Toshirô Mifune defines the quintessential samurai in Hiroshi Inagaki's 1954 Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, the first feature in a trilogy based on the epic novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. As in Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, which appeared the same year, Mifune plays a brash and ambitious peasant who desires fame and power as a swordsman. His dreams of glory in war sour when his army is routed and he becomes hunted by the authorities, but the "tough love" attentions of a kindly but severe monk help him develop from a hot-tempered outlaw to a thoughtful swordsman. Inagaki's somber color epic is very different from the energetic action of Kurosawa's films. The sword fights and battles are practically theatrical in their presentation, staged in long takes that emphasize form and movement over flash and flamboyance. Mifune brings a sad, almost tragic quality to the samurai warrior Musashi Miyamoto, whose dedication proscribes him to a lonely life on the road. Though the film stands well on its own, its stature takes on greater significance as the first act of Inagaki's stately, contemplative epic of the professional and spiritual development of Musashi.
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Picking up where Samurai I left off, Toshirô Mifune's samurai in training Musashi Miyamoto is a wandering swordsman who hones his skills in a succession of duels. When he defeats a succession of students from a local school of martial arts, he becomes marked for death by the school elders and is attacked in a series of cowardly ambushes. Romantic threads from the first film become further complicated when the virginal Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) and the sad courtesan Akemi (Mariko Okada) meet and discover their rivalry and Musashi earns himself an archenemy, an ambitious young swordsman named Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta) who vows to defeat Musashi to make his name as the finest fencer in all of Japan. Inagaki ably manages the rather complicated plot with unexpected ease (subtitles are employed to help English viewers make a few narrative jumps) while he charts Musashi's education in compassion and humility and his internal struggle with his conflicted love for Otsu. The direction is still as distant and unostentatious as in the first film, while the color and settings become richer and more pronounced: studio-bound locations take on the quality and delicacy of paintings. The dramatic centerpiece of the trilogy, an epic pre-dawn battle where 40 swordsmen ambush Musashi, uses darkness and landscape to great dramatic effect as figures seep in and out of the picture
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Toshirô Mifune is confidence supreme and humility incarnate as the mature samurai master Musashi Miyamoto in the final film of Inagaki's sprawling trilogy. Now a legendary swordsman whose latest quest is to save an isolated village from rampaging brigands (shades of Seven Samurai), he remains haunted by the memory of Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). Meanwhile the ruthless and increasingly jealous Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) plots his battle royal with Musashi to prove who is the finest fencer in Japan. Inagaki weaves the web of subplots into a series of grand confrontations, among them the most exciting battles of the trilogy: Musashi's skirmish with the army of cutthroats while the village erupts in a fiery inferno around him, and the sunset duel between Musashi and Kojiro on an isolated beach, the two warriors taking on mythic dimensions silhouetted against the sun setting over the surf. Inagaki's delicate use of color throughout the series becomes most pronounced in this final sequence, where the glow of orange and red adds dramatic flourish to the twilight battle. Inagaki's reserved, restrained style and Mifune's melancholy performance--his granite face and stocky stance the very essence of somber wisdom and sad assurance--bring a gravity and seriousness to the drama that ultimately illuminates the personal cost of Musashi's supreme skill as his story ends on an elegiac but hopeful note. --Sean Axmaker