Shingen and Kagemusha: Kurasawa’s Philosophical Doppelgangers
Brian Sheehan
Loyola Marymount University
HIST 484
Prof. Suzanne O’Brien
February 7, 2006
The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast historical written depictions of
samurai during “the age of the warring states,” at the close of the sixteenth century, with Akira
Kurasawa’s depiction in his 1980 movie Kagemusha. The primary source material comes from
An Unofficial History of Japan, written in the early 19th Century, and A Military History of the
Great Men of Kai, written in the early 17th century. This analysis will be informed by several
modern secondary sources. I will attempt to not only identify similarities and divergences, but to
explain why they might have occurred, given the political or artistic needs of the author and/or
filmmaker at their moments in historical time.
Styles of Representation
The primary source documents are consistent in their representation of the samurai as
men defined by their specific actions. The primary literature ascribes to the belief that you are
what you do. During this period of almost continuous warfare, sengoku daimyo such as Shingen,
Kenshin, Tokugawa, and Nobunaga solidified their reputations by their specific actions in battle
and actions/interactions between battles. Each specific action either improved or diminished
their reputation for power—reputation for power and actual power being virtually synonymous
in Japan during the Warring States era.
Obsession with reputation was an effect of the samurai honor culture, which according to
Ikegami (1995) can be said, in its military dimension, to have been at its height during the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth century, when these warriors lived. It is important to note that
the primary sources see all actions through the prism of military conflict. Even actions between
battles are equivalent to planning, plotting, and scheming to prevail against one’s enemies in the
battles to come. In Ikegami’s words: “winning is not the most important thing, it is the only
thing.” (p. 146).
The modern reader feels some discomfort when reading of some of these plots and
schemes. When Shingen, our erstwhile hero, is described as “wily,” or when he acts “dumb” to
dupe his uncaring father, we feel that our hero has somehow been diminished. When Nobunaga
schemes against Kenshin, flatters him, and is described as “treacherous,” we shift uncomfortably
in our seats and think less of him. However, such unctuousness and perfidy had very different
import to readers in earlier times. They would have been seen as the positive actions of a brave
and intelligent samurai doing everything in his power to get the upper hand and…win! Samurai
often formed and dissolved alliances according to their needs. Betrayal and deceit were not
dishonorable, as long as they were not related to the shame and taboo of cowardice. (Ikegami,
1995). When Shingen is upbraided by his father, who says: “It was cowardly of you to abandon
the castle” (Sato, 1995, p. 207), the true samurai must either rebel or commit seppuku. That
Shingen rebelled patiently and cunningly, not irascibly, is a sign of his greatness, especially as
seen through the lens of the late Tokugawa period, when this specific history was written—a
period when patience and avoiding immediate emotional displays became important virtues for
samurai. Here we see the author using Shingen for didactic purposes that fit the needs of his
historical time and political agenda. The author in question, Rai Sanyo, is said by Dresner
(2005) to be deeply influenced by the “implementation of Confucian virtues” and ‘ambivalent
towards individuals as historical actors” (para. 11). Rai was an author who clearly subordinated
bu to bun, as his image of Shingen attests.
Kurasawa’s mode of representation is markedly different from the primary sources.
What makes Kurasawa’s perspective so remarkable is that, as we shall review in detail later, his
presentation of the main characters and the actual events of the period are generally consistent
with the historical writings. Clearly, we recognize Shingen and Nobunaga; these are the same
men we have read about. This is not a Hollywood-style whitewashing of history for the purposes
of entertainment. It is something deeper – something more important. Kurasawa is plumbing
the psychological depths of the samurai mentality to provide instruction for living in the
twentieth century. He is doing something that the primary sources do not, could not, their form
was too inchoate. He uses the most powerful and persuasive aspect of moving images, not
storyline, but character development, to uncover an insight into the question “why?” not just
In a masterstroke, rather than bringing us into the mind of a great samurai warlord—
which would be alien territory, making the audience nothing more than observers—Kurasawa
chooses to illuminate the psychology of the samurai by placing us in a vessel, in the form of the
“Shadow Warrior”, within whom we can take a journey of the mind. We are able to journey
with him, despite the fact that a sixteenth century common thief is as far from our day-to-day
reality as a powerful samurai lord, because we share a connection. There is a bond of human
empathy that is virtually impossible to establish with the samurai.
As the theif grapples with his role as Shingen’s double, replete with challenges, comic
moments, inspiring bouts of confidence, and intense moments of crisis, we learn with him. We
grow with him. We begin to accept and appreciate a way of life and a culture of honor that was,
just a few hours before, as alien and impenetrable to us as it was to the thief himself. One
wonders if Kurasawa’s use of the “Shadow Warrior” is to not only provide a container to carry
the audience, but whether he sees the thief as the philosophical equivalent of Socrates’ cave
shadows. Is Kurasawa trying to tell us that in order to observe, and hope to understand, the
actual reality behind the perceived reality of historical figures that we must look at the shadows
that the figures have cast? Kinder (1980-81) hints at as much saying: “Kagemusha suggests that
all historical accounts, including a samurai saga, are based on the reading of signs” (p.46).
Narrative Similarities and Differences
As noted earlier, while the styles of representation between the written histories and the
movie are markedly different, the narratives and historical details are remarkably consistent. In
both, Shingen is represented as a mature, self-confident leader who is in complete control of his
emotions. He is even capable, in a time of extreme and rash violence, of accepting direct
criticism from his vassals. We see this in the written record when his retainer, Nobukata, warns
him: “Sir, your father was so unreasonable that you finally drove him away. Now you are acting
just the way he did” (Sato, 1995, p.208). Similarly, in Kagemusha, one of Shingen’s top
generals berates him for his pigheadedness. In both cases, he accepts the criticism with an
equanimity that belies what we think we know about samurai.
Both the writings and the movie portray a period of unceasing warfare, where alliances
and allegiances shift like the sands, but where sengoku daimyo are able to exert a measure of
control over their house (ie) and vassals via gunritsu codes, especially kenka ryoseibai. Of note,
Kurasawa shows that the breach of these codes—when, for example, Katsuyori attacks a castle
against the express wishes of his late father—is only possible because the leadership of the clan,
under the shadow double, is ambiguous.
Both sources highlight the honor of self-willed death, which according to Ikegami (1995)
“became institutionalized as well as the subject of increasing mystification.” We see this in the
movie when the generals representing what remained of Shingen’s motto or, perhaps more
fittingly, his reputation (e.g., “Wind,” “Forest,” and “Fire”) agree that this will be their last battle
together. Whether this is a solemn pledge or an adumbration is deliciously uncertain. We see it
again in the primary sources when Nobunaga says: “Shingen himself and I myself will grapple
with each other to death” (Sato, 1995, p.217). Although the self-willed death does not occur
here, the self-willed combat does. Shingen’s ability to fend off Nobunaga, with a battle fan no
less, adds immeasurably to Shingen’s singular reputation. Again we can sense the political intent
of the original author, who is intent on the hero worship of “The Great Men of Kai.”
Other consistencies include Kenshin’s comportment in battle and the deep mutual respect
between competing warlords. We see Kenshin consistently as the immovable “Mountain” sitting
stoically and bravely in his chair, the calm and powerful eye in the middle of the battle storm.
Later, the eventual realization of Kenshin’s death brings equally powerful and emotional
responses in both the primary sources and Kurasawa’s movie. In the former, Kenshin laments:
“I have lost my good rival. We won’t have a hero like that again!” (Sato, 1995, p.225). Sato
then tells us that Kenshin wept. Kurasawa gives us a similar reaction from Nobunaga, who
performs a threnody lamenting the fate of man. We are left believing that they do not lament the
loss of the man so much as they lament the loss of the part of themselves that will no longer be
directly challenged. Their sorrow is that as their honorable rivals die, they die too, piece by
Outside sources also support Kurasawa’s representation of Nobunaga’s technical
advantage in weaponry, his close alliance with Ieyasu Tokugawa, and his protective disposition
to Catholic missionaries.
In only one point of narrative does Kurasawa’s portrayal not ring true. This is when the
thief is caught in his recidivism. After breaking into a lacquered jar in search of treasure and
mistakenly defiling the preserved body of Singen, the samurai spare him, preferring to let him go
free because “this is no time for killing.” This is very different from the samurai in the historical
writings. There is no question that such a thief would have been quickly dispatched, likely
within minutes, and without a second thought. However, Kurasawa’s purpose here is not
historical accuracy; it is a creative device, allowing our thief to establish a point of personal
crisis—a crisis where he recognizes more than the exigencies of his own impending death,
instead being confronted by the profound and immutable nature of human mortality—from
which he can stage his ultimate redemption.
Redemption is a major theme of Kagemusha. Kurasawa’s redemption is very different,
however, from the understanding of redemption among medieval samurai. This is as far from
Naozone’s desire to establish himself in the first rank of the Pure Land of Amida as possible
(Miyazaki, 1992). Samurai were obsessed with honor, reputation and, later, decorum to make
life meaningful. Beyond these, the concept of redemption meant nothing more than preparation
for the next life. In the primary sources, extreme attempts at warrior redemption sometimes took
the form of conversion to Buddhist monkhood, as we saw with Minamoto no Mitsunaka in early
samurai times (Sato, 1995). The thief’s redemption, however, is something anachronistic to the
medieval period. It is the redemption of the spirit, and of the soul. It is a redemption that does
not require the certitude life after life. Instead, it is a reward in itself. This is a fundamentally
modern thought. Kurasawa is instructing people in the late twentieth century that there are
Japanese values that may have become calcified and perceived in the modern world as nothing
more than decorum. They have lost their true meaning. The thief shows us that chief among
these values on the road to redemption, and a life that is valuable in itself, is selflessness.
In The Double and the theme of Selflessness in ‘Kagemusha’, Malpezzo and Clements
(1989) note that the ethic of selflessness that Shingen demonstrates is ultimately absorbed by the
thief. The thief goes from being a man whose role is defined by others to being a man who
transcends his own individuality to meet the needs of the group, the clan, the ie. There is a “final
apotheosis from impersonator into lord” (p. 205). The bitter irony here is that the thief is
ultimately a greater icon of house leadership, loyaly, and dedication than its scion, Katsuyori,
whose uncontrollable self-centeredness helps the thief, in counterpoint, make a strong statement
about the power of any man—and everyman—to achieve human ideals. Just as great men, such
as Katsuyori, have the capacity for human failure, common men have the capacity for
outstanding human achievement. Kurasawa has dealt with this theme before in movies such as
Ikiru (note: one of my personal favorites). Malpezzo and Clements point out that Kurasawa’s
take on selflessness is uniquely suited to a Japanese audience. Unlike western movies, where the
loss of personal identity is a significant trauma, “loss of personal identity is not a threat or a
menace here, but an ideal.” Twentieth-century Japanese would have no problem accepting such
a theme; however, Kurasawa knows that they will probably accept it on face value, without deep
thought or true understanding. He demands much more of his audience. He helps them
understand why it is important beyond a reflex to defer to a modern national culture of group
primacy and consensus building.
In the final analysis, the primary source materials and the movie are consistent in the
story they tell. They are, however, widely divergent in the perspective that they take. A Military
History of the Great Men of Kai reflects a historical closeness to a time of continuous warfare
and a desire to, as its title suggests, aggrandize its chosen subject. An Unofficial History of
Japan reflects the prevailing sentiments of the early nineteenth century, when samurai had been
tamed to a significant degree, and their honor code had been modified to reflect the needs of
Tokugawa society versus the fierce individualistic honor code of earlier times. Lastly,
Kurasawa’s Kagemusha is a modern fable which uses insights into the medieval mind to reveal
eternal psychological truths that allow us to triumph in this world, whether there is a next world
or not. Unlike the primary literature, where the aim is largely political, Kurasawa’s ultimate goal
is philosophical and eschatological.
Dresner, J. (2005). Renaissance Japan. Retrieved January 29, 2006 from
Ikegami, E. (1995). The taming of the samurai: honorific individualism and the making of
modern Japan. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
Kinder, M. (Winter, 1980-81). Kagemusha (the shadow warrior). Film Quarterly, 34, 2, pp. 4448.
Malpezzi, F.M., Clements, W.M. (1989). The double and the theme of selflessness in
‘Kagemusha’. Literature-Film Quarterly, 17, 3, pp. 202-206.
Miyazaki, F. (Winter, 1992). Religious life of the Kamakura bushi. Kumagai Naozane and his
descendents. Monumenta Nipponica, 47, 4, pp. 435-467.
Sato, H. (1995). Legends of the samurai. Overlook Press: Woodstock, NY.