The 1950s are widely regarded as a golden age of Japanese Cinema. To enormously simplify a complex period in history (so we can get talking about swords and duels and all that badass stuff), a lot changed between the end of WWII in 1945 and the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan in 1952. Censorship was simultaneously lifted and imposed. The Occupation restrained Japan in terms of what it could say in films being produced (for example, anything that “promoted feudal values” was not allowed), yet at the same time, exposed it to all kinds of western material that had been forbidden in the pre-war years. When the Americans left, the restrictions were lifted but the new influences survived, unleashing a tsunami of innovative, passionate cinema, much of which is still widely regarded as some of the best of all time.
There are a slew of canonical classics from Seven Samurai and Throne Of Blood to Life Of Oharu or Tokyo Story, but one of the major releases of the era that’s frequently overlooked (even though it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955) is Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy. It was released across three films over as many years but is best enjoyed as a single piece of work; a five-hour biography of legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto.
The real Musashi lived in the Edo period and, having mastered the art of swordfighting at an early age, went on to become the most famous Samurai in history, developing a wealth of innovative fighting techniques still used today. In his later years, he wrote The Book Of Five Rings, a philosophical text on combat that’s never been out of print and is considered essential not just for disciples of kenjutsu but also most Business students in Japan. If you’re a ninja junkie like me, you may also recognise it from Eric van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja, which is divided into five ‘rings’ in tribute to Musashi.
There have been fictional accounts of Musashi’s life dating as far back as his own lifetime but the most celebrated (and the one on which the Samurai Trilogy is based) is probably Eiji Yoshikawa’s 1930 novel Musashi. In fact, director Inagaki liked it so much he adapted it twice. His original three-part adaptation was made in 1942 but, sadly, got lost or destroyed during the war, leading him to start shooting this newer version in 1954. Far from being a retread, Inagaki poured as much modern technique and technology as he could into his second effort and, to this day, it’s tough to argue there’s been a stronger telling of the story.
In Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) we are introduced to our hero, played by the incomparable Toshiro Mifune (who, the same year, would also play Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai – quite a hot time for him!). Angry and disenchanted with life in Miyamoto village, Musashi (then known only as Takezo, his childhood name) dreams of being a warrior. As he doesn’t have much in the way of family, he sets off to war with his only friend, Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni). After a battle leaves them wounded and defeated they find themselves lost in the wilderness and are saved by a female thief and her beautiful daughter Akemi. This is only the start of their problems however, as a whole heap of betrayals, lies and other Shakespearian intrigues unravel…
This first episode is easily the most accessible and plot-driven. The melodrama is laid on thick with some heavy romantic subplots and a lot of poetic dialogue. Between this, the backdrop of a civil war, and the lavish Eastmancolor photography, it’s not wholly unfair to liken Samurai to a Japanese Gone With The Wind (which many critics have done). In fact, the real beating heart of the first part is probably its very own Scarlett O’Hara, Otsu; a long-suffering character (played exquisitely by Kaoru Yachigusa) who just loves too hard for her own good. She begins as Matahachi’s finaceé, ends as Musashi’s lover and gets put through the emotional wringer repeatedly while the men go off seeking glory and honor. It’s hard not to be moved by her plight and especially by the horror of the cliffhanger she finds herself on at the end…
Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple (1955) picks up a short while after the first one ends. Musashi, having being set on the path of study by an irritatingly smug Buddhist priest in the first film, is busy learning the ways of the warrior. He is a master of fighting but fails to keep his emotions under control and this film’s focus is on his choosing between living the life of a man bound by his feelings or one who exists in harmony with his sword.
While Musashi spends his time feuding with the Yoshioka martial arts school – whom he deems to be a rough, undisciplined bunch – all his companions from the first film fall into their own private pits of despair (I won’t spoil it by saying what happens but none of them end up anywhere nice). Musashi’s internal journey here mirrors theories of Zen Buddhism and, in that respect, is thematically tight as hell but what will appeal to most western viewers is the fighting. Holy crap, do you get some bang for your bokken! The scene in which Musashi takes on 80 men is technically astonishing and still takes the breath away. I can’t even imagine how mindblowing it must’ve been in 1955 when few fights as sophisticated, elaborate or brutal as this had been seen onscreen.
Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island tones down the violence a little and concludes the saga, as Musashi and Kojiro (Koji Tsurata), his new rival from the second film, meet in a graveyard and challenge one another to one final duel. They give themselves a year to train for it (because why not? It’s a matter of honor, not just convenient plotting) and this allows Inagaki to cohere and expand the themes of the trilogy as the men go their separate paths. Kojiro joins upper class Shogunite society (who are all, obviously, a bunch of scheming bastards) whereas Musashi finds himself drawn to the simple pleasure of tilling the land like a peasant. He also – through a proto-Miyagi display of catching flies with chopsticks – acquires a new disciple in the form of a comic-relief horse-dealer and saves a village from bandits, becoming something of a local hero.
Sadly, the story grows ever more hopeless for the female characters Akemi and Otsu whose ultimate tragedies serve as reminders that Musashi, despite being a legendary hero, is also a bit of a dick. Being honest, if these films have a weakness it’s that the Samurai characters – by virtue of their strict codes and protocols – behave like total sociopaths throughout and it’s hard to genuinely *like* them, even if they do know how to swing a sword around with the best. Still, you can probably forgive this flaw – or indeed anything – when things reach their iconic climax on Ganryu Island. Jun Yasumoto’s photography is next level and not just by 1956 standards. Even now it’s stunningly beautiful. Eastmancolor has probably never looked better than in this final duel. It takes place on a beach at sunset and is one of the most ravishing, balletic and beautiful fight scenes I’ve seen. After five hours, you really need to end with something cathartic and thankfully Samurai III rises to the challenge.
If you’re a fan of postwar Japanese cinema or Samurai films then Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy is an essential watch. More casual viewers may be alienated by some of the coldness but even those who don’t fully connect can appreciate the technicality. The recently released Criterion UK Blu Ray version is a superb edition, in which the image quality is more spectacular than ever, allowing the opulent set design and vibrant lighting an opportunity to really shine.
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.