The Cultural Importance of Kurosawa’s Film “Shadow Warrior”

Dean J. Scott Miller introduced the Japanese film Shadow Warrior in an International Cinema lecture.

PROVO, Utah (September 29, 2015)— When a Japanese warlord’s body double takes his place after his untimely death, what happens to his identity? This question figures prominently in Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 film Shadow Warrior (Kagemusha). As part of an International Cinema “Director’s Favorites” film series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the College of Humanities, Dean J. Scott Miller, a professor of Japanese and comparative literature and former International Cinema director (2006-2008), discussed Shadow Warrior’s significance and its personal meaning to him.  

Shadow Warrior takes place in 1575 Japan, when warlords controlled different areas and were trying to dominate Japan for the sake of securing it for the emperor. The film tells the story of a thief who is about to be crucified for his crimes, but he is saved due to his uncanny resemblance to the warlord Takeda Shingen. He is then brought on as Shingen’s kagemusha, or political decoy. When Shingen is mortally wounded in battle, the decoy begins to impersonate the leader full-time to protect the clan against attacks from its opponents. He becomes such a believable impersonator that even those closest to Shingen do not immediately recognize the kagemusha as a decoy.

“Watch the thief carefully, because he undergoes a change, and it’s one of the most interesting things about the movie,” said Miller.  “As you watch the film, consider the question ‘Who are we when we try to be somebody else, and what are the consequences, and the costs?’”

This film has personal meaning to Miller, who was teaching English in Japan the summer Shadow Warrior premiered. He went to see the movie in Tokyo and was the only foreigner in the packed theater.

“When it was over, I was in tears. It just profoundly moved me. It was a very powerful reaction because I was experiencing an art form, in this case film, in its original context, in its intended setting and as one of its intended audience members,” said Miller.

When the film was released in the U.S., Miller took some of his friends to see it in Salt Lake City. However, during that screening he came to the conclusion that subtitled films in a foreign context deliver a different kind of viewing experience. He explained that studying a culture and language helps you understand a film, but if you are dependent upon the subtitles you are limited by their quality. Being able to watch a film in a foreign language without subtitles, then, is both a good indicator of language proficiency as well as a reward for all the work that goes into learning it, he said.

“This film showed me how a foreign language opens your eyes to new values and new perspectives about life not limited by your own native tongue,” said Miller.

According to Miller, Shadow Warrior is a great film from the International Cinema library. There are many cultural and language elements that do not make sense to the average viewer, so the viewer is forced to become an active observer to make sense of the film. He further explained that this is one of Japan’s best films by an international filmmaker, so viewers get to observe “something of good report” in this film. Finally, it is a rich film that Miller said reveals something new each time he watches it.

“I’m sure that you’ll see something new, and you’ll walk away with some fresh ideas,” Miller told students in attendance.

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla covers the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.