The problem with the Samurai trilogy is that its scope as a film does not match its quality as a story. It’s especially problematic because the subject is one of Japan’s most enduring heroes, legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who has been the subject of more movies, TV shows, books and comics than I can enumerate here without running out of disk space. The three films in the Samurai cycle run long, almost five hours in total, but they never reach all that deep, nor rise all that high.
I understand that for many people this will not be a mortal sin, and that (so to speak) any samurai movie may be better than no samurai movie at all. Fair enough, but for me the Samurai trilogy comes off as a minor affair, terribly hidebound and stodgy, redeemed from obscurity mostly because of Toshiro Mifune’s inspired performance. It’s worth it to see him, but only if you have already worked your way through many of his other, better films first and have a few hours to kill.
Samurai is actually a loose adaptation of probably the most commercially successful fictionalization of Musashi’s life. Called Musashi, it was written by best-selling author Eiji Yoshikawa in the late Forties and serialized in weekly installments over a period of five years in a syndicated newspaper column. Millions of copies of the story sold in Japan alone, an English-language translation still sells briskly elsewhere, and a recent manga adaptation of the story has also become a best-seller. Since facts about Musashi’s life were at the time hard to come by, Yoshikawa extrapolated freely, and while some of his ideas seem ludicrous (he made Musashi’s greatest opponent, Sasaki Kojiro, into a former childhood enemy—a touch not used in the movie), the book is undeniably entertaining.
The movie seizes on several of the most important plot threads from the book, condenses them drastically, and breaks Musashi’s life into three basic movements: his wild youth, his temperance and troubled love for different women, and his ultimate mastery of his art. Musashi—originally Takezo—volunteers to join the Shogun’s armies to fight and maybe come home a hero. He talks his friend Matahachi into joining up as well, but when they take cover at a farm house where two women survive by stripping dead samurai of their armor and weapons, they part ways viciously.
Takezo tries to get back home to bring word to Matatachi’s fiancée, Otsu, but is branded a criminal and hunted. He’s spared when a local Buddhist monk takes pity on him and tries to civilize him through what amounts of a program of medieval tough-love. He may be a good fighter, but he’s still an amoral creature: “You’re too strong,” one of his mentors warns him, and so his journey is towards learning to yield as well as dominate. Most of the second half of the trilogy is taken up with his journey towards the most famous duel of his life, his battle with Kojiro Sasaki at Ganryu Island, and the movie tries to inject additional drama by having Kojiro be a competitor for Otsu’s affections instead of simply a strong opponent.
Much of the struggle that Musashi faces is detailed through the galaxy of characters that surround him, with Otsu being one of the most significant. What the movie does not do, however, is give anyone except Musashi more than a token attempt at a personality or motives: they exist almost entirely as foils. Maybe this is inevitable, given the level of myth-making in the film, but it seriously hampers its power as drama. This becomes a big problem in the second film, where despite the duels and sword-fights there’s so little dynamism to the story that it becomes inert. The best moments become little ones, as when a sword-polisher refuses to work on Musashi’s weapon on the grounds that it’s being wielded by a brute killer. The self-proclaimed big moments, as when Musashi and Otsu attempt reconciliation, fall completely flat.
What makes the films worth watching at all? Toshiro Mifune. He seemed incapable of turning in a bad performance, or at least an uninteresting one, even when the material he was given was nothing special. We believe in the character—yes, both when he’s throwing a fit and when he’s somber and introspective, no mean feat for an actor whose main calling card was his frenzied passions. He also wields his sword convincingly (an indispensable element in a movie like this) and holds himself back to good effect when the other cast members are shamelessly over-emoting. There are some other fine cast members—I liked Koji Tsuruta as the sinster, vaguely effeminate Kojiro—but it’s far and away Mifune’s show.
When the camera’s not pointed at Mifune, however, the story falls asleep. There’s a good deal of clumsy cross-cutting between parallel action, which deadens the tension instead of heightening it. One of the most annoying examples of this is a depiction of one of Musashi’s most famous duels—one man against fifty in a rice field—that has all the blood drained out of it no thanks to the camera remaining stolidly at a distance. Worse, Inagaki constantly switches back to Otsu and her priest friend following nearby and wringing their hands, affirming ten times what a better movie would only need to state once. The whole movie suffers from the same level of emotional overkill, underscoring and emphasizing instead of allowing the story to tell itself.
I am not, I would hope, a snob for modernism. I understand that every movie is a product of its era, both good and bad, and that filmmakers do the best they can at a given moment. That said, there is a bigger picture: the Samurai trilogy came out during the same era of filmmaking in Japan that produced many of Kurosawa’s best films, Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy, and so on. It only stacks up against them by dint of the scope of its ambition and its pedigree (read: Mifune), not the quality of its filmmaking. It’s worth seeing if you like him, or if you are curious about the evolution of such films, but it simply doesn’t stand on its own.
Musashi’s legend has been filmed countless times before. In fact, Inagaki himself made a silent version that didn’t survive; this color and sound version is, in a sense, a remake with better technology and broader storytelling. The Japanese TV network NHK produced a more recent and far more faithful version of the Yoshikawa adaptation in 26 episodes. By all accounts it’s far better than this—not just more involved, but more involving, better acted, and without a good deal of the sodden sentiment that hangs far too heavy for modern viewers. The best films seem timeless, but the Samurai trilogy hit its shelf life decades ago, sadly.
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