Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1954), “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955), and “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” (1956) arrive on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, was one of Japan’s most successful exports of the 1950s, a rousing, emotionally gripping tale of combat and self-discovery. Based on a novel that’s often called Japan’s Gone with the Wind, this sweeping saga fictionalizes the life of the legendary seventeenth-century swordsman (and writer and artist) Musashi Miyamoto, following him on his path from unruly youth to enlightened warrior. With these three films—1954’s Oscar-winning Musashi Miyamoto, 1955’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and 1956’s Duel at Ganryu Island—Inagaki created a passionate epic that’s equal parts tender love story and bloody action.
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – The strengths of this movie are a simple story with wonderful characters set to a background of beautiful scenery and costumes using skillful cinematography. Unlike today’s movies with emphasis on action, special effects and fast cuts to move the story along, this movie unfolds its drama at a leisurely pace and introduces us to the title characters so we feel well acquainted with them. Toshiro Mifune stars as a foolish young man who longs to run off to war to make his fortune and prove he is a man. When a battle looms, he runs off to volunteer and his friend, showing some initial reluctance, follows. Instead of glory, they barely escape with their lives. Their paths leads them to two women–an incredibly evil sociopathic mother and her daughter who is not yet as jaded and selfish as the mother. Mifune resists temptation and runs from them, while his friend succumbs to their pleas to stay–and in essence throws away his life and honor. There will be characters you’ll love and long for, and other characters whom you will hope will be killed by Toshiro. These secondary characters are extraordinarily complex at times. As can be expected with the first act of any saga, there isn’t much finality to be found here; it really seems as though we’re only beginning to scratch the surface when the curtain drops, and that compete lack of closure left me feeling a touch jilted, justifiably or not.
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – By this time Musashi Miyamoto has been on the road for three years and is still learning. The most important lesson as a Samurai will not be learned until the film is almost over. Love, fickleness, treachery, rape, revenge, honor, and great sword fighting all have a place in this magnificent film. This time the movie flows better because the story gets used better as well. Like mentioned earlier, the first movie was still being mostly a setup movie for the series. In this movie we actually get to see more epic moments and fights, as it follows the further travels of Musashi Miyamoto, on his way to become a master-swordsman. Its story and different characters all work out nicely, as things also gets developed more, with its drama and romance. Again, some of the importance of all this is lost, even to modern Japanese audiences for whom the issues are long settled– at the time, though, they were cliffhangers. A new character is introduced, Kojiro Sasaki who will emerge in part 3 as a rival for Musashi– his equal except for certain features in their respective character. By the way, the score is excellent and haunting– it extends like a symphony through all three parts, and has a leitmotif “hook” that will cause your ears to pick up in recognition, perhaps years from now, when you hear it again.
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island – This episode has the most significance for Japanese with the famous combat between Miyamoto Mifune, invincible samourai of more than 60 duels armed with a wooden sword, and Sasaki Kojiro, most formidable adversary and skillful swordsman armed with an extremely long sword, on the beach of Ganryu Island at sunset. A lot goes on in this movie, and the pacing of it is expertly handled: no scene is too long or too short and the characters are given enough time to evolve without boring us. What really makes this worth watching, though, is the climatic fight at the end. Beautifully shot, masterfully executed, one of the best moments of Japanese cinema. In all, the trilogy deserves its status as a masterpiece! Although I cannot appreciate the Japanese language and must rely on the English subtitles for the meaning of dialog, I do appreciate the beauty. For its sense of rather understated action, I particularly enjoyed the opening scene. Sasaki Kojiro demonstrates his signature Swallowtail Turn, a move whereby he severs the tail feathers of this notably swift and agile bird in flight. It’s not the portrayed animal cruelty that I enjoyed; it’s the human quickness and skill that would be required to accomplish such a feat. Lots of things have been said in the movie about the humans, the way they live, they behave, they treat others and above all their desires grooved in the very depth of the heart. What is most likable is the mildness with which things are being said but every bit needs to be heard with full attention.
Anyone who has previously seen Criterion’s DVD releases of Hiroshi Inagaki’s classic films will be enormously impressed with the films’ transition to Blu-ray. These new high-definition digital transfers (for the three films) were created on a Spirit Datacine from 35mm low-contrast prints struck from the original camera negatives. In conclusion, despite some age-related limitations, the three films in the collection have benefited from the transition to Blu-ray and undoubtedly look the best they ever have. Pick this up if you are a fan of classic samurai films, you won’t be disappointed.