I was afraid I will not like Kurosawa's Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), and in a way, I was right. At 180 minutes, it takes its time, including a five minute sequence where a character (who is not seen again) does little besides clean and load his gun, and another where the future king of Japan gets up and does an impromptu Noh dance. But it still is a haunting film, about the dynamic between individualism and collectivism. The most intriguing part is that Kurosawa refuses to side with individualism: rather his sympathies (I think) tacitly seem to lie with the other side. That certainly is a bummer: which was the last movie you saw where the hero was not a rebel of some sort.
The movie starts with a thief (who remains unnamed) being brought before the Samurai lord Shingen Takeda, by his brother Nabukado. The thief has a close resemblance to Shingen and will be useful as a body double. This saves the thief from the fate, crucifixion, that he was intended for, but he is unimpressed. He boldly confronts the warlord and tells him that a man who has robbed and killed thousands cannot be a judge of his petty crime. However, soon, the warlord is dead and the thief is required to take his place. He is reluctant: he cannot live a lie, plus he wants his old life back. But he agrees when he realizes that his refusal might well spell the end of the Takeda clan. He is not of the clan, but he also wants to be useful, to have served a purpose, even if that means living a lie.
The movie at this point touched a raw nerve with me: the dilemma that anyone who grew up in a traditional society like Japan, or India, faces. The choice between the role we are expected to play as part of the society we are born in, and our sense of independence. This is not so true of my generation, but I meet so many people from my father's generation and above who spent their lives playing roles they felt they were born into: the good son, the good husband and father, the perfect wife. And like the thief they play the roles so well, they become these roles, and sometimes you cannot tell if there is a real person besides the role. Did they all make a conscious decision at some point to play the role?
Kurosawa sees the tragedy in this, but a certain dignity. As Nabukado, who occasionally played his brother's double himself, tells the thief:
I was for a long time the lord's double. It was torture. It is not easy to suppress yourself to become another. Often I wanted to be myself and free. But now I think this was selfish of me. The shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother's shadow. Now that I have lost him, it is as though I am nothing.
Kurosawa identifies with the loss of individuality, but at the same time sees a dignity in accepting the role. To accept it is to live with the satisfaction that you have done your duty: there may not be happiness, but there is a certain sense of meaning. To not do so is to be selfish. But selfishness is such an old world sin ;) .
The movie ends in tragedy, with a final battle sequence, where the arrival of modern guns signifies an end to the traditional Samurai way of life. The Kagemusha dies trying to stay true to his illusion even though it no longer matters: his secret is out. What is Kurosawa trying to say? Is it a heroic death, or a pathetic one? I went with pathetic, but someone with different cultural assumptions might see a heroism in that tragedy. In fact, I have a feeling my father and I will disagree :).
Perhaps the point is the ambiguity: that every culture has its own tacit assumptions, and not realizing those assumptions means talking past one another. Is that what Kurosawa is trying to say?
I give up ;) .