses charge around or the battle takes place just over the hill. All other times we see scene after scene take place indoors or around the various outposts. This, of course, is a stylistic choice by Kurosawa and while I have no direct facts as to why he chose to make the film this way it seems as though financing had something to do with it. After all we do know that Kurosawa had trouble getting funding after his previous two films and his disaster in trying to work in Hollywood.
However, despite this the film is still rather effective due to the prince and pauper formula about the poor thief doubling as the emperor. But too the final scene is particularly strong because of the stylistic choice, which involves showing us gunners firing from fortified positions, various battalions charging to their death and the reactions by the commanders and the [now] former emperor stand-in all powerless to the carnage they are witnessing. We never actually see the slaughter and it is made more powerful because we don’t. And then Kurosawa gives us a series of amazing final shots with bloodied horses and people dying in super slow motion.
Although Kagemusha is not a remake per se it is a film that had been made before in Japan and to my mind the earlier version is a better film. Directed in 1963 by Umetsugu Inoue it is titled Daisan no kagemusha (The Third Shadow Warrior). It's better precisely because it shows us the action all the way through and draws us into the story in a way that Kurosawa's film does not. We care about the character in Umetsugu's film because we see the challenges that the hero faces continually and wonder when and if he will be caught. In time he becomes the emperor because the people who know him to be a double all die. While in Kurosawa's film the double never escapes and is always in a role, which - granted - is part of the film's message.
Overall, Kurosawa is after bigger themes and grander statements. For an excellent overview of all these themes you can't do better than Donald Richie's chapter on the film in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa.
I think both films should be seen because both can be enjoyed and appreciated for different reasons. Umetsugu's film can be found on eBay or on some Asian DVD websites. Kurosawa's film is available on Blu-ray from Criterion and looks great.