With remarkable narrative force and a full, varied emotional landscape, Hiroshi Inagaki found a Betty of a story in which to ponder violence, the peculiarities of affection, and the nature of wisdom in the Samurai trilogy. Released over a three-year period and garnering countless accolades, not the least of which being the eighth Best Foreign Film Oscar, the Samurai trilogy depicts the ascension of the legendary ronin Musashi Miyamoto, here played with his own inimitable fury (both inward and outward) by Toshirô Mifune, from confused but talented youth to master samurai. It's a story that, in native Japan, has been as augmented and fictionalized in pop art as the lives of Jesse James or Wyatt Earp have been here, but Inagaki, over the span of five hours, finds unimpeachable truths about the pitfalls and promises of the popular notion of honor in the story that overshadow its dubious factuality.
The notion of a protracted, predictable origin story is also defamiliarized here, as we meet Miyamoto, in Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, as a crazed, headstrong loner, accompanied only by Matahachi (the great Rentaro Mikuni, who portrayed Miyamoto in Yasuo Kahoto's earlier adaptation), a brave but weak-willed fighter from his village. Inagaki uses the storied battle of Sekigahara to bring out the basest fears and impulses of his two leads—one an erratic coward, the other an immensely talented but restless hero—as they escape the battlefield merely wounded and become boarders with Oko and Akemi (Mitsuko Mito and Mariko Okado), a mother and daughter tandem of grave robbers.
It's telling of the scope that Inagaki, who co-wrote all three films with Tokuhei Wakao, strives for here that Akemi eventually reveals herself to be a lynchpin to the story. Initially, she's a venomous flirt who helps her mother manipulate dumb, weak Matahachi into abandoning his friend and his wife to be, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). This abandonment is assumed as murder by Miyamoto and Matahachi's village, and Miyamoto becomes an enemy to a variety of characters, each expressing their own deep-seeded prejudices and allegiances to rigid traditions, including a gleefully sadistic priest and Osugi, Matahachi's mother. But it's this ambivalent priest who ultimately forces Miyamoto to face his violent internal self, locking him in a room full of philosophical texts indefinitely.
By the time the second installment, Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, begins, Miyamoto's reputation has grown and he seems more self-possessed, but he remains emotionally impotent, never more so than with women. Embroiled in an escalating love triangle with Otsu and Akemi, this wiser Miyamoto remains literally and metaphorically impotent when it comes to physical intimacy. Indeed, he chooses a complete knowledge of the self and the nature of being before physical closeness; he can say "I love you" to Otsu, but can't hold a woman tightly in his arms. And yet, Inagaki stresses the importance of the wisdom of society, of individuals like priests, courtesans and tradesmen, over those untouchable philosophies of the spiritual world. In many ways, the Samurai trilogy is a challenging treatise on the inner machinations of democracy, and the importance of balancing self-assuredness and education with a rigorous social persona.
In this, the trilogy also speaks to the process of art, specifically the struggle between personal reflection and expression, and time-tested structures and genres that can be enjoyed by the masses; the prolific Inagaki's personal experience and weight in the film is palpable from the first film on. Not surprisingly, despite its epic length, the trilogy is a modern acme of storytelling, paced and shot with a robust blend of rumination and startling, clashing action. Both come into play at the tremendous eponymous climax of Duel at Ichijoji Temple, in which Moyimata must face an ambush of 80 warriors, a prelude to the quick but rewarding duel with the master who has raped and staked his claim on Akemi.
Helped immeasurably by Okada's superb performance, Akemi becomes a character as emotionally dense and rewarding as Miyamoto in Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island. Likewise, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsurata), a formidable samurai as fabled as Miyamoto, who largely remains at the periphery in Duel at Ichijoji Temple, becomes Miyamoto's sole worthy rival in the final installment. Sasaki and Miyamoto are offered the same job, as a teacher for a master and his school, and Miyamoto's hobbled romance with Otsu, dueling with Akemi's desperate obsession with him, enters a somber, peculiarly violent phase, following her sudden rejection of him at the end of Duel at Ichijoji Temple. Inagaki, however, stresses neither the thrill of this romance finally being realized, nor the promise of the final duel, but rather the eerie calm of realizing inner peace.
There are dark moments witnessed, chiefly the burning and pillaging of a small village where Miyamoto and his two students live and farm, set off by Akemi's ultimate betrayal, but Inagaki's most lacerating image is one of near-silence. Being rowed back home after facing Sasaki, Miyamoto comes to the realization that the self-realization and awareness that he's sought out has also left him totally, devastatingly alone; now that he's faced his only real match, he knows that there's no challenge left.
The Samurai trilogy, not unlike the very best of John Ford's work, is continuously returning to the flawed mythologies and misconceptions of its chosen archetypes and genre, even as it takes the most attentive care to detail the choice tenants of samurai folklore. Portraying the traditional quest for honor and self-possession as a noble pursuit that can so easily become one's own funeral pyre, The Samurai trilogy attains timelessness by finding a perfectly tuned balance between the glories of the past and the great hindsight of the present, the unmistakable, formidable poise and wisdom that comes from disciplined practice and honor, and the devastating irony that invariably follows when one finds what one is seeking.
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Criterion has taken considerable steps to update the look of the Samurai trilogy from their original DVD release of these films. The improvements are easy to see: colors are more pronounced and bold; the clarity of the image is consistently stunning; black levels are lovely and inky. The battle of Sekigahara, with its wide compositions of running soldiers through tall green blades of grass, is a sight to behold especially. And if the audio, the original LPCM Mono, isn't as admirable, it's still a largely engaging and clear mix, with dialogue crisp and out front and wild sound and music in back.
The "On Musashi Miyamoto" featurettes are the sole extras afforded here, but they are, in a way, key to the film's themes of truth and myth. Recorded in 2012, translator and historian William Scott Wilson's interview goes over many of the events that occur in the films and how they correlate to Miyamoto's real life. It's enlightening and interesting, but what's missing is any sense of how Hiroshi Inagaki considered these things during the conception and production of the trilogy. A solid essay by Stephen Prince on the film in the booklet helps, but not enough. Trailers are also included.
Criterion has treated the transfer of this, one of their first home-video properties, to Blu-ray with unerring attention to detail, if not exactly an outpouring of extras.