There are great directors, and then there's Akira Kurosawa, whose great successive late-period samurai epics, 1980's Kagemusha and 1985's Ran, are so masterfully controlled that his command seems to extend to the heavens themselves. With his career in shambles, even after he won an Academy Award for 1975's Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa worked through crushing depression to plan for Kagemusha, storyboarding the entire movie in beautiful sketches and paintings. But it took the benevolent intervention of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (the latter of whom was still riding high off the Star Wars phenomenon) to get much-needed studio financing and resuscitate a career that had been left for dead. No one could have guessed that the then-70-year-old director could pull off a historical epic of that scope, much less the even-more-ambitious Ran a few years later, but the backstory makes Kurosawa's connection to Kagemusha's exile-doomed hero seem all the more powerful.
In feudal Japan, where three warring clans grapple over every scrap of land, the shooting of a Takeda warlord sends a wave of panic through his inner circle, which worries that news of his demise will inspire its enemies to seize the advantage. Operating under a shroud of secrecy, they recruit uncanny look-alike Tatsuya Nakadai, a petty thief saved from crucifixion, to serve as a puppet leader for at least three years. Like any great method actor, Nakadai becomes so immersed in the role that he has trouble finding his way out of it: Not only does he have to adjust to immense new privileges and responsibilities, he's haunted by the dead leader's spirit. Driven to the brink of insanity, Nakadai goes completely over the edge once he's unmasked, and a bloody battle over the kingdom plays out before his disbelieving eyes.
Though the story's Shakespearean underpinnings give Kagemusha the weight of classic tragedy–in this case, the tragedy of a man rendered helpless by larger historical forces–the film astonishes mostly as pure spectacle. Kurosawa conjures some spectacular imagery: a rainbow clashing against blackened skies on the eve of war, color-coded armies colliding in wide-open expanses, a fallen horse writhing among a sea of bodies. As usual for Criterion, the special features offer a thorough education on the film's production and themes, but they also reveal just how much of Kagemusha existed in Kurosawa's head before he shot it. The storyboard-to-screen comparisons in Masayuki Yui's 43-minute Image: Kurosawa's Continuity, which runs dialogue from the film over Kurosawa's detailed sketches, are a testament to his ability to translate his vision directly to the frame. Few directors can achieve that level of perfection on an immense scale, but production footage of the frail director crouching and pulling up weeds with the crew shows how far he was willing to go to assure that nothing was out of place.