OnVideo DVD Reviews

OnVideo Logo

DVD Review: Kagemusha/House of Flying Daggers

By Glenn Abel

home page
video resources
video sales

iway 500

Good & Associates logo

Masthead created by Good & Associates

photo Akira Kurosawa's suicide attempt was almost a decade behind him. He hadn't made a film in almost five years, and Japan's major studios had rejected his latest project, an epic tale of warlords clashing in the 16th century.

"I thought another script of mine would vanish into the void," the aging director recalled years later.

This time, Kurosawa fought his way out of the lower depths, obsessively painting a series of 200 watercolor storyboards for the project to be called "Kagemusha." A painter of great power in the Japanese tradition, he felt that admirers at least would be left with a glimpse of his brooding yet colorful visions.

The wildly successful American filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, both students of Kurosawa's black-and-white classics, eagerly came to the master's aid, bringing clout and money as executive producers.

Lucas, whose "Star Wars" owed much to Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress," persuaded Fox to pick up international rights, essentially funding production, which began early in 1979. "Nobody bought Japanese films," Lucas recalls. Fox's noted good guy Alan Ladd Jr. "did it as a favor to me."

"Kagemusha" went on to win the Palme d'Or at the Festival de Cannes, dazzling the jury with its scope and visuals. The film ran its full three hours in Japan but was trimmed by 20 minutes for the U.S., where the critical reaction was respectful but muted.

Kurosawa's watercolor storyboards and sketches, meanwhile, found new life in a side project created by one of the "Kagemusha" actors. Audio snippets from the film accompanied a chronological slide show of the paintings, running a brisk 43 minutes. Kurosawa gave his blessing to the shadow film.

Both the full-length film and the storyboard video make their U.S. debuts in Criterion's double-disc edition of "Kagemusha" (retail $39.95). The DVDs are required viewing for Kurosawa's faithful and serve as a potent response to critics who maintain that the director's powers faded after the late '60s.

"Kagemusha's" colors re-emerge bold and saturated, with images bordering on hyper-realistic. The 1970s film stock retained a fair amount of grain, but it's rendered harmless by the raging colors. Wear is at a minimum, limited to some speckling and spotting. The film unspools letterboxed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (with enhancement for 16x9 monitors).

The stereo sound is as good as it gets with a foreign film of this age. The taiko drums roll out just like thunder while the rush of hooves fills the listener's room.

Stephen Prince, commentator on the Wellspring DVD of "Ran," the director's other color epic, gets the nod again on "Kagemusha." The author of the Kurosawa book "The Warrior's Camera" repeats the feat of lecturing with authority and verve throughout the lengthy feature.

Prince points out where most of the cuts were made, accurately calling the complete film found on the DVD "a richer and more organic presentation."

Disc 2's extras lead off with Lucas and Coppola looking back on Kurosawa and "Kagemusha" in 19 minutes of interviews filmed last year.

Kurosawa captured violence in a "poetic, surprising way" that schooled the young American directors of the 1970s, Coppola says. "You could trace a line backwards from 'The Godfather' to 'Bonnie and Clyde' to Kurosawa," he says.

The Japanese director "always had a great story to tell," Lucas adds. At the same time, his images "sear themselves into your mind."

Some of the more dramatic storyboards reappear on the DVD in a split-screen comparison with finished scenes. In a fun extra, Coppola clinks glasses with Kurosawa in an odd TV ad for Suntory whiskey, a pitch clearly lost in translation.

A 40-minute episode of the Kurosawa documentary series "It's Wonderful to Create" runs down the story of the production, in which the director stunned local fans by firing his popular star, Shintaro Katsu of "Zatoichi" fame. (Katsu dared to bring his own film crew to the set on Day 1.)

Prince explains some of the tepid reaction to the film by noting that the dual lead roles -- of a mortally wounded warlord and his reluctant peasant double -- were designed and written for Katsu, who was gifted in both drama and comedy. Instead, Kurosawa made do with the classically trained Tatsuya Nakadai ("Yojimbo").

"Kagemusha" also put off devotees of Kurosawa's earlier heroic and humanistic works because the aging director kept his warlords and their advisers at a distance, Prince says. The result is "a certain coldness." Yet, there exists an undeniable "deep emotion" throughout.

"Kagemusha" works on a surface level as a take on illusion and reality, but those wise enough to dig deeper will need Prince's help. The commentator provides the historical orientation that Kurosawa rushed past, baffling his foreign audiences.

The film covers the chaotic years of 1573-75, in which clans battled for control of Japan. The samurai who once fought with swords picked up rifles, a sudden advance in the art of war that led to the infamous slaughter at Nagashima and eventually to the unification of Japan.

In the fields of Nagashima, Kurosawa tracks his "beloved samurai era to the point of extinction," Prince notes. The director looked back with scant nostalgia and ahead to the horrific, apocalyptic events of the 20th century he knew all too well.

photo Color also runs riot in last year's "House of Flying Daggers," another Cannes favorite from the East.

Zhang Yimou's romantic martial-arts adventure gets the eye-popping presentation it deserves via Sony's high-def transfer. Video (2.35:1) and audio (5.1) appear flawless -- reference-quality work (based on a test pressing). Images in the jewel-like brothel scene could pass for HDTV. The single-disc DVD streets here April 19 (retail $28.95).

Extras include a classy storyboard-to-screen comparison of six scenes, a decent but rah-rah making-of featurette (in Chinese, subtitled) and a costume gallery. A visual effects sampler from Animal Logic doesn't add much.

Zhang and his lead actress, Ziyi Zhang, who plays the blind heroine, pair up for a subtitled commentary. The conversation flows easily; they don't seem to be talking for an audience's sake but to each other.

Zhang Yimou says he "wished for an art film with action elements." The director of "Hero," made in tandem with this film, insists that "good fight choreography also will communicate feeling and character." The three main characters strike him as "very lonely."

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

More DVD Reviews
| Home | Resources | Features | Calendar |
| Sell-Through | Reviews | Links | Widescreen |

E-mail: mail@onvideo.org
© 1998 -- 2005 OnVideo. All rights reserved

(ISSN 1094-3676).