The Third Shadow (1963) is set circa 1567 in the mountain regions of Hida and stars Ichikawa Raizo as a peasant’s son named “Kyonosuke” who dreams of becoming a samurai. Kyonosuke gets his wish not because of his abilities or character, but because he looks almost exactly like their lord Yasutaka, allowing Raizo to play one of the Lord’s doubles. Well, actually triples in this case, as Raizo is the third of three “shadow men,” but is the one who by far looks the most like Lord Yasutaka.
Sure, as a shadow you get to sleep with the Lord’s beautiful concubines and receive numerous other perks, however the job has its drawbacks too. In order to be convincing as doubles, the shadows must not only act like the Lord, but also maintain their physical resemblance as well (like limping from a sprained ankle). Also during the constant civil wars that plagued Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries lords went into plenty of battles. As part of their bravado, Lords often lead troops into savage conflicts resulting in serious wounds. As a shadow, if the Lord gets a wound, so do you. When the Lord loses his left eye during a battle, one of the shadows flees, knowing full well what is in store for them, but when he fails to escape he is brutally killed. The two remaining shadows (including Raizo) are blinded in their left eyes with a burning poker in order to remain good doubles for their Leader.
When the Lord loses an arm in another battle, only Kyonosuke (Raizo) is in a position to help him. He now understands this will mean one of his own arms will be chopped off, so he decides to kill the Lord and get out of Dodge to continue his pursuit of a samurai career elsewhere. Unfortunately Kyonosuke (Raizo) doesn’t get far and must replace the Lord so that no one finds out he (the Lord) is missing or dead. No one other than Kyonosuke (Raizo) himself knows that he, the Lord’s shadow, killed the missing Lord.
The movie so far has been excellent for its adventure and action. The film takes an interesting turn and develops into an eerie fight for personal identity, similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), when the lord’s imposter (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels he is dying as armies are wiped out before his eyes, even though in fact he has no real connection with those armies. Raizo wants out but no one believes Kyonosuke’s raving insistence that he is merely a peasant, not the Lord, and he ends up locked up as a madman for the rest of his life, the Lord’s insanity becoming the clan’s most closely guarded secret. His dream to be a samurai leads to ironic tragedy in this example of the genre roughly translated as “cruel historicals” or zankoku jidai-geki.
The Third Shadow is a nearly unknown masterpiece with amazing use of shadows and darkness as part of its scenes. Add a plot that is worthy of the cruelties and identity conflicts of Kafka transposed to the samurai era and you have an powerful film.
If you like Asian cinema like I do and can get your hands on the film make sure to see it. If you can’t get your hands on the film but have a sincere desire to watch it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do for you.