The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

In an unprecedented move, I am going to review three films at once.  So, while I will technically only write four reviews on samurai film to accompany my recent essay on that genre, I will actually be reviewing six movies.  The three movies that I will be reviewing today make up the masterful trilogy from director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune called, simply, The Samurai Trilogy.  This trilogy is made up of three films, Musashi Miyamoto (1954), The Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and The Duel at Ganryu Island (1956).  The release of these films marks an important moment in the development of the samurai film and its role as not only the predominant genre of Japan, but as Japan’s most exported film-type in world cinema.

Many will tell you that Seven Samurai marked the beginning of the samurai genre.  This is a significant historical inaccuracy, since the samurai character had long been in Japanese cinema.  Akira Kurosawa made his point-of-view dramatic quandary film, Rashomonfour years earlier.  Even before that, in 1941, another of the great Japanese masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, made a film called 47 Ronin (later remade into a terrible martial arts/comic book nightmare starring Keanu Reeves).  One of the most important samurai films ever made was actually a silent film in 1925 called Orochi.  But, those who claim that Seven Samurai somehow started a new genre do not do so by simply disregarding established facts.  Rather, they are focused on a completely different notion.  Whether they know it or not, they are referring to the samurai genre that was, and continues to be, intimately and inextricably linked with the American Western.  These two cohabiting genres married forever with the production of Seven Samurai and these preliminary samurai pictures.

In this regard, a rebirth of the samurai film on the world stage came to pass.

However, I think there is more to the story.  While Seven Samurai deserves a lot of well-deserved credit, its fame unfortunately takes away the significance of a film that came out that exact same year (1954): Musashi Miyamoto.  After all, it was Musashi Miyamoto, not Seven Samurai, that would take home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. Later referred to as Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto since two other movies would follow it, this film further contributed to the marriage of the Western and the Samurai film (also known as chanbara).  While Seven Samurai would, according to Michael Jeck, give birth to a brand new sub-genre in which a team is assembled to complete a mission (a motif that would inspire such stories as The Dirty Dozen and Star Wars), Musashi Miyamoto would help to revive a different aspect of mythology in cinema.  In essence, if Seven Samurai was Jason and the Argonauts, then Musashi Miyamoto was more along the lines of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

How can we draw these parallels?  Well, in order to do that, I should probably tell you the story of the Samurai Trilogy.  (This does not exempt you, my readers, from actually watching these movies yourself!).  The story follows the exploits, adventures, growth, and development of a young man in shogunate period Japan by the name of Tazeko.  Tazeko and his friend, Matahachi, are soldiers in the famous Battle of Sekigahara (more on that later), who go on the run after discovering that they are on the losing side.  They seek shelter, as fugitives, with two women, and this leads to frantic misunderstandings, love triangles, escapes, and betrayals.  Ultimately, Tazeko winds up in the custody of a Buddhist priest named Takuan, who keeps Tazeko detained for three years in a cell filled with books.  This is his saving grace: all throughout the first film, we see how skilled a fighter Tazeko is, but it is not his fighting, but rather his enlightenment, that makes him the man that he is.

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After his immersion in the scripts of the priest’s library, as it were, Tazeko is released from custody and granted the name “Musashi Miyamoto”.  From this point on, he becomes the Japanese equivalent to Davy Crockett, a national hero whose influences, while real, became the stuff of legend.  We follow him as he works up a progressive series of duels in the following two movies, leading to his greatest challenge: the duel at Ganryu Island.  All the while, Musashi appeals first to his own progressive enlightenment, and then to his skills with the sword.  As he grows older he becomes greater.  He is never actually a samurai, as he is never in the employ of a given lord; he is technically a ronin, a masterless samurai, a loner.  Again, it is not unlike a cowboy.

According to many sources, the actual historical Musashi Miyamoto did, indeed, fight in the battle of Sekigahara.  This was an incredibly important conflict for shogunate Japan, as it was part of a series of conflicts that would lead to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, the last great shogunate.  It was also, symbolically, a symbol of the sacrifice needed for peace, as it is well established that the battle, once finished, ushered in a sustained period of no-conflict in Japan.  To state that in contemporary Japan, the battle of Sekigahara plays a significant role in Japan’s cosmological “mythology” is probably fair, though I admit, I am no expert.

This is how The Samurai Trilogy is such a parallel to The Iliad and The Odyssey.  We are first introduced to the hero in the context of the foundational war of the cultural mythology, the Trojan War.  After the conclusion of the war, we follow the hero (Odysseus), as he shelters with strange women, maintains his virtue, lives in drawn-out imprisonment, combats evils, and completes a series of mythological tasks before his ultimate test to win back his wife.  His story not only tells of the war that established the national identity, but also of the individual and his character as is born of that national identity.  It is a story both of macrocosms and microcosms that survives to this day.

These myths permeate the psyche, and that is why their stories are so pertinent to the competent film-connoisseur.

In the United States, we also have a Trojan War, a conflict that acts as a watershed to our mythology.  In the context of the American Western, that war is the Civil War.  Almost all the great Westerns are attached, in some way, to this conflict of North and South.  While some of our stories may involve other wars (the Texas Revolution, the American Revolution, or the various Indian Wars), the true Trojan War of the American myth is the Civil one.  After all, not all Greek stories are based on the Trojan War, there are also the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars and the Ionian Revolt, to name a few.  (For example, there is the very popular and often mythologically-associated story of the 300 Spartans, made into a blockbuster called 300 back in 2006, which, by the way, is another example of a film where a team is assembled to accomplish a mission, like Seven Samurai).

While the finest example of a cowboy’s journey through the American version of both The Iliad and The Odyssey is John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers, where an ex-Civil War soldier goes through his own series of Odyssian tasks, I think that we too often forget that there is a different movie, one which might be the most obvious American mythological story of our Trojan War.  It is a movie about the Civil War, how it shook up everything that America was, and how it created a new, reborn nation with an all-new cultural identity.  It is a story of that baptism in blood and fire, and how the hero emerges from it.  Ever hear about a little movie called Gone With the Wind?

Yes.  Gone With the Wind.  Adjusted to inflation, the most successful film ever made; and not without competition, as classics like The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach came out the same year.  Gone With the Wind was based on the immensely popular Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, and helped to lay out the national mythology of the Civil War, the romantic South, the virtuous North, and the dream of American expansion into the untamed West.

The Samurai Trilogy was also based on a book: Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi.  This book is often referred to, by American literary historians, as “the Japanese Gone With the Wind.”

See how it’s all coming together?

For this reason, I think that The Samurai Trilogy deserves more credit than it is often awarded.  Now overshadowed by Seven Samurai (which, I’ll admit, is a better movie), The Samurai Trilogy is forgotten despite its precious role in bringing the samurai film to the world stage.

And, it’s not just important, it’s really good.

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Director Hiroshi Inagaki provides a profound storytelling ability with his cinematographic hand, giving us a full-color adventure when everyone else was still making movies in black-and-white.  Now, I have long said during the course of this blog that I believe black-and-white to be a superior medium (check out my analysis of the role of black-and-white in Citizen Kane for an example of this crusade), but that does not mean that color does not play its role.  While I’ve championed for black-and-white, I have also stated quite clearly that color is necessary to bring to light certain filmic elements.  Returning to Gone With the Wind, for example, Victor Fleming could have never shown the romantic sunsets or colorful garden scenes without Technicolor.  As if the substantive material of the trilogy and Gone With the Wind weren’t comparison enough, we see that the means for filming these two epics were quite similar, particularly when one views them in the context of their appeal to full-color and their use of the sound stage.  For the more relaxed (or casual) film-goer, the fact that the trilogy is in radiant full color may help temper some of the “foreignness” that often arises when watching older films in black-and-white.

Unfortunately for both of Gone With the Wind and The Samurai Trilogy, their use of sound stages and full color also prove to be their greatest weaknesses.  Where once these films were revered for their beauty, the aesthetics of their backdrops haven’t aged as well as some of their black-and-white contemporaries.  This does not mean they are not beautiful films, though.  Rather, they are beautiful for different reasons.

The real beauty of these films lies in their construction of the objects in the frame.  Gone With the Wind was filmed with a 1.37:1 ratio, which later went through copious amounts of cropping to make it into widescreen (one of those instances when things were better left alone…how often does a 2.22:1 ratio film have less presence on the screen?).  The Samurai Trilogy, though, was filmed in an even tighter square—1.33:1, the classic Hollywood ratio.  Inagaki’s brilliance, though, is shown in how he utilizes that film space.  By 1954, the classic aspect ratio was being fazed out, particularly in epic productions that preferred scope to intimacy.  But, The Samurai Trilogy was just as intimate, if not more so, then it was grandiose and far-stretching.  The very nature of the story lent itself to a tighter area, where the objects are stacked deep instead of wide.

Look at the beautiful shots in the final film, Duel at Ganryu Island, where Musashi and Otsu (the main female character) are on the bridge.  Or look at how Inagaki stacks Musashi and his nemesis, Sasaki Kojirō, in that final duel on the beach.  Surely, his use of depth of field is extraordinary and is the ultimate source of the movie’s aesthetic greatness.

The casual movie-goer may not notice these elements (be they aesthetics or mythology) at first, but that is why, I hope, these reviews help my readers understand how many factors there are in great cinema.  There is sublime depth not only in the story of a film, but also in its images.  Often these images and story-points coalesce: they are related to each other through the literary line of motifs.  For example, there is the character Otsu, one of those first women with whom Musashi Miyamoto (back when his name was Tazeko) tries to seek shelter in the opening scenes of the first movie.  At all times, she is a presence in the films, and under-girding supporting character that seems to move with Musashi at every key point in his development.  She is, like in the Western films, the virtuous woman whose love acts as the keystone to the character arch.  Watch how she is portrayed in the film, first in the dirt of her shack, and later, in by the clear, clean waters.  You see that not only is she a symbol, but also the images wherewith she is portrayed are symbols.  This is one of the beauties of great film: the ability to utilize concepts both aesthetic and literary to prove an artistic point.

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While The Samurai Trilogy is a profound artistic accomplishment, it is also incredibly accessible to the casual movie-goer.  Again, I repeat the same point that I made in the last paragraph: the casual movie-goer may not notice all the special mythological, literary, or filmic elements that make this (or any movie) so great, but that’s not all that important.  Most (not all, but most) of the truly great movies in the vast universe of cinema are great on multiple levels, not just one or two.  In the case of The Samurai Trilogy, the casual movie-goer may not notice the art (though I think that they will) but they will undoubtedly notice the fantastic pace, action and story.  Unlike the films of Quentin Tarantino, which sacrifice beauty for brutality, the films in this trilogy are laced with scene after scene of bloody violence, yet they are perpetually transcending, never stooping down to the level of slashing and stupidity.  I promise that you will be hard pressed to find more satisfying violence than the violence in this trilogy.  It is incredibly action-packed, classfully romantic, and well-acted.

The acting, I think is where it really separates itself from its contemporaries.  It has proven to be the best acting performance from Japan’s greatest actor, the inimitable Toshiro Mifune.  (I’m half tempted to put quotation marks around the word “inimitable”; that word is so frequently used to describe him that I fear I’m plagiarizing).  Earlier, I said that Musashi Miyamoto is Japan’s version of Davy Crockett.  In my page comparing the samurai film to the Western, I called Mifune the Japanese John Wayne.  Well, John Wayne played Davy Crockett, so it would only make sense for Mifune to play Musashi.  Mifune was a brilliant actor, able to balance humble self-depreciation with an almost slapstick comedy while at the same time turning in some of the finest dramatic performances in Japanese cinema.  On top of all that, he was also a superb swordsman.  One of the things that separated John Wayne from other stars of famous Westerns like Alan Ladd and Gary Cooper was that John Wayne was a cowboy, in his own way.  Well, the same went for Mifune.  He was a samurai, in so many ways.

In Musashi Miyamoto, Mifune provides his most diverse and dynamic acting performance.  He plays a young and reckless fighter who abandons his roots and sacrifices his patriotism.  He plays a frustrated prisoner who seeks truth only after being forced.  He plays an enlightened warrior who travails through Japan in search of self-actualization.  He plays a wizened sage who would be most famous, not for his swordsmanship, but for his art and literature.  And, through it all, he plays a man in love, who is loved, who finally, at the end of it all, chooses love.

I know that of all the movies that I’ve reviewed, this trilogy is probably the winner of the least-well-known.  Don’t let that stop you.  Watch Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy.  It’ll be four hours well spent.


5 thoughts on “The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

  1. Pingback: Cinema’s Best Trilogies | A Slice of Cake

  2. Pingback: Seven Samurai (1954) | A Slice of Cake

  3. Pingback: Rashomon (1950) | A Slice of Cake

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  5. Pingback: Gone With the Wind (1939) | A Slice of Cake

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