Kagemusha is a full-length Japanese made film that was directed and co-written by Japan’s most famous director, Akira Kurosawa. It was released in 1980 and, like many of Kurosawa’s most famous films, Kagemusha is set in a Japanese historical time period. In the 1980 Canne’s Film Festival it shared the prestigious Palme d’Or with the movie All That Jazz. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards, but did not win either. The title, Kagemusha, translates into “shadow warrior” which, in Japanese culture, is actually a phrase that one uses to describe an impersonator.
The story of Kagemusha is about, much as its title implies, an imposter. A warlord named Shingen is dying. It is a difficult time for him to die as his clan is in a war with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shingen’s brother brings before the council a thief who looks uncannily like the dying Shingen. The two are compared, side by side, and it is decided by the council that the thief looks enough like Shingen to pass as his body double.
Shingen dies, suddenly, and his brother Nobukado decides that Shingen will have the role of playing Shingen until the battle is over. They dress him as Shingen and teach him to act and speak as the dead warlord. He passes many tests until he returns home. Shingen’s concubines become suspicious when he does not take any of them, but it is explained that he has been injured and, in one of the more comical lines of the movie, “cannot ride”. Shingen’s grandson seems suspicious at first, but comes to believe that the thief is really his grandfather.
Eventually Tokugawa comes to find and kill Shingen, and when his army attacks, Shingen’s son takes the lead. Shingen decides that he no longer is a thief, but really is the leader and attempts to ride Shingen’s horse, a feat which no man other than Shingen has accomplished. The horse throws him and it is seen by all that he is not the real Shingen. Katsuyori, who had been disinherited by Shingen before his death, kicks the thief out and is named the leader.
The thief follows the battle, as Katsuyori chooses to ignore his advisors and heads an attack against their enemies. The enemy, however, has muskets, and is able to destroy most of Katsuyori’s army in mere minutes. The thief comes out from hiding and decides to prove his loyalty to the Takeda army. He picks up a fallen lance and charges at the building, only to be shot and killed by the fire of the enemy’s muskets.
At the end of the movie, in the credits, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are listed as executive producers. According to the story, Kurosawa ran out of money before the film ended and was going to have to change the ending to one he disliked. Lucas and Coppola are said to have convinced 20th Century Fox to give Kurosawa the money he needed to complete the film. They did so and retained the international distribution rights.