Seventy Years of Cannes: Kagemusha in 1980

On Film / Short Takes — May 24, 2017

Cannes kicked off the 1980s with a Palme d’Or win for a giant of Japanese cinema entering the final stages of his career. Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (the title of which literally translates as “shadow warrior”) follows a small-time thief who is hired as a double for a dying samurai warlord with whom he shares a striking physical resemblance, in an attempt to deter attacks from opposing warlords. The dual lead role was set to be played by Shintaro Katsu (of Zatoichi fame), but after angering Kurosawa by insisting on using his own camera to document the production, the actor was replaced with Tatsuya Nakadai. Based on the story of warlord Takeda Shingen, who lived during the Sengoku period (1467–1603), the film culminates with a re-creation of the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, which took two months to shoot (in a schedule that stretched over a total of nine months) and employed more than five thousand extras.

The grand scale of this epic called for more money than was originally budgeted. Kurosawa had been partially financing the film by taking directing jobs on Suntory Whisky commercials, but Toho Studios ran out of money. Help came in the form of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the latter of whom had been profoundly influenced by Kurosawa’s work while making Star Wars. The directors persuaded Twentieth Century-Fox, which was basking in the profits from Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster, to stump up the amount needed, which the studio agreed to do in exchange for the international distribution rights to Kagemusha outside of Japan.

The 1980 Cannes jury was led by president Kirk Douglas and included British set designer Ken Adam, French actress Leslie Caron, American critic Charles Champlin, and Belgian director André Delvaux. That year’s lineup boasted one of the most impressive selections of films in the festival’s history. Among the in-competition highlights were Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (which shared the Palme d’Or with Kagemusha, echoing the previous year’s top-prize tie between The Tin Drum and Apocalypse Now), Hal Ashby’s Being There, Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant, Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amérique, Lino Brocka’s Jaguar, Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Constant Factor (which won the jury prize), Ettore Scola’s The Terrace, Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, Marco Bellocchio’s Salto nel vuoto (which won best actor for Michel Piccoli and best actress for Anouk Aimée), Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself, and Bertrand Tavernier’s Une semaine de vacances. The Un Certain Regard strand screened new films from Jaromil Jireš, Volker Schlöndorff, Henry Jaglom, and Ken Loach, while the out-of-competition program featured Federico Fellini’s City of Women, Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray’s Lightning Over Water, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the screening of which was interrupted by an electrician’s strike!