The battles of Kawanakajima have held an unusually strong hold on Japanese popular culture, especially the fourth battle. We have seen movies about this from the viewpoint of Takeda Shingen, the leader of one side, and from the viewpoint of peasants in the supply train. Heaven and Earth revisits the conflict from the viewpoint of Ueshui Kenshin, referred to in subtitles by his birth name of Kagetori. The result is a spectacular battle film that recalls the American Cinemascope epics of the fifties and sixties or the large-scale films of Inagaki and Kurosawa.
Unfortunately, the director Haruki Kadokawa was no Inagaki, much less a Kurosawa. The movie is mostly spectacle, massive displays of cavalry and infantry, carefully differentiated with colored armor to match their banners, set against the backdrop of magnificent scenery. Even the spears are color-coded. Unlike Samurai Banners, Kagemusha, or Ran, it skimps on the human core that might make non-Japanese care about the characters. A lot of this problem, of course, may have to do with the twenty minutes missing from the version released in America. For reasons that seem inexplicable to me, the personal character material is usually what is cut from American releases of Asian films, which often results in making the movie less comprehensible – John Woo’s Red Cliffs is the most striking example, or the Thai Legend of Suriyothai. but many earlier Japanese movies had come to America in bleeding chunks as well. None of this is helped by the narration from Stuart Whitman, of all people, whose cowboy drawl is completely inappropriate and who manages to mangle the names even worse than I do.
There is a serious attempt to paint Kagetori as the “good guy” who only wants to protect the peace of his province and Takeda as the evil invader who wants all the land in Japan and even wants a fleet to conquer Asia. This is a bit undercut by Kagetori and his troops all wearing black armor and and even more by the fact that he came to power by defeating his older brother in battle, and is later seen personally shooting down the woman warrior who taunts him at long distance and executing Takeda’s family held as hostages. Despite an extremely detailed recreation of the fourth battle, the movie also leaves out the most famous moment of that battle, when Takeda fends off Kagetori’s personal attack with his fan, replacing the scene with a rather clumsy horseback duel that leaves Takeda unhorsed but still otherwise unharmed. It also lacks Toshiro Mifune and Kinnosuke Nakamura, or Tatsuya Nakadai, or Yoshio Harada. Kagetori is played rather blandly by Takaaki Enori, though admittedly he is given little to express in the shortened version available. Though Enoki was an attractive TV star, he was a last-minute replacement for an ill Ken Watanabe, who would at least have provided some additional charisma to the role.
Takeda is played by Masahiko Tsugawa, usually cast in nice guy character roles; for the most part unrecognizeable under his helmet and mustache, he does what the role requires. The rest of the cast are given little opportunity to distinguish themselves, especially Atsuko Asano as Nami, the woman who loves Kagetori, and Naomi Zaizen as Yae, the woman warrior*/mistress of Takeda, both of whom could have been interesting characters (and of course may have been in the longer version).
Haruki Kadokawa was the boss of the Kadokawa media empire that had begun producing movies in the seventies with the company’s pop-star teen idols or adapted from novels published by the company. Unsatisfied with wealth, success, and power, Kadokawa eventually decided to become a film director as well, which was not his real forte, at least in the movie we see. It is the kind of movie that is directed in great part by the second unit director, the person who handles all the extras and crowd scenes in which the principals are not seen (unless of course you are Kurosawa, who apparently directed everything). It is also the kind of movie for which the production designer is critically important, and there Hiroshi Takuda’s work and Yoko Tashiro’s costumes clarify more than does the direction.
Still, if you like spectacle for its own sake, this is a movie for you. Unlike Kurosawa, who had to import his horses and horsewomen for Kagemusha, Kadokawa took his cast where the horses were. All the battle scenes were filmed in Alberta, and the scenery is stupendous, though not always very Japanese in appearance. The stunt work and the armies were provided by Canadians (many of them female just as were Kurosawa’s Kagemusha cavalry). For a battle movie from 1990 (or any Japanese movie of the same era), it is remarkably lacking in blood spurts and spatters, in this respect resembling the jidai-geki of the fifties. Though we often see people being killed, their bodies magically disappear before the next cavalry charge, and we don’t even see a battlefield littered with bodies in the aftermath. On the basis of what we see, we would have no idea that this was the most deadly battle in Japanese history before WWII.**
The movie was very popular in Japan, the top-grossing film of the year. But then they saw a different movie, 20% longer than the one available to Americans, and it was a subject well-known to the audience.
* Catholic missionaries in the south of Japan reported that Kagetori also was really a woman. There is no other evidence to indicate this, but it is certain that he never married and had no children, eventually adopting an heir.
** For those who, like me, learn their Japanese history from trying to understand the movies, this very famous and deadly battle was absolutely pointless. Takeda withdrew from the field but was not defeated, and Kagetori did not pursue him. Two more smaller battles between them occurred on the same site later, but Takeda turned his primary attention to the Tokugawa and Oda clans, who were also vying to control all of Japan. Takeda himself died unexpectedly several years later and his heir saw his forces utterly destroyed in the battle depicted in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Some of the history between Heaven and Earth and Kagemusha can be found in Warring Clans and Three Young Samurai.