Appreciation: Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Those looking for an action-packed saga that takes place a long time ago and far, far away need search no further.

Appreciation: Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Photo: The Criterion Collection

Those looking for an action-packed saga that takes place a long time ago and far, far away need search no further. Gather round Star Wars freaks and Tolkien geeks, and hear about a tale of heroic proportions. Hear about a trilogy whose third part doesn’t suck. Hear about Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic Samurai trilogy, which comprises Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). These three films are examples of straightforward storytelling at its finest. There are enough heroic archetypes in this trilogy to make Joseph Campbell’s head spin. The author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces could write several volumes with pages of endnotes on these films. This article, the first of three, is about part one of the trilogy.

Musashi Miyamoto was the greatest samurai of Japan. His signature was a two-sword fighting technique and a raw, animal vitality that was ferocious. His deeds were renowned. His gusto was enormous. He fought all challengers, defeated entire schools, caught flies with chopsticks, and loved one woman. But before he was given the name Musashi, he was Takezo the hunted, nicknamed “the lawless one” by his relatives.

After the great Battle of Sekigahara ushered in the Tokugawa period that would last 300 years, the victorious Ieyasu Tokugawa had to consolidate his power. Notices were posted in all the opposing villages that required all travelers to register at checkpoints. It was at one of these checkpoints, the one at the gate for entering Miyamoto, that Tekezo ignored the sentries and pressed on through, wounding several guards in the process. The new local magistrate controlling Miyamoto village could not let this transgression stand and demanded a crackdown. Everyone in Tekezo’s home village was forced to help find him. The hunt was on for Tekezo, who was hiding out in the hills above the village, living on berries and nearly starving. Hundreds of villagers were made to form lines that extended across whole hillsides; they beat sticks and walked through the woods as if they were searching for a fierce tiger. Any hapless villager who came across Tekezo was in for a sometimes fatal beating from his wooden sword. When these tactics for capturing “the lawless one” failed, the magistrate had Tekezo’s relatives arrested.

It was up to one wise man, the monk Takuan Osho, to end this senselessness. He took it upon himself. Only he could capture “the lawless one” and bring Tekezo to his true senses. Takuan hiked with his knapsack up into the hills followed by the long suffering Otsu, an orphan girl who was in love with Takezo. It was a nighttime fire, a warm pot of grub, and the soft music from Otsu’s flute that lured the ruffian from out of the darkness. After being shown some initial kindness, Takezo broke down and cried; his guilt and shame consumed him. It was then that Takuan berated him severely. He grabbed the lawless one by the scruff of his neck; struck blows upon him; tied him up and marched him into Miyamoto. Next Takuan, a historically prominent priest, used his political influence to convince the magistrate to let him keep Takezo under his care. The monk suspended Takezo from a very tall tree and left him there for days to teach him a lesson. The villagers rebuked him and kids threw stones. And still Takezo the lawless fought, cursed, kicked at the air, and spat back in defiance.The veteran director Hiroshi Inagaki shows us how all this came to pass—how this beast of a man (described as “too strong” by more than one character) became an outlaw—how he was eventually tamed—the painstaking trials and ordeals—the long journey that forged his character. It’s all done in a classic storytelling style that is reminiscent of John Ford. Quite a lot happens during the first film’s 93 minutes. Musashi is a legendary popular character familiar to all Japanese school children. Inagaki’s trilogy is based on a famous novel by Eiji Yoshikawa that was considered the Gone with the Wind of Japan. If I am spending a lot of time recounting the plot of this first installment, it is so my readers will have a firm grounding for parts 2 and 3. After part 1 you will be hooked, I assure you. The movie begins on the eve of a great battle; the year is 1600; the place: Miyamoto village.

Young Takezo (Toshirô Mifune) is perched atop a large, very old tree. He watches as the warlord Toyotomi’s Army of the West moves with great pomp through the little village. He looks at the army and is impressed with what he sees. Takezo wants to go to war and become a samurai like his late father before him. Maybe the resounding fame of his daring deeds would spread, would get back to Miyamoto and counter his status as an orphaned troublemaker. He tries to entice his best friend, Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), to join him. But Matahatchi hems and haws; his only problem: he is engaged to Otsu. Takezo nonetheless determines to seek his fortune alone. Just then, Otsu, the young, pretty orphan, chastises the two dreamers for climbing trees. Takezo climbs down quickly, with little care. Matahachi is considerably less agile than Takezo in his descent.

Against a burnished, magic hour sky, Otsu begs Matahachi not to leave her to go to war, but then reluctantly promises to wait for him. The next morning Takezo begins his journey and is surprised to see Matahachi. The two friends rejoice in each other’s company as they make their way towards adventure.

Their adventure quickly proves disillusioning. Not only are they not samurai, they are common pike-men digging trenches on the rain-stricken battlefield of Sekigahara. More still: they have chosen the wrong side. They Armies of the West have been routed. Against the tide of a full retreat, an enraged Takezo once again entices Matahachi to put on his armor and attack against the advancing Tokugawan army. It is a heroic but futile effort. When it is all over, they regain consciousness and find themselves wounded. They lay on the ground; hidden amid a dark sea of corpses as the victorious Army of the East hunts for stragglers. The two look for refuge, making their way, best they can, across wildly strewn battlefields and through bogs haunted by the dead. A light from a lone hut in the distance acts as a beacon. Upon reaching it, they both collapse from hunger.

Two months pass. The two friends have been nursed back to health by the hut’s owners, Oko and her beautiful daughter Akemi, who wears little bells that jingle wherever she goes. Mother and daughter supplement their meager income by stripping dead samurai of their belongings. A recovering Matahachi pines for Otsu, and subsequently makes a pass at Akemi, but she’s more attracted to Takezo. She prefers a strong horse. When brigands threaten to come and steal their loot, Oko sends Akemi and Matahachi off packing to hide the treasure in a secret place, but not before Takezo spies and takes from the loot a wooden sword for which he’ll find much use. He and Oko stay behind to confront the thieves.

Seven of the brigands arrive, and Takezo wounds three and kills at least one before they flee. This feat of martial skill wins Oko’s affection; she, too, likes a strong horse. Takezo is put off by her advances. Still in a flushed rage from his recent fight, he runs out hacking at bushes and then thrashes in a stream, fighting the water like it is the enemy. When Akemi and Matahachi return, a spurned Oko betrays Takezo by lying. She tells them that Takezo tried to rape her and then ran away. Here the story splits in two directions. Oko, Akemi, and Matahachi start a journey towards Kyoto, while Takezo roams the wilderness alone and rejected (and soon, as I’ve already mentioned, to be wanted by the law and hunted like a wild beast after he returns to Miyamoto to tell Otsu about Matahachi).

Musashi Miyamoto represents one man’s quest for knowledge and truth. He must seek out his inner humanity. When Takezo has finished his new Lord’s requirements near the end of the film and receives the samurai name Musashi Miyamoto, his restless nature still isn’t satisfied. Even after three years of formal training he won’t consider himself a true samurai until he travels the world, refines his instincts, and sharpens his skills as a warrior. He is out of sync with Nature because he is a force of nature himself. He must harmonize with Nature to become the ultimate warrior; something he finally achieves at the climax of episode 3.

Inagaki uses Nature in a way that few western directors do. He routinely inserts shots—a dead tree, a flowing stream, a lightning flash—to bridge scenes and to foreground that which is continuous in the background. The method is important but unobtrusive. It is as if the living force talked about in Star Wars was made visible. The story of Musashi is the story of a man synchronizing himself with this natural force. The topography on the island of Japan is also wonderfully diverse. They have everything: mountains, flowing streams, forests, plains, and spectacular waterfalls. It almost feels like George Lucas made whole planets just out of the varied locations shown in this trilogy.

The cast of Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto is uniformly excellent. Toshirô Mifune’s role is a cousin to the character he played in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai the same year. Takezo is just as wild as Kikuchiyo from that film, but not as zany. Mifune is an intensely physical actor from his head to his toes. Watching him is like watching James Cagney in that you never catch him “acting.” He performs almost faster than the human eye can detect. With Cagney and Mifune, the viewer is always playing a game of catch up. They both have an existence that is whole and complete on the screen.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu is endearing in her faithfulness and patience. Just don’t watch her with a modern Japanese woman, because she will doubtless groan at and mock Otsu’s old-fashioned ways. Mariko Okada is fetching as Akemi, but in a way that makes us appropriately wary. In Oko (Mitsuko Mito), Akemi’s mother, we see a woman conniving in her ways due to wounded experience. Kuroemon Onoe’s priest Takuan is Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Yoda rolled into one. Outward he is round and jolly; inward he is sagely stern. He is the one that finally cages the wild beast in a small room in Himeji Castle and leaves him trapped with the volumes of books that Takezo will need to begin his moral training.

By the end of the movie, Otsu is left standing on Hanada bridge, prepared to wait however long it takes for the man who absconded with her heart. That man is now the samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Composer Ikuma Dan’s heroic score crescendos and we follow the lone warrior as he walks into the distance, ready to meet any challenge and confront his fate.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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