Musashi Miyamoto is a Japanese folk hero in the same way that Daniel Boone is an American one. Dozens of legends have sprung up around this seminal Japanese warrior, and Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy offers audiences three elaborate historical fictions with the famous samurai at their center. Played by the charismatic Japanese superstar Toshiro Mifune, Musashi emerges as a very different type of samurai icon than the ones Mifune played for Akira Kurosawa. The three films Musashi Miyamot, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel at Ganryu Island offer a wonderfully sprawling and entertaining saga of this seventeenth century Japanese warrior.
The Samurai Trilogy (Blu-ray)
Musashi Miyamoto/Duel at Ichijoji Temple/Duel at Ganryu Island
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 93/103/104 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 69.95
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Review Date: June 23, 2012
Musashi Miyamoto – 4.5/5
Childhood friends Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) and Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) go off to fight in a civil war in 1600 A.D. but find themselves on the losing side. Takezo, who’s always been hot-tempered and reckless, refuses to be taken prisoner and cuts a swath through the victorious soldiers taking his friend with him. They’re taken in by widow Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi) and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada) who both become entranced by Takezo’s overwhelming machismo, and their overtures to him drive him back home leaving the weak Matahachi at their mercy. Meanwhile, back home, Takezo’s savagery as a warrior has become widely known, and the townspeople attempt to take him prisoner, but he’s too wily for them and remains at liberty until the soft spoken priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) convinces him that his outer struggles could be conquered by finding inner peace. Matahachi’s former fiancé Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) finds herself falling for Takezo who returns the feelings but determines he’ll become a real samurai by going on a spiritual quest that can’t include Otsu.
Director Hiroshi Inagaki collaborated with Tokuhei Wakao to fashion the script for the trilogy incorporating strands from Eiji Yoshikawa’s writings on the legendary samurai but incorporating plenty of romantic angst for the characters with the invention of several female characters. Despite their lustful overtures, all of the film’s best segments involve the fights and introspective musings involving Takezo who slowly transforms into Musashi Miyamoto. Many of the fight sequences take place in the deep shadows of twilight or within darkened rooms thus increasing their savagery in our mind’s eye. (There is actually very little blood shown in any of the movies.) Toshiro Mifune’s Takezo is much more emotional here than in his Kurosawa samurai pictures, and his director puts him through the physical wringer not only with the exhausting battles but by having him climb steep hills carrying other characters and dangling for days from a tall tree suspended by only a rope. Rentaro Mikuni is appropriately weak and lovesick for most of the film, and Kuroemon Onoe’s priest carries much power despite his quiet demeanor and soft words. This unusual, more solidly emotional samurai epic filmed in color garnered this movie an Oscar for the outstanding foreign language feature for 1955.
Duel at Ichijoji Temple – 3.5/5
Four years have gone by and Musashi’s (Toshiro Mifune) fame has grown exponentially. So great is his prowess that the Yoshioka School has dedicated itself to bringing him down. Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihiko Hirata) has a special interest in wanting to kill Musashi since the girl he loves Akemi (Mariko Okada) cannot bring herself to love anyone but Musashi. Musashi’s old love Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) is also still pining for him, but even though he’s been told he can’t become a worthy samurai without some affection in his life, Musashi won’t allow himself to fall under the spell of any woman, that is, until the courtesan Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure) manages to momentarily get his attention. But there is still that final showdown with Yoshioka to face, and little does Musashi know that the school is planning to ambush him on his way to his duel with his rival.
The second film in the trilogy is the least interesting of the trio due mainly to the amount of time the movie spends exploring the (uninteresting) love quadrangle Musashi finds himself reluctantly a part of. The melodrama of the weeping, prostrated ladies consumed with passions that aren’t getting satisfied doesn’t make for very inviting viewing, and the movie also seems additionally padded with a couple of musical performances that seem rather unnecessary. The climactic ambush/fight scene, shot in an atmospheric, misty dawn, is unquestionably the film’s high point. Mifune is gruffer and more poker-faced in this outing, and his primary adversary in this one (Akihiko Hirata’s Seijuro) doesn’t really disseminate much of a threat. Musashi’s foil for the third film is neatly set up by director Inagaki – Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) who does command the screen and makes one eager to see the two go at it in the third film in the series.
Duel at Ganryu Island – 4/5
Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) is now ready to face off against the only swordsman in Japan he feels is his equal, but Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) feels his training is not yet complete and requests one additional year in which to prepare himself mentally for their inevitable meeting. During that year, Sasaki becomes the ronin for the Gion clan. Musashi, on the other hand, finds a village that is being pillaged by bandits, chases them away, and then begins farming the land. His two old loves, however, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) and Akemi (Mariko Okada) cannot accept his past rejection of them and do all in their power win his love before he leaves for his duel to the death with Sasaki.
Inagaki seems to have taken special pains to make this entry the most pictorially ravishing of the three movies. It begins with startling images of sparkling waterfalls as we are once again introduced to the film’s antagonist Sasaki, and throughout there are set pieces which make wonderful use of the color camera at the filmmakers’ disposal (the bandits’ raid on the village as it burns to the ground is certainly arresting). And, of course, the climactic showdown between the two adversaries, the moment viewers have been waiting for throughout the entire film, is saved for the film’s final seven minutes, staged against the backdrop of a brilliant orange sunset and presented with a minimum of action and a maximum of tension. Once again, Mifune is magnificent even if he has less to do in this film than in the previous ones, and we’re once again forced to endure tearful protestations of love from both women who are so obsessed with Musashi that they can’t fathom that his heart has long since been given to the sword and not to the flesh.
Musashi Miyamoto – 4.5/5
All of the films are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and feature 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The transfers are mostly stunning in their sharpness, and the Eastmancolor is crisp and very appealing (blues tend to be a trifle weak) with realistic flesh tones. Black levels are a bit cloudy and indistinct, but the contrast has been dialed in so perfectly that the image simply sparkles. The films have been divided into 20, 23, and 23 chapters respectively.
Duel at Ichijoji Temple – 3.5/5
The notes in the enclosed booklet allude to some problematic Eastmancolor artifacts, and they’re on display early on in the film during the first fight scene with color timing variations from blue to green that are very distracting. Though much of the film is as striking as its predecessor, sharpness isn’t always as solid as it was in the earlier movie, and color isn’t quite as eye-catching.
Duel at Ganryu Island – 4/5
The Eastmancolor is more stable in this film than in the previous one, but there are definitely some scenes that feature color fading and less impressive sharpness than in the original. Black levels continue to be a bit cloudy and crushing in the matter of shadow detail. The image is clean, however, and free from age-related artifacts.
All films – 4/5
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix has more heft and resilience than one might expect for films of this age. Some of the dialogue has been post synched, but it has been more skillfully edited with the music and sound effects than is often the case, and Ikuma Dan’s stirring music makes a great impression in all of the movies. Engineers have done a really fine job eliminating the most distracting age-related audio artifacts offering up a very smooth mono track. Only occasionally will the listener note some soft hiss present.
Each of the films has a video analysis by film expert William Scott Wilson. He explains in each one which parts of the story being told were factual and which were fictional. These 1080p featurettes respectively run 8 ¾, 7 ¼, and 9 ¾ minutes each.
The theatrical trailers for each movie are presented in 1080i and run 2 ¾, 3 ¾, and 3 ¼ minutes each.
The enclosed 25-page booklet includes the chapter menus, the cast and crew lists, cinema professor Stephen Prince’s essay on the three films, and author William Scott Wilson’s discussion of The Book of Five Rings which designates the principles of samurai swordsmanship and spiritualism.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
The Samurai Trilogy of films by Hiroshi Inagaki are not as well known as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies which starred Toshiro Mifune, but they certainly warrant a look. Though the melodrama present may be something of a turn off especially during the second and third films in the series, the solid acting, the compelling story, and the unquestioned artistry of the star of the films shine brightly even today. Recommended!