Samurai 1: Myamoto Musashi (Japanese Title: Musashi Myamoto)
Samurai 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Ichijôji no kettô )
Samurai 3: Duel at Ganryu Island (Kettô Ganryû-jima)

(1954; 1955; 1956 - Japan)
With Toshiro Mifune, Rentaro Mikuni, Kuroemon Onoe, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okadah, Koji Tsuruta
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Reviewed by JB

The story of a wandering Samurai...     During World War Two, Hiroshi Inagaki, one of the masters of Japanese period movies ("jidai-geki"), filmed a trilogy of films based on the popular Japanese novel Musashi, a fictionalized account of the life of a famous 17th century warrior.  When color finally came to Japanese movies in the fifties, Inagaki took advantage of the new addition to the medium and filmed the trilogy for a second time.  The initial film, MYAMATO MUSASHI, beat both SEVEN SAMURAI and GOJIRA (GODZILLA) for best picture in Japan in 1954, and was honored in the U.S. as Best Foreign Picture.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, the novel is considered the Japanese Gone With The Wind, and one can imagine that the new trilogy, now in color, had a similar impact in Japan as the film version of GONE WITH THE WIND had in the United States.  Inagaki was always impressed by American filmmaking and, indeed, although made in Japan from 1954 through 1956, SAMURAI (the U.S. title for the trilogy) sometimes plays like a long-lost MGM epic of the 30s or 40s.

     Toshiro Mifune may be best known as Akira Kurosawa's favorite actor, but he actually worked with Inagaki more often during his career, even producing and starring in the director's final film AMBUSH (aka INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS) in 1970.  Mifune plays Takezo Myamoto (later renamed Musashi), a warrior on the path toward samurai perfection.  An actor most known for playing energetic parts, Mifune is forced to hold back here (except for the first film), keeping his emotions simmering behind an unchanging, contemplative face.  But like Charlton Heston in a biblical epic, Mifune owns the room every time he is on screen.

    The exquisitely pretty Kaoru Yachigusa plays Otsu, forever devoted to Musashi no matter how many times he abandons her (once or twice in every film!).  As delicate, virginal and lovely as any MGM ingenue, Yachigusa had perhaps the most beautiful eyes ever captured on film.  However, her character is a one-dimensional Myamoto groupie who will stand in place waiting for her man forever no matter what.  Almost as beautiful but more exciting is Mariko Okada, who plays Akemi, a girl who is used by men once too often, eventually turning against all men, including Musashi, whom she loves.  Of course, there is a villain too: Sasaki, the smarmy, oh-so-full of himself swordsman, who can achieve neither the love of Akemi nor the honor he feels he deserves until he has defeated the great Musashi.   He is portrayed by Koji Tsurata, who effortlessly manages to be both noble and oily as a rather likable villain.  It's rather sad when you realize he is doomed to be defeated.  

... and the pretty gal who loved him.      The first film, which is arguably the highlight of the series, features Mifune at his best - kicking, screaming, fighting, insulting and, of course, killing.  Once Musashi is tamed like the horses he himself attempts to tame, the second film tells the story of his quest to be the perfect samurai, a quest interrupted constantly by the sudden arrivals of Otsu and Akemi, or by the many men who want to kill him for their own reasons.  The third film is where Musashi finally blends his quest for perfection with his need for physical and emotional companionship.  He also has his long-awaited duel with rival Sasaki, played out on the beach of Ganryu Island.  The entire trilogy is sumptuously photographed, impressively directed and features an excellent score, exciting actions sequences and (need I add?), sappy love scenes.  Although, about those love scenes - has there ever been another screen hero who had so much trouble with two such incredibly gorgeous women without ever getting around to kissing either one of them?

     Inagaki's epic is a sweeping saga filled with many helpful tips for any budding samurai-wannabes, but lacks the depth of the samurai films of Kurosawa or Mizoguchi, or even Inagaki's later CHUSHINGURA and SAMURAI BANNERS.  With the possible exception of Akemi, the female characters are all portrayed as shallow - one look at Toshiro Mifune and they swoon (not unlike females in the audience at the time).  Nevertheless, the sheer spectacle of it all, and the effortlessness with which everybody concerned pull off a seamless three-film epic, makes the SAMURAI trilogy an enduring classic. 4½ - JB

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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee