Friday, November 13, 2015

Past Misdeeds: The Third Shadow (1963)

Original title: Daisanno Kagemusha

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Japan in the 16th Century. It is the Sengoku (which means "warring states") era and the country is in a state of perpetual civil war between numerous warlords of huge ambition and dubious sanity. One of these warlords, Yasutaka Ikemoto (Raizo Ichikawa, star of the Nemuri Kyoshiro and Shinobi films), seems to be bound for greatness and already dreams of the whole of Japan united under his rule.

A man like him must be mindful of his enemies, though, and Yasutaka tries to prolong his life through the use of "shadows", doubles whose dubious honour it is to take his place when it comes to the unpleasant business of dying.

The young farmer Kyonosuke Ninomiya (also Raizo Ichikawa), a descendent of a line of impoverished samurai now earning their bread as farmers, has long dreamed of following the way of his ancestors to glory and money. His dream seems to come true when the First Retainer of Yasutaka lays eyes on him and proposes to take him into the service of his master.

Once in Yasutaka's castle, Kyonosuke learns that his new job won't be as glorious as he had imagined. The young man looks exactly like his new master and therefore makes an ideal third double. When he is not learning to act exactly like his master does, he and his two colleagues in the double business are hidden away from prying eyes.

Well, at least the payment is good, and when the Lord of the house is unwilling to spend time with his once favourite concubine Kohagi (Masayo Banri), Kyonosuke's double powers are put to the final test that is at once a rather cruel reward. Still, a shadow's life doesn't look too bad to him, until Yasutaka loses an eye in one of his battles. Obviously, a good double can't keep walking around with two. This double business isn't something you can cancel, either - the choice for the shadows is "lose your eye or lose your life".

The same night when Kyonosuke and one of the other doubles lose an eye, and the first double his life when trying to escape, Yasutaka's castle is attacked.

Kyonosuke escapes with his Lord, but when Yasutaka loses an arm, and tries to entice the freshly mutilated man into bringing him to the castle of the allied Miki, Kyonosuke's desperation and bitterness explode and he kills Yasutaka.

On his flight from his former master's land, Kyonosuke meets the First Retainer again. The crafty and power-hungry samurai coerces the young man into taking on the role of Yasutaka full time - well, that or dying - to continue the way to conquest the dead Lord once began. After a time, Kyonosuke begins to dare to develop his own dreams and ambitions, but does a normal human being with normal human dreams stand a chance against members of a ruling class without even a hint of a conscience?

I don't know much about The Third Shadow's director Umetsugu Inoue, except that he would leave Japan a few years after making this film and start work as a contract director for the Shaw Brothers and become somewhat renown for films in diverse genres that are often described with adjectives like "flamboyant".

This is not a film that foreshadows these future Hong Kong films, though. Instead, it is very typical for the wave of excellent and pessimistic Jidai Geki and Chambara that started to conquer a certain stuffiness in both samurai film genres in the first half of the 60s.

Inoue's directorial style here is an interesting mixture of lighting techniques usually found in stage plays, austere framing and extremely economic storytelling.

You won't find a single superfluous cut here, no scene that isn't exactly built as it needs to be; one could argue that the film could use some flourish, but its visual presentation and narrative flow are in exact correspondence to the bleak feeling of futility that pervades it. Poor Kyonosuke never has a chance for a better life, not as a poor farmer with illusions of the greatness of war, not when he is nothing more than another man's shadow and not when he decides to try to become that man and fulfil ambitions that are not his own. Being himself is of course completely out of the question and once Kyonosuke tries to become himself, he is doomed to death and madness. Being human is just not something that is allowed in a time and place where a person's status is more important than what a person truly is. The war machine of the Sengoku era just eats up everyone it can get a hold of to fuel more war. If you think that this could be a commentary on Japan, 1963, you are probably right.

It's all exactly as depressing as it sounds. The Third Shadow gets more melodramatic in the effective way of Japanese movies of its time the longer the film goes on, but Inoue never loses control of his film for a second.

What isn't achieved by the director is achieved by Ichikawa's wonderful performance in a difficult triple role that is as intense and complex as any I have seen from him.

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