director Hiroshi Inagaki
In chatting with a friend recently about the Samurai film genre, I came to realize that I hadn’t actually seen a samurai film in ages. This same friend recommended Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, which I knew that I had in my film queue but didn’t really know much else about. It seems the time was ripe to start up again with one of my favorite genres.
I’ve often considered the Samurai film to have a lot of analogues with the American Western. It’s not a perfect match, in that as historical dramas go, the period ranges from a more Swashbuckling era through to the modern Western. And of course, the codes, history, and settings are purely Japanese. The analogues that I see are more in the types of drama and action, of violence and justice, of a templated genre ready-made for an auteur to utilize for social commentary, coded within traditional imagery and storylines, as well as the historical and cultural truths that lie in in and belie it.
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is epic, particularly in that it is the first of three films. It stars the inimitable and ubiquitous Toshirō Mifune as the titular Samurai, though most of the film he goes by Takezo. He comes from a poor village and is a rebellious, angry young man who wants to rise to become a samurai and earn fame and fortune and nobility. He and his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) head off into battle but end up on the losing side, running from the victors. Matahachi takes up with a widow and her daughter, abandoning his bride to be Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). Takezo returns to his village to inform them of what has happened but is considered an outlaw and tracked down and captured ultimately by a wily priest, who ties him up and hangs him from a tree, trying to teach him humility and piety. Ultimately, Otsu sets him free but then he’s captured again by the priest to teach him further. By the end of the film, he’s off seeking his fortune, abandoning Otsu against his heart’s desire.
Mifune’s Takezo has a broader range of emotion than some of his other protagonists. He feels betrayed by his family, seeks his fortunes for himself alone, until he is rescued by Otsu, he seems only out for himself.
The film is color, which is a striking contrast to most of the samurai films that I’ve seen from this period. It seems to suggest a greater budget perhaps, which is also evident in some of the battle sequences. Inagaki’s camera tracks numerous shots, advancing warriors, running through the forest, through crowds.
I eagerly look forward to the following two films.