November 15, 2010

4 The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

Country: Japan
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

The Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki, who made seventy-five films between 1928 and 1970, is probably best known in the U.S. for Chushingura (1962). This is his version of the well-known and frequently filmed story of the forty-seven ronin, 18th-century samurai whose master has been unjustly forced by rivals to commit hara-kiri and who devise an elaborate (and suicidal) plot to exact revenge on those responsible for their master's death. Earlier than this, though, his film Samurai (1954), starring Toshiro Mifune, received an honorary Oscar as the best foreign language film released in the U.S. in 1955, the last year before this became a competitive award. In reality, Samurai is the first part of a trilogy of films about the legendary 17th-century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, played by Mifune: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), actually the correct title of the film originally released in the U.S. as Samurai; Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955); and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), also known as Bushido. The three are available as a boxed set from Criterion.

Each of the three films deals with one stage of the development of Musashi Miyamoto from a callow, self-interested youth to a mature man who embodies not only the physical but also the mental and spiritual virtues of the samurai. The first installment opens in A.D. 1600 in the midst of civil war. At this point Mifune is called Takezo, and we first meet him as a young man sitting in a tree in the courtyard of a monastery with his friend Matahachi watching a battle take place below. Thrilled by the excitement of what they're witnessing, the two determine to leave their native village to become samurai. Takezo, who seems to be the more dominant of the pair, is an orphan, but Matahachi leaves behind his mother and his fiancée, Otsu. Being soldiers turns out not to be the glamorous occupation the young men envisioned, though, and before long they find themselves stuck in muddy trenches on the losing side. Escaping, they take refuge with a mother and daughter who survive by stripping the bodies of dead warriors and selling their equipment. The mother sets her sights on Matahachi and soon seduces him; the daughter, Akemi, falls in love with Takezo. While Matahachi stays behind, Takezo decides to return to their village to tell Otsu of her fiancé's fate.

Because he must defy a ban on travel to get home, Takezo becomes an outlaw and fugitive. When he finally does reach the village, he develops an attachment to Otsu (which she returns) that lasts for the remainder of the cycle of films. But before he can leave the village, he is captured by the Buddhist priest Takuan, who binds him and suspends him from the very tree where we first saw him. Released into Takuan's custody, Takezo is taken to a nearby castle, where the priest lures him to a barred cell in the attics of the castle and locks him in, showing him piles of books in the room and telling him to study those books, for they contain all he needs to know. Three years later Takuan returns and releases Takezo, now reborn as Musashi Miyamoto, to take his place as a real samurai. After a final meeting with Otsu, during which she tells him she will wait for him, Musashi is last seen heading down the road and on to his destiny.

In the second film, Musashi becomes involved in a dispute with the Yoshioko martial arts school and its head, Seijuro. He also meets for the first time another warrior named Kojiro when he saves Musashi from an ambush by the warriors of the Yoshioko School. Kojiro later allies himself with the Yoshioko warriors, however, and becomes Musashi's rival. Akemi also returns in this episode, first being raped by Seijuro after her ambitious mother attempts to arrange a liaison between her daughter, still in love with Musashi, and the powerful young head of the samurai school and later taking refuge with Kojiro. In this film, Musashi spends a peaceful interlude between battles as a guest of the most famous "club" in Kyoto and its "star courtesan," the Lady Yoshino. Near the end of the film, he finally does meet Seijuro in battle at the Ichijoji Temple and defeats him. As he prepares to kill his enemy, though, Musashi has an epiphany in which he recalls in a montage of rapid flashbacks the defects in his character that several people he encountered in the past pointed out to him, an experience that persuades him to spare Seijuro's life. Just when it seems that Musashi has advanced to the next stage of his personal development, the finale of the film shows him that his education is not yet complete: His ego swollen with victory, he impulsively attempts to assault the faithful Otsu, who rebuffs his crude advances. Shocked and shamed by the brutality of his own behavior, Musashi takes off and is again last seen heading down the road and into the future.

In the final installment, many of the characters from the first two parts return: Otsu, Akemi, and most important Kojiro, now Musashi's bitter rival who challenges him to a duel on Ganryu Island. Musashi accepts the challenge but asks to postpone the duel for one year. He spends the interval with two companions he has picked up along the way, a hero-worshiping boy and a buffoonish older man, living in a rural village and becoming a farmer. Like the villagers in The Seven Samurai, these people are menaced by brigands, and Musashi finds himself organizing the farmers to defend themselves. Akemi also shows up and, after being rejected by Musashi again, betrays the village to the brigands in an outburst of wounded vanity. With Musashi's assistance, the villagers are able to repel the invaders during an exhilarating attack sequence. The climax of the film and of the trilogy comes with the duel with Kojiro on Ganryu Island. Musashi does, of course, defeat Kojiro after another rousing duel sequence on the beach. He is last seen leaving the island on a boat, but this time he is returning . . . to the ever-faithful Otsu, whom he has promised to marry if he wins the duel.

Taken together, the three films of The Samurai Trilogy offer a highly entertaining blend of thrilling action sequences, romance, and thoughtful examination of the nature of honor, personal growth, and being a samurai. The films are directed by Inagaki in a style that, while less distinctive than those of his better-known contemporaries, is still quite proficient and seems very naturalistic compared to the direction of the two heavily stylized Japanese films that also won honorary Oscars in the early 1950s, Rashomon and Gate of Hell. Inagaki makes especially good use of colorful and dramatic outdoor locations and shows great skill in staging action sequences. But if there is one thing that holds all this together, that gives the trilogy real thematic resonance and depth, it is the character of Musashi and the chronicling of his personal development. This development is the result not of physical training or even the love of Otsu, but of Musashi's own internal growth towards a moral and ethical stature he has already achieved as a fighter early in the first film.

Each of the three films concentrates on a different area of Musashi's development. Musashi Miyamoto focuses on the growth of his spiritual and intellectual awareness under the tutelage of the priest Takuan, who tells Musashi that even though he has the physical prowess of a samurai, he lacks the spiritual development of a real samurai. The priest teaches him that there is more to being a samurai than using his warrior's skills for personal advancement, that he must learn self-control and the need to direct his power to less egoistic aims. While Musashi is hanging in that tree, the priest tells him, "Conceited in your strength, you ignored wisdom and virtue. . . . Could you but use that force for humanity's good." At the end of the film, after spending three years in that cell reading and meditating, Musashi is clearly a different man, a man now prepared to accept the chivalric responsibilities that are central to being a samurai.

The second film, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, focuses on Musashi's emotional development. During Lady Yoshino's farewell to Musashi before he leaves to meet Seijuro at Ichijoji Temple, she tells him, "You're craving for self-control [because] you lack affection. Human affection." She correctly recognizes that he is incapable of real feeling for another person because in his emotional insecurity he sees affection for others as a weakness. Under the priest Takuan's guidance, Musashi has acquired self-restraint and compassion for his enemies. But having shed his youthful pride and self-absorption, he has been unable to fill the vacuum left behind with real empathy or meaningful connection with another human being, not even the patient and loving Otsu. He has not yet fully grasped that being a samurai is not just a matter of restraining negative impulses, but of generating the positive feelings towards others that will allow him to transcend the limitations of the self.

The final film, Duel at Ganryu Island, with its year-long interlude in the village, focuses on Musashi's forging of a connection with the earth and for the first time in his life becoming part of a community. In this film he finally achieves the humility that Takuan attempted to instill in him in Musashi Miyamoto. By helping the villagers to organize and repel the threat to their village, he is at last able to turn his martial skills to a good and selfless purpose, as Takuan urged, and to experience the caring affection for others that Lady Yoshino told him he lacked. His journey from the selfish desire for personal glory to the samurai's ideal of selfless service to others is complete. He is now ready to face Kojiro and afterward to accept and return the love of Otsu.

The growth and development of Musashi, the arc of his spiritual and sentimental education, is not based on quasi-mystical twaddle about the samurai code, but grounded in specific behaviors and attitudes, and one reason The Samurai Trilogy is so affecting is the way Toshiro Mifune brilliantly expresses the challenges of learning and applying those qualities. For nearly five hours, Mifune leads us step by step through the process of Musashi's gradual transition from an alienated, arrogant, and spiritually unaware young man driven by the most selfish motivations to a mature and serene man who has learned how to connect with the rest of the world and humanity. The lessons in self-awareness, self-control, and selflessness that Musashi learns in these films are surely principles applicable not just to persons of great physical skill and latent spiritual nobility like himself, but to all people, a concept which Mifune expertly conveys by showing how extraordinary ability and ordinary human fallibility can exist side by side in the same person.

I've seen Toshiro Mifune in quite a few films and consider him one of the great film actors of all time. But I don't think I've ever seen him give a finer performance than he does here. In the end, even with all the other strengths of these films, it is Mifune's sustained representation of the formation of Musashi Miyamoto's character and values that towers over all else in The Samurai Trilogy. It is a performance of the utmost subtlety, gravity, and control—one of the most remarkable screen performances I've ever seen.


  1. How nice to see this fine trilogy get the first-class treatment! I don't understand why it's not as revered in the U.S. as the Kurosawa-Mifune films. I agree that these three pictures represent some of Mifune's finest acting. I didn't see them until a few years back and I was hooked with MUSASHI MIYAMOTO. Although you did a marvelous job of pointing out the protangonist's evolution in the second & third films, the first remains my favorite. I think that's principally because of how Inagaki builds the relationship between Takezo and Otsu (especially on her part). Very enjoyable, insightful write-up.

  2. Rick, thanks for your comment, as always greatly appreciated. The first film is also my favorite and, I think, the strongest of the three. If I were rating it alone, I would probably give it the full four stars. I'm not a particular fan of the action genre. I need more than that to have a good viewing experience, and I hope I adequately conveyed how much more than just great action these movies provide.

    Mifune and Kurosawa made such a wonderful team, and Kurosawa gave him the chance to play so many different types of characters although it's the samurai that most people think of first. But I think Mifune outdid himself here, perhaps because getting three whole movies to develop his character in and to take that character through so many changes gave him the opportunity to show the amazing scope of his skills. The Kurosawa films show the other side of his acting ability, how he was able to focus his characterizations so precisely. I think his best performance for Kurosawa was "High and Low" with "Yojimbo" a close second.

  3. I agree that the SAMURAI TRILOGY provided Mifune with his greatest role. My favorite of his Kurosawa film is SANJURO. I think that film and his performance in it often get lost in the Kurosawa filmography. Mifune's performance is so effortless that I think many people discount it as a portrait of a broad, almost comic character. Actually, there's a lot of texture in his relationship with the young men he helps and with the samurai he reluctantly kills at the climax. Thanks again for a great post.

  4. Yes, "Sanjuro," a very enjoyable movie with Mifune giving an almost tongue-in-cheek performance--he's so casual yet absolutely confident in his skills, and a master strategist too, coolly showing those inexperienced and impulsive boys how he expertly plays his opponents like a chess master. And the two women add another comic dimension to the film.