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Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Through fire and foolhardiness, the greatest Japanese swordsman in history will emerge…

With the hubbub about Seven Samurai (1954) in which he starred, one Toshiro Mifune title that doesn’t get talked about is his Samurai Trilogy with director Hiroshi Inagaki. Charting the life of famed Japanese swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, the trilogy started in 1954 with part 1 and continuing once a year until January 1956. Interestingly, Part 1 (simply titled Musashi Miyamoto) came out about five months after Seven Samurai so audiences were well prepared for him. But if they were looking forward to more of the same energetic, brash performance, they were in for a shock.

Here’s what we basically understand about the life of the real Musashi Miyamoto: born around 1584 to a vassal of a local lord, the young Musashi (then know by his birth name Shinmen Takezō) trained with his uncles in Buddhist teachings, reading and writing and in swordsmanship and strategy. By the time he was in his teens he was already famous as a duelist. At the age of 16, he left his village and left everything worldly with his sister and her husband. He then travelled to parts unknown in Japan, conducting a Musha shugyō or pilgrimage. In his late teens, he tacitly acknowledged in later life, that he was present at the Battle of Sekigahara where the powerful Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans fought for control of the country. His father had been in the employ of Shinmen clan who were allied to Toyotomi but they lost the battle. From there, he set out in a series of famous duels all while gathering knowledge, sword technique and wisdom in the way a vassal of the Emperor should conduct themselves. Most famously, he was said to duel only with bokuto (wooden sword) and did not care what his opponent was armed with. Serving lords, lord lieutenants, daimos and the Emperor himself, Miyamoto survived to found his own school (albeit one he alone was present for) of teachings for sword technique and living in general while opening fencing and fighting schools, he helped build Akashi Castle. He allied himself with the Tokugawa clan in his later years, having served the House of Toyotomi faithfully. His most famous work of writing that survives to this day is The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy. He died in 1645, four years after finishing Five Rings, in Reigando Cave having given away his possessions to retainers, family and friends.

Now, with a life like that, it is inevitable that you’d have stories and legends about someone like Musashi. Half the fun in reading about the man is that a lot of what I just wrote is the bare facts about him. Yes, while he was employed by various people, they wrote about him. But he frequently went on his Musha shugyō trips and never wrote down his personal thoughts beyond correspondence of an official nature. So writers and directors have had a free hand in making up his life for their creative purposes. Director Hiroshi Inagaki, having worked at both Nikkatsu and Toho for a few decades and become a director of standing, worked with Hideji Hōjō’s play and adapted it with Tokuhei Wakao. This story tells the tale of Takezo (Mifune) and his friend Matahachi (Rentarō Mikuni) as they go off to war and seek their fortune. Matahachi has a fiance Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) whom he is betrothed to. Takezo has nobody but ungrateful relatives. Following a disastrous campaign culminating in the Battle of Sekigahara, after which, they find themselves in the company of a widow and her teenager daughter. After healing sufficiently, Takezo fends off a band of bandits that the widow knows through her dead husband. In the doing, he pushes away both the daughter and widow’s advances to him and flees, back to the village. Matahachi stays and falls for the charms of the widow. Takezo comes back to the village to tell Otsu that Matahachi is fine but omits about the widow and her daughter. From there, he engages in a guerilla fight with the local lord’s men and the villagers to stay alive.

The beauty of Part 1 is that it’s got a rock-solid plot. From the initial hi-jinks of two lads going off to war, the film slowly works its way toward a melding of the sorrow of Takezo’s decisions having brought him to ruin and the melancholy of Otsu’s waiting for Matahachi. The bridging moment for the two of them is the wise old fox Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) a Buddhist priest in the village they live in. Takuan breaks Takezo’s spirit by having him tied up and strung up a tree in the temple grounds while the elements lash at him despite Otsu’s futile attempts to ask Takuan to stop. This mirrors an earlier scene when Takezo and Matahachi are staying with the widow and her daughter remarks that Takezo enjoys riding the farm’s horse and Matahachi corrects her and says “He enjoys breaking the horse”. After breaking the horse’s wilful spirit, Takezo has his own destroyed as he’s forced to confront some terrible points about his personality that have caused him and others harm. At the same time, he sees that Otsu and Takezo have more in common with each other than they acknowledge and steers the two away from each other while freely letting them express themselves.

Toshiro Mifune’s performance is matched only by his range of emotions over the course of the film. His early Takezo is like Kikuchiyo before he was traumatised: fun-loving, happy and eager to make a name for himself. But as the war unfolds as it does, he thinks he’s found peace in the widow’s farm but even that is an illusion and he leaves disgusted with himself that he came that close to giving up on his dreams. His war with the villagers is full to the brim with the hubris of anger. His shame at his family is marked by the fact that they suffer at the hands of the lord the longer he’s loose while he curses their names. But it’s the journey he embarks on to become a man and not an animal, to live up to whatever Takuan sees in him that marks the most change in him. When he emerges from his training at the end of the movie, he is reborn as Musashi Miyamoto, a knight of his lord’s court, still and quiet yet still troubled by his past and the things he should have done better. While on the other side, Otsu’s arc brings Kaoru Yachigusa from naive village girl to willing and active in her own destiny. That her destiny seems intertwined with Musashi doesn’t concern her. She uses looks and gestures where the men have impassioned speeches and anger. For her, enduring seems like it’s enough. But she has a catastrophic break with her then mother-in-law-to-be, Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi) where she rejects the comfort and conformity of life in the Matahachi house for her own. From then on, her performance is liberated, full of opportunity and her expression changes as she flings herself into a life with Musashi where even he doesn’t know how they’ll end up. Coming in for the second best performance after Yachigusa and Mifune is Kuroemon Onoe as Takuan. He just laughs as his charges try to escape their fate, fight back against him or run away from their problems. But he still has the power to surprise such as when he (rightly) admonishes Takezo for causing his family harm when he didn’t need to. But there’s a way that Onoe just looks that usually means someone’s going to come undone from their plans. A vitality pulses through Onoe’s priest that mirrors Mifune’s early performance but his vitality comes with wisdom and restraint compared to Mifune’s spilling over of emotion and movement.

Inagaki infuses his actor’s performances with lovely colour photography, holding as characters pass by vast valleys and towering rock mountains lost in their actions or thoughts. Along with that, his scenes are charged with the energy of Mifune and his physical strength in a scene where he’s required to fly into battle against dozens of soldiers at a moment’s notice. Actors throw themselves along for the ride with Mifune as he rolls like a wrecking ball toward them, even when they’re his character’s allies. The quiet moments reflect the stillness of the countryside, the peace of being at rest when all around you is ablaze with purpose. The comparison to Seven Samurai is unfair as both films, despite both being about samurai, are worlds away in tone and execution. Kurosawa’s masterpiece is all pathos and quick camera action and long unbroken close-ups of actors. Part 1 is internal, haunting in its melancholy and gives quick glances as its cast sometimes has only moments to decide a course of action.

Forming the first in a trilogy, this part marks the forging of the legend that will become Musashi Miyamoto. It’s the arrogant pride of youth coming into direct opposition of men’s motives and the need for advancement. Mifune and Yachigusa form a perfect bond as the lovers who come to love each other after learning their own foibles and their performances anchor everything else to them. Part’s 2 and 3 will chart Musashi’s path as he takes what he has learned to change his fate and what Otsu’s path lies in relation to that or not. Where we leave him today, he and she are just beginning.

The Samurai Trilogy will be released as a UK Blu-ray Collector’s Set on 5 September 2016. The US edition of the Criterion Blu-ray is available now.

About the author

Phillip O'ConnorPhillip O'Connor Phillip O'Connor
A fan of anime, it helped me to find Hong Kong Action films and later Japanese and Korean cinema. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Chung, they all became my guides to Asian cinema. At the same time, HKL reawakened in me the desire to watch films again... More »
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