DVD Review of
The Samurai Trilogy
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/29/09
Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1954-1956 three part color film, The Samurai Trilogy, is unlike many filmic trilogies for the very fact that it is, indeed, one exactly five hour long film, and not three separate linked films, for the first two films have no real endings. In this way it has much in common with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. However, whereas those three are separate films, more or less, their source work is not. Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book is often printed in three separate volumes, but it is one work. This three part film is also derived from one singular literary work, from Eiji Yoshikawa’s 1935 novel Musashi, loosely based upon the real life 17th Century Japanese folk hero, the samurai Musashi Miyamoto, who penned a classic book called The Book Of Five Rings. That all stated, the landscapes of Japan and sheer numbers of extras in this film are far more impressive, visually, than the CG crap that the Lord Of The Rings films spewed. Overall, The Samurai Trilogy is a good film, but while the narrative story gets better and tighter with each succeeding film, the visual quality of each succeeding film worsens on The Criterion Collection’s three disks, both in the original film stock and the poor transfers.
While the film is basically pulp fiction, a good melodrama (as compared to the real drama presented in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa), so therefore the screenplay by Inagaki, Hideji Hojo, and Tokuhei Wakao need only be passable, the cinematography by Kazuo Yamada is decidedly hit and miss. First, despite the flaws on the transfers of the films (which go from detailed and unsmeared clarity, surpassing Technicolor, in the first film to often blanched out and unwatchable by the third film), the fact is that Inagaki does far too much day for night filtering in too many scenes. This muddies the palette, and this is made worse by the increased use of rather poorly constructed stage sets in the final two films, whereas the first film is shot almost entirely on location. The lone upside is that in many scenes (location and stage) there is fine use made of fog, which flattens the visual perspective and makes many scenes look like the flattened perspective drawings that abound in the Orient, a nice, subtle recapitulation of effect on mis-en-scene. The music by Ikuma Dan shows a strong influence of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood melodrama, especially that used in serial films. And, while Inagaki was a big name director, there simply is not that great of an ‘imprint’ one feels on this film. In short, these films suggest that he was a good, serviceable studio director, not an auteur.
The tale told within the films is rather simple. We follow the life of a wild tempered country youth named Takezo on his decade or so long path to become the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Several things stand out: first, the Takezo character is remarkably like the character that the film’s star, Toshiro Mifune, played in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the same year as the first film Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, and second, the fact that Takezo rises to embrace a social name not his is echoed, surprisingly, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1974 film, Barry Lyndon, another film about scheming and the search for money, fame, and power, set against the backdrop of duels based on ‘honor.’ The first film, which won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, sees Takezo and his buddy, Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), two lazy farm boys, go to war, then hiding out after being on the losing side of a battle. They bivouac for months with a war widow, Oko (Mitsuko Mito), and her daughter, Akemi (Mariko Okada), and both women fall for Takezo. The first half of the first film feels almost like a ‘buddy film,’ until Matahachi and Takezo split up. Matahachi, who left behind his fiancée, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), for war (causing her to hate Takezo), ends up marrying the widow, whose daughter ends up a courtesan, in Kyoto, as Takezo returns to their village, to tell his friend’s mother and fiancée of his fate, but for reasons never made explicit, is seen as a threat. The villagers turn on him for no reason, and force him to become an outlaw. The film presents this with no mitigation, whereas, in looking up the novel, Takezo’s return to the village has to do with an imprisoned sister that makes no appearance in the film. If so, this is a good example of where a better screen adaptation could have helped make the narrative more believable, as well as deepened the character Mifune essays. In the film, it is his extended family that is detained, and finally he is captured by a Buddhist priest, Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), and strung up high to dangle from a tree, until Otsu saves him. He and Otsu develop a bond as they run, but are recaptured. She is taken away to a castle, and he is locked in a room by Takuan, who believes he will be a good student to train to be a samurai. By film’s end, some years have passed, and Takezo, now Musashi, is ready for more training, although Otsu now love shim. She tells him to wait at a bridge, so she can run away with him. When she returns, he is gone, having carved that he will return, and asking her forgiveness. This film is the shortest, at 93 minutes, while the second film runs 103 minutes. It is Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple, and it has the least involving plot. Basically, after a rather mundane stagebound set fight, Musashi spends the rest of the film warding off the cowardly attacks of a school of would be samurai, the Yoshioka fencing school, and avoids trying to be pinned down in commitment to the two women who love him, Akemi and Otsu, who soon discover they are rivals. Musashi also picks up a young sidekick, Jotaro (Kenjin Iida), as well as an adversary who will haunt him throughout this and the final film: Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), a young samurai who is both envious of Musashi’s growing fame, and confident that he is the lone man in Japan who can defeat him in a duel. This film is both the most violent, as well as the least involving of the three. By this film’s end, Musashi again hits the road, as Otsu must wait some more. This film also contains some badly animated geese flying overhead, and numerous splotches, which only increase n the final film. That final, and longest, film, Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island, at 104 minutes in length, has the clearest story line, and the most humor, but also closely resembles the plot of Seven Samurai, although a vastly inferior version of it. Musashi retreats from a battle with Kojiro Sasaki, and becomes a farmer- the very task he loathed in his youth, so much he left it for war. There, he ends up the de facto guardian of a village plagued by attacks from brigands. Musashi saves the village, after Akemi is forced into betraying it as a pawn in a plot hatched by Kojiro, to lure Musashi back to the duel he promised to have, a year after he left Kojiro waiting. Akemi, though, dies while saving Otsu. The final battle between Kojiro and Musashi, on Ganryu Island, is symbolic, but actually quite brief. The film ends with Musashi’s helper rowing him back to the mainland, where he has promised to marry Otsu.
As one can tell, there is little of the deeper emotion and symbolism present in period films like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Rashomon, nor even in Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff. In fact, in Googling about, the critical cliché that most critics seem to fall back upon is calling the film’s source novel the Gone With The Wind of Japan. Well, the film is significantly superior than the antebellum tale that became the most popular film worldwide, but one has to wonder what one of the real masters of Japanese cinema would have done with this material. One can imagine Kurosawa adding some depth, and taking the film to new technical heights, whereas Mizoguchi would have likely peered far deeper into what drives Musashi. The plain fact is that we really get little of the main character’s interior life- despite watching what seems to be external growth, in terms of maturity, and the two main female characters, Akemi and Otsu, are rather cardboard- especially in scenes where they fawningly supplicate to Musashi, although their portrayers were fine looking women.
As for the DVD package? All three films come in their separate cases, each with an essay by film historian Bruce Eder, and trailers. That’s it. No audio commentary, and no featurettes. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with optional English subtitles. There is no English language dubbed track, and the subtitles, while white on color, still point out Criterion’s biggest flaw- the lack of easily readable subtitle fonts. That the three films were the 14th, 15th, and 16th Criterion DVD releases explains their package’s skimpiness, but here’s hoping the trilogy is re-released with commentaries and an improved and cleaned up transfer because, while not great art, they are essential films in the history of an important filmic subgenre.
If nothing else, this film, The Samurai Trilogy, can be seen as a sort of training ground for the great Toshiro Mifune to try out and perfect a wide range of acting styles and characters within character that he would unleash on the film lovers of the world throughout the rest of his career, be it in his films with Kurosawa, or long after. And, if a film can be said to have allowed something like that to happen, then its merits are certainly more than its flaws, melodramatic or not. But, even on top of that, a film like this acts as a sort of entrée into the greater and deeper art put out by the aforementioned masters, and allows those great works of art to be more greatly appreciated, for contrast can clarify what the mists of the ineffable do not. In such a spirit, thank you sensei Inagaki.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]
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