Spank The Monkey looks at Criterion’s new release of a neglected landmark in Japanese cinema.
Musashi Miyamoto is the Samurai. No, scratch that: Musashi Miyamoto is the Samurai. For generations of Japanese, this 17th century wandering swordsman has been the ideal representation of the country’s warrior class. A painter, an author, and a swordsman who won over sixty duels: if he didn’t already exist, someone would have had to invent him. And even though he did exist, people have been inventing him anyway: for centuries Japanese culture has repeatedly taken the bare bones of his story and manufactured new myths out of it.
The best known of these in the West is Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy, a series of films made between 1954 and 1956, adapted from a long-running newspaper serial by Eiji Yoshikawa. Its reputation here is largely down to the actor William Holden, who was so impressed by Samurai I that he took personal responsibility for its American release. Admittedly, he Miramaxed the hell out of it – recutting it and adding his own English narration – but the result was popular enough to win the 1955 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, the US public’s enthusiasm for the story was short-lived: the other two parts of the trilogy didn’t reach cinemas until a decade later, to much less acclaim. As for the UK, it looks like the films didn’t get any sort of release here at all until a DVD set came out in 1999. It’s taken a concerted effort by Criterion, first in the States and then in the UK, to present the Trilogy properly to English-speaking audiences.
The hook for a Japanese audience was the legend of Musashi: but the hook for a Western audience had to be Toshiro Mifune, the actor playing the samurai in all three films. By the mid-fifties, Mifune was an established presence in world cinema, and his leading roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa meant that he was a star attraction to an arthouse audience. This is, of course, the biggest problem with The Samurai Trilogy: it’s impossible to watch Inagaki’s solid, no-frills direction without constantly holding him up against the master Kurosawa, and there are very few directors on earth who could survive that comparison. Nevertheless, it turns out that some of the baggage Mifune brings to the Trilogy actually works in its favour.
When we first meet Mifune’s character in Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, he’s called Takezo Shimmen and he’s watching people from up in a tree, a familiar pose for the actor. He’s observing a platoon of soldiers returning from battle, and thinking about how he’d like some of that action for himself. He joins up, dragging along his best mate Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) for the ride, even though the latter has commitments back home in the form of fiancée Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). When one of their battles turns into a bloodbath, they retreat and hide out in the house of widow Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada). Mother/daughter households are always dangerous places in Japanese literature, and so it proves here: Matahachi runs off with Oko and Akemi, leaving Takezo to return back to their hometown and somehow explain the situation.
Takezo was never really liked by anyone back home, but beating up a dozen or so guards at the city gates on his arrival makes things even worse. It’s not too long before he has the entire population of Miyamoto baying for his blood, with only two exceptions. Otsu has obvious sympathy for his plight, not to mention a growing affection for the man: the motives of priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), however, are a little less clear. He seems to believe that under the rage and bluster of Takezo’s personality, there are the makings of a true samurai. However, his method for bringing this out of Takezo involves a lot more torture than you’d expect.
For audiences familiar with Mifune’s performances in Kurosawa films, the character of Takezo takes quite a bit of getting used to: he’s not the stoic hero we’ve come to expect, but much more emotional and prone to wild mood swings. His martial skills are never in question, but there’s also a softer side to his character, one that recognises his own failings. Gradually, you realise that this is going to be the arc of the entire trilogy – the evolution of the hot-headed brawler Takezo into the respected samurai Musashi, the name he adopts at the end of Samurai I. (It’s an odd quirk of the trilogy that each film’s subtitle is technically a spoiler for its ending.)
By the time we get to Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple (see what I mean?), Musashi is walking the earth like Kwai Chang Caine, leading you to believe that the Trilogy is going to roughly follow the three-act structure of the classical martial arts story: defeat, training, redemption. So this film will be the second of those acts, where Musashi learns the true nature of the samurai through his travels. That education seems mostly to involve him picking fights with sword schools, with only the occasional bit of tutting from passing wise men to suggest that he may not necessarily be on the right path yet. Still, it’s a good path for the viewer, as we finally get to see Musashi in tightly-choreographed one-on-one swordfight action, rather than the scrappy one-against-dozens flailarounds that the series frequently falls back on.
Meanwhile, the five-way tangle of romantic subplotting – involving Musashi, Matahachi, Otsu, Oko and Akemi – gets even more messy than ever before, thanks to a series of clunkily coincidental meetings. It’s even extended into a love hexagon with the introduction of Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), a master swordsman who reputedly “looks more like an actor than a samurai.” (This would be the role the studio would give to a boy band member if they remade it today.) Kojiro acts as an ally and supporter of Musashi in his ongoing quest, but hints are dropped that he’s only doing this as a way of grooming a future opponent worthy of his skills.
It’s during Samurai II that Musashi starts to develop his own samurai code, depicted in axioms written as onscreen captions. One of these axioms is that a samurai should “renounce the company of women”. You can see his point at this stage in the proceedings, but his attitude to women would be a lot more relaxed if he didn’t hang out with so many terrible ones. The middle film is the one that confirms what a male-centric story this is: all of the female characters are either simpering wimps or evil schemers, depending on what’s required to keep the plot moving. You don’t come to samurai movies expecting feminism, it’s true, but it’s rather depressing when a film’s best-written women are all prostitutes.
Bingewatching the whole trilogy – rather than seeing the three films in consecutive years, as original audiences had to – really brings home just how much Musashi has changed by the time we get to Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island. He’s still a wandering swordsman, but not as desperate to pick fights (his irritating boy sidekick does that for him), and not as eager to use lethal force. Finally, he’s become that stoic Kurosawa-style samurai we were expecting him to be right from the start. This becomes particularly apparent in Samurai III’s central section, where Musashi takes up residence in a village to protect it from bandits. But he’s also mature enough to realise that he’s still got some maturing to do.
Samurai III is where the beautifully structured continuity of Mifune’s performance pays off. However, the continuity of other elements of the story becomes a lot more shaky. The captions depicting quotes from Musashi’s samurai code are absent from this film: the same goes for two previously prominent characters, who are either killed offscreen or simply not mentioned again. It’s symptomatic of the way the story develops in its final stages, ruthlessly shedding characters and plotlines until it all comes down to a single narrative thread – the duel which gives Samurai III its subtitle. That duel, like all the one-on-one combat scenes in the trilogy, is a tour de force, but what comes after it is just as impressive: a silent coda that wordlessly shows the consequences of this duel on its survivor.
Aside from some booklet essays (not available for review), the only real bonus feature on offer in Criterion’s presentation is an extended interview with historian William Scott Wilson, in which he breaks down the trilogy film by film and tells you just how much of it is fiction. But really, you’re paying for the restoration rather than bonus features here. Criterion have kept the overt image processing down to a minimum – this still looks and feels like film, with occasional scratches and grain. What really stands out is the colour, which is ridiculously vibrant and expressive. Cinematographers Jun Yasumoto and Kazuo Yamada have a huge range of visual moods to depict – not to mention several scenes shot at sunrise or sunset – and each sequence has its own very distinctive palette. The photography is all there to serve the story, apart from the occasional gratuitous visual flourish, like the rainbow which frames the opening duel in Samurai III. It’s a masterclass in what cinematography could achieve in the 1950s, and Criterion have done it justice with this restoration.
Undoubtedly, there are flaws in The Samurai Trilogy: its combination of samurai philosophy, two-bladed action and on-again-off-again romance can make for uneven viewing. But it’s briskly paced (you can watch the whole thing in a non-stop five hour session), fabulous to look at, and has a brilliant performance at its centre. With a lesser actor in the lead, this would be indistinguishable from any other chanbara drama: Mifune’s incendiary charisma and attention to detail elevate it to a trilogy we’re still talking about sixty years after it was filmed.
The Samurai Trilogy is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.