LEGENDARY JAPANESE DIRECTOR Akira Kurosawa hadn't made a movie for five years when Kagemusha roared into international cinemas in 1980. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas—presumably as penance for their personal crimes against art—Kagemusha is a historical epic to beat all historical epics. The 70-year-old filmmaker's concerns had changed since the raucous samurai adventures that previously defined his career; while Kagemusha is as violent as Seven Samurai, it's far more weary of the toll such violence takes.

The title of the film translates as "shadow warrior," and Kagemusha is an old man's version of the "Prince and the Pauper" fable. Tatsuya Nakadai, who played the villain in Kurosawa's Yojimbo, stars as Shingen, a warlord embroiled in civil war in 16th century Japan. To protect himself, Shingen uses doubles to fool his enemies. One such double was a thief sentenced to death, but his uncanny resemblance to the leader earned him a reprieve. When a sniper kills Shingen, the thief (also played by Nakadai) is tasked with impersonating the dead man for real. He is at first reluctant, but slowly grows comfortable in the seat of power. He transforms by inches, humor and compassion giving way to deluded self-belief.

Kagemusha is a long film, complex in its portrayal of human foibles and political maneuvering. Kurosawa constructs his movie with a rigid formalism, but there are occasional explosions of gaudy color. A painterly dream sequence shows the horrors of being another man's ghost, and the expressionistic battle scenes portray war as a kind of hell on earth. By the end, the whole world has fallen apart, and the man who renounced his identity is the only one left to mourn. It's a haunting reminder of how cruel men can be, and how easy it is to surrender to the tide.