Alex Case’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is what I'd describe as Kurosawa's comeback film. (Insert L.L. Cool J reference here). Kurosawa had run into problems with Dodeskaden (which I haven't seen yet), and his Soviet co-production Dersu Uzala (which I also haven't seen yet), and he'd gotten a rep for going over-budget, making him something of an untouchable in Japan. All of this was aggravated by the fact that his films weren't profitable enough based on the domestic gross to be, in the eyes of Japanese studio executives, not worth funding.
Fortunately, Francis Ford Coppola and, even more important, George Lucas and his Star Wars Money, decided to do Kurosawa a solid and not only help finance his next film - Kagemusha, but also get Alan Ladd to buy the US distribution rights.
Let it not be said that the only good things Lucas ever did, when it came to films, were related to the original Star Wars trilogy.
Anyway, Kagemusha is unique, when it comes to Kurosawa's works, as while he's done period films before, he's never really done *historical* films before - by which I mean films set during Japan's Warring States period (or the Sengoku-Jidai), that are based on real historical people. Sugata Sanshiro (which I also need to see), comes close, in that it's a historical series of films, but it's also a film made in WW2 Japan, which means that it's also made under the auspices of the military dictatorship's propaganda machine.
The film is based around three real historical events: The death of Takeda Shingen, the concealment of his death by his closest advisors for 3 years, and the total defeat of his clan at their first major battle after his death was revealed - the battle of Nagashino. The story takes the conceit that the Takeda clan used a condemned thief as a body double for those 3 years, with the thief becoming the film's focus character. Over that time, the thief, at first unwillingly, is subsumed into his role - and eventually falls in love with the clan. However, when Shingen's death is revealed, the double, whose identity has been subsumed by Shingen, must figure out what to do with his life.
This is, oddly, Kurosawa's most poignant tragedy, inspite of violating one of the more universal rules of tragedy - the protagonist of the story has to be provided with multiple ways out, but due to their own shortcomings and/or flaws, they choose not to take advantage of them. The double can't get out of his duties as being a double - he's the only option, if he quits, Shingen's death will be revealed (and he'll also be put to death). The closest we get is Shingen's son, Katsuyori, yet he's not really the tragic protagonist.
As it is, the film is incredibly well put together, with a great sense of breadth and scope to it. This film, along with seeing Ran last week, reminds me a lot of why I love Kurosawa as a director so much. This film is absolutely worth checking out.