History is dense with folk icons; men and women whose stories have translated with great success to the cinema with the Wong Fei Hung’s and Spartacus’s of the world over-represented. Here in Britain, we tend to treat our historical figures with the wrong side of a sharp blade, abandoning them to languish and fade with time despite names like Boudica, Dick Turpin and Guy Fawkes having great tales ready to be told and retold to new generations.
Japan has just as rich a history and with the increased marginalisation of Jidaigeki (era drama) and chanbara (sword fighting) movies, representation of such icons has one foot in the past. One of the favourites in Japan is Musashi Miyamoto, said to be undefeated in over 60 recorded duals and the subject of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, newly issued by the Criterion Collection. Inagaki is joined by Toshiro Mifune in the titular role; other trilogy consistencies are Mariko Okada (Akemi) & Kaoru Yachigusa (Otsu) as his unrequited love interests and Koji Tsurata as his rival, Sasaki Kojiro.
The 1954 original, simply titled Samurai I, Inagaki focuses on the infancy of the man who would later become the legendary dual-wielding swordsman; a rambunctious, tempestuous man who is mere moments away from picking a fight with a horse. The then titled Takezo decides with his childhood friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) to run away and join the military for sure-fire glory. A decision that leaves Takezo and Matahachi unable to return home, falling on the doorstep of an isolated house, where he initially meets Akemi. Mifune starts on a path that seems him hunted by his own village, chastised by a Buddhist monk, banished and put under house arrest before being set on the path of spiritual enlightenment needed to become a true samurai – with a new name Musashi Miyamoto. Films 2 & 3, titled duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island are far simpler propositions, the first sees him seek betterment only for him to find it in the final film, a further duel looms over the two films with the flamboyant Sasaki Kojiro.
None of the films come close to the 2-hour mark, yet they all have a dense narrative with each act telling a near complete story of the historical icons life. Compared to other samurai, or sword fighting, pictures there is a much grander commitment to the development of both plot and history. Taking the middle and best of the three as an example, what starts as an innocent and perhaps naive challenge of a dojo turns into a manhunt interspersed with the melodramatic flourishes of a love triangle that its titular character has little interest in. These three films are the story of a man’s progression for tempestuous youth to the considered wisdom that saw him go down in legend – within that are countless other interactions, relationships and stories of his icon.
Martial arts cinema is the obvious comparison point, in particular, Tsui Hark’s Once upon a time in China I-III only with the obvious exceptions being that Inagaki is opting, largely, for drama over spectacle. The parallels come from the path traveled and the growth over the course of 5 hours, a path that represents countless years despite the films themselves being made between 1954 and 1956. Mifune played beyond his age throughout his career, most notably with Akira Kurosawa in I Live in Fear. The gulf between the boisterous youth of the first film and the contemplative man we find in the finale is all communicated through the subtleties of the leading man’s performance. From small facial gestures, body language to the way he fights, Mifune grows to embody the wisdom of a warrior – this is a master of his craft at work, and its a joy to observe.
As remarked by many others, fight-centric cinema is tantamount to dance only with one eye fixated on the extreme. The modern theatrics fronted by Miike or classics like Lone Wolf and Cub or Sanjuro have conditioned us to expect a flurry of visceral feedback in sword fights. Whether we see an explosive splash of red or hear the effective sound design of a blade hitting flesh, these all provide a context for a world we couldn’t possibly understand. Regrettably, there is nothing of any sort here, the most we get are posthumous splashes of red or a slight cut on Musashi’s headband in the final fight of Ganryu Island. Otherwise, we get a parallel in cod theatrics that Godard famously parodied in Breathless, with combatants hit by the sword falling to their overdramatic deaths. This was a grand epic shot in the fifties, so definitely a sign of the time, however, this small touch has dated the film beyond compare. Not only is the age called into question, it’s a frighteningly effective dampener on the spirits.
From Musashi Miyamoto to Ichijoji Island before the climax in Ganryu Island, the action scenes become more and more effective the deeper into the trilogy Inagaki gets. He saves his grandest spectacles for the occasions that deem it necessary, the final battle at the end of Ichijoji temple is the pinnacle of this and one of the finest ‘many against one’ battles committed to film. His management of extras, stuntmen and the subtle cinematography of Jun Yasumoto all aid the unbridled magnetism of Toshiro Mifune at the center of this scene – is a stunning spectacle that demands undivided attention.
The melodrama of romance can be a little misguided at times, this is no greater when considering its lack of closure which is just as much a blessing as a curse. Inagaki, Mifune, and co are not attempting to craft a cohesive story of the life and times of Musashi Miyamoto, starting with the ‘birth’ and ending with the death. On the contrary, Samurai I-III is concerned with the rise and rise of its lead, how he shunned earthly desires to become the ultimate in swordsmanship and only then do the films theorize that this lifestyle will lead to dissatisfaction. A conclusion mirrored in the almost abrupt ending, stopping mere moments after Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro have their legendary battle on Ganryu Island’s beach.
It’s easy to leave these three films with something approaching lethargy, with their over-theatrical, dated violence and over-reliance on melodrama. Many aspects of this trilogy sit with the gaudy excesses more attuned to the western conception of the period drama, the very last thing that should be associated with the honour and power of the samurai. However, hours, days or even weeks may pass and the tapestry of a man, elegantly directed and framed, buoyed by one of the greatest actors of all time on the finest form will reveal itself more and more. Its often the case with films recognised as classics, the more they are allowed to germinate the richer they become. Here’s hoping Hiroshi Inagaki’s Trilogy is the opening of the floodgates leading to some of the other, more traditional, genre delights found in Criterion’s awe-inspiring catalog of Samurai classics.