Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Kagemusha’ (1980)

This ‘films set in Japan’ series is principally about international movies but I have made an exception for this purely because it was executive produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In reality they did nothing other than persuade 21st century Fox to stump up the cash to help legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa finish the ‘Kagemusha’ (shadow warrior is the translation) the way he wanted. In return they got the international distribution rights for the film.

When I watched this I had no particular strong interest in the contents of the film other than seeing Himeji-jo Castle in anticipation of my trip there back in May this year. I enjoyed the opening and powerful closing parts of the film a lot but have to say that my interest did wane during the middle of this epic three hour film which is as much to do with constantly having to concentrate on the screens subtitles as it is to do with the film itself which does feature some scenes where very little happens for a while.

Kagemusha tells the story of a thief who is saved from being hanged by a warlords brother because he closely resembles the king Shingen so he is trained to fill in as Shingen’s double. However, Shingen receives a mortal wound during a siege and his dying wish is for his death to not be known for at least three years. The shadow warrior eventually not only doubles up as the king but as the full time figurehead which ensures they can avoid invasion and defeat by the other two clans. Despite being a common thief he turns out to be a very competent leader and in some ways endears himself to the viewers by being more humorous, treating his mistresses better, and even getting along with the Lord’s own immediate family.

Personally, I still think this movie is a bit over-rated but it was certainly better than I expected. Ultimately it’s a samurai film but I will remember it for showing the pain of a man caught in the vice of his own life and death and that if you pretend to be something else for long enough you’ll start to believe it and eventually become it.


Himeji Filming Locations: James Bond & Kagemusha

The second full-day of my trip saw me go west to Himeji which is famous for its castle. At the moment its not too much to look at though and nor will it be for for the next five years as its under reconstruction and basically has a huge bag covering up the main part (below left) Luckily I saw the castle five years ago in its full glory (below right) so I wasn’t too gutted to see it in its current state. On that previous visit it was closed but I did see the inside of it this time.


If you’ve ever seen James Bond in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) then you may recognise this place as the ninja training school. I had one screenshot with me and was most surprised to see that the stone statue thing behind Sean Connery was still knocking about. It can be found in the West Bailey and needless to say I was the only person in the whole place who took an interest in this piece of concrete!


Despite being made nearly 45 years ago it was still possible to locate some of the shooting scenes which feature below and in the picture above right.


Another film to be shot at Himeji-jo was Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’  (The Shadow Warrior) in 1980 which is set in medieval times. This movie became known to me as it was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox who were convinced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to fund the remainder of the film in exchange for its international distribution rights after Toho Studios couldn’t fulfill the budget demands of the film.


Himeji-jo wasn’t actually my first stop of the day though as I took a 30 minute bus ride to Mount Shosha which needed an additional ropeway to get there. The reason for visiting this mountain was to visit the sacred and peaceful Engyoji temple which is a nice 25 minute walk away. This mountaintop temple complex gets you away from the really big crowds and the wooden auditorium of Daikodo is lovely though not as old as one may think as in true Japanese fashion it was dismantled, repaired and restored in 1959 having originally been constructed at the end of the 15th century.