The Samurai Trilogy’s Interior Epic
Published on July 22nd, 2012 | by Will Dodson0
Hiroshi Inagaki’s “The Samurai Trilogy” is not only a bildungsroman of legendary real-life samurai Musashi Miyamoto, but also one of three films released by Toho in 1954 that cemented Japan’s status in world cinema, particularly for Western audiences. The other two were “Seven Samurai” and “Godzilla.” Inagaki’s “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award the following year, and Toho released “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” and “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” in 1955 and 1956.
The trilogy mythologizes the already mythical life of Japan’s most famous historical samurai (or ronin, a masterless swordsman, to be more precise), Musashi Miyamoto. Miyamoto lived in 16th and 17th century Japan, and earned renown for his swordsmanship—he was never beaten in a duel—as well as his artistic and literary achievements. His “The Book of Five Rings” remains an influential work of philosophy and strategy today. Stephen Prince, in his essay on the films included in Criterion’s new Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD release, notes that Inagaki’s trilogy is actually a remake of an earlier trilogy of Musashi Miyamoto films Inagaki had made in the 1940s. In fact, Miyamoto appears as a character in several films before and after “The Samurai Trilogy.” This trilogy adapts the popular novel “Musashi,” by Eiji Yoshikawa, and a play based on that novel. The real Musashi Miyamoto may or may not be represented accurately, but the point is that Miyamoto, like legendary figures in all cultures (Davy Crockett or Wyatt Earp may be familiar corollaries, perhaps), is something of a cipher through which artists work out certain values or cultural problems.
The plots of the three films are deceptively simple. Each hinges on one factual detail of Miyamoto’s life, and embellishes from there. In “Samurai I,” Takezo (Miyamoto’s given name) is a wild youth, hungry for martial glory, and eagerly leaves his village to go to war. He fights for the losing side, returns home, becomes an outlaw, and endures a series of humiliations that he desperately resists. Eventually he sublimates his will to the discipline of a Zen priest, receives the samurai name “Musashi Miyamoto,” and goes wandering to follow the way of the sword. “Samurai II” portrays a more mature but still proud Miyamoto. He has tempered his impulses but still seeks glory and goads others to fight him, specifically the entire Yoshioka clan and its swordsman school. By the time of “Samurai III,” Miyamoto has realized that the way of the sword is not duels and glory but a merging of body, spirit, and the world. He learns, he says, “As we plow, we will learn the way of the sword.” He learns the glory of the plow, the victory of growing food from barren land, the value of living. Nevertheless, he is compelled to a final duel with Kojiro Sasaki, another powerful ronin, who has followed Miyamoto’s renown for years in preparation for the ultimate battle for ultimate renown.
True to life, it is the people surrounding Miyamoto who complicate things. Each character seems to have a double. Miyamoto doubles in the first film with his best friend, Matahachi, who succumbs to cowardice, and in the second two with Sasaki. Otsu, an innocent who tries to convince Miyamoto to give up the sword, doubles with Akemi, a geisha pimped by her own mother. Both women love Miyamoto. Otsu and Miyamoto variously pursue and reject each other, while Akemi falls in with Sasaki, who toys with her love for Miyamoto.
The films together form what one might call an interior epic, for its vast landscapes visualize Miyamoto’s emotional and intellectual growth. The swordplay is quick, bloodless, and subdued, with the exception of the climactic titular battles of “Duel at Ichijoji Temple” and “Duel at Ganryu Island.” The geography covered by the characters is wide, but we do not see sweeping shots of scenery. The compositions are simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. That is, characters are framed in long or medium shots that emphasize how small they are in relation to the land. We rarely see horizons in the first two films, but more often bridges, walls, and tunnels—or even waterfalls and trees—that bind one or more sides of the frame. These are barriers or narrow pathways to Miyamoto’s continuing development or maturation. The exception is in “Samurai III,” when Inagaki begins to show wider swaths of open plain, rolling mountains, and visible sky (ironic technique, given that most of the film is shot on studio sets). Miyamoto’s vision is widening, he sees beyond glory and achievement.
Miyamoto meets three teachers; the first instills discipline and philosophy, the second mercy and chivalry, and the third art and beauty. The films visualize Miyamoto’s education as the frame gradually opens. Whereas before he always followed a single path, by the third film, the horizon is open all around him. The color palette reveals Miyamoto’s growth as well. “Samurai I” has a shockingly bright, violent palette, but the colors and kinetic energy calm as the films go on. In one scene in “Samurai III,” he carves a wood sculpture. The room’s colors are grey, black, and white, with a hint of blue. He is self-possessed, focused, in control. There is one bright color, red, on the floor. It is a piece of fruit. Red is no longer a color of violence but of growth and sustenance.
Compare this scene to the opening scene of “Samurai III.” Sasaki stands in the lower right hand corner on a natural bridge, surrounded by waterfalls and trees. A rainbow encircles Sasaki. It is a gorgeous scene, but he thinks only of his as-yet-unattained “greatness.” Akemi enters the frame, watching him. He suddenly draws his sword and kills a swallow in mid-air with a move he calls “the swallow turn.” Akemi feels compassion for the swallow, while Sasaki brags, “Not everyone can do that.”
Seeing these films for the first time, I had a hard time not placing them in a contemporary context. I could not help but think over worldwide debates about education, particularly in the United States, where study in the humanities faces unprecedented attacks in favor of narrow, “practical” education in science, math, or professional schools. Miyamoto and Sasaki embody the argument. Both initially pursue technical perfection, worldly success, and fame. Sasaki is what Miyamoto would have been without his education, his restraint. Sasaki cannot see what he is doing wrong. He sees only swordsmanship, not the spirit behind it. He tries to impress a lord, to become his samurai, but accidentally humiliates him by crippling the lord’s champion. He reflects on the event later, recognizing his mistake but refusing to accept responsibility or to consider changing his perspective.
Sasaki has had no education beyond the sword. “Watch me,” he says to his second, before the duel. He wants to dazzle his subordinate with his swordplay. To him, nothing exists but glory, thus he pursues Miyamoto to his own inexorable doom. Whereas the sciences ask, “What can we do?,” the humanities ask, “What should we do?” They must be paired; each is impoverished without the other. Miyamoto learns to ask the second question over the course of the films. Sasaki does not.
The camera lingers in all three films over shots of running water, emphasizing transition, change, and impermanence. These shots tend to be paired with Miyamoto contemplating, or wandering. In “Samurai III,” we see Miyamoto riding over the water in a boat. Now the water lies calm. During the final duel on a beach, Miyamoto stands in the water. He has let go of his ego, accepted his own impermanence. Sasaki, on the other hand, stands on the sand, his footprints washing away, traces of his presence crumbling. As a great American poet once said, “And so castles made of sand/fall into the sea/eventually.” The final shots show tears running down Miyamoto’s face. Again, running water. What does it signify? Respect, shame, relief, grief? The ambiguities of life, which Miyamoto has learned to embrace.
Criterion’s Blu-ray transfers show phenomenal improvement in picture and sound over the company’s flawed 1998 DVD releases. The deep shadows complement the bright greens, reds, and blues of the location scenery (in “Samurai I”) and studio sets (“II” and “III”). Moreover, the re-release packages the films as a single multi-part epic, as opposed to a series of sequels, which makes the viewing experience richer (though watching the films in a single sitting may require some scheduling and a comfortable seat).
Most of all, watching “The Samurai Trilogy” makes me more curious about the director Hiroshi Inagaki. His dramatic visuals are stately and gorgeous, and I want to see more of his work. There are very few of his films available for Region 1 DVD players, and therefore for most American film viewers. Image has released an edition of “Cushingura” (1962); AnimEigo has released fairly good transfers of his final two films, “Samurai Banners” (1969) and “Incident at Blood Pass” (1970). Yet Inagaki was a prolific director, credited with over seventy films from the silent era through the 1960s, and, as Prince notes, he made more films with Toshirô Mifune than did Kurosawa. Criterion’s upgrade of “The Samurai Trilogy” is remarkable, and I hope that it is successful enough to justify more releases of Inagaki’s work for world cinema fans.