Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto - Criterion Collection
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(Jul 28, 1998)
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Hiroshi Inagaki's acclaimed Samurai Trilogy is based on the novel that has been called Japan's Gone with the Wind. This sweeping saga of the legendary seventeenth-century samurai Musashi Miyamoto (powerfully portrayed by Toshiro Mifune) plays out against the turmoil of a devastating civil war. The Trilogy follows Musashi's odyssey from unruly youth to enlightened warrior. In the first part, Musashi Miyamoto, the hero's dreams of military glory end in betrayal, defeat, and a fugitive lifestyle. But he is saved by a woman who loves him and a cunning priest who guides him to the samurai path. This installment won the 1955 Academy Award® for Best Foreign Film.
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, whose training and adventures continue in Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple. --Sean Axmaker
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The story has a dramatist's sense of character development. The growth of the central character Takezo, for instance, from a selfish unruly youth, shunned even by members of his own family, to samurai "intern" is thoroughly credible. Like the anti-hero in The Red Badge of Courage, he learns that war is anything but high drama, the mere stage upon which a young man may play out his role, earning glory and wealth in the process, and is, instead, everything about hard choices, survival, and, at times, lost causes.
The real hero of the work, in my opinion, is the priest Takuan, whose own story might make a good film. It certainly made me curious. He cunningly captures the renegade wild man Takezo, depending upon a rational rather than a brute force approach. Thereafter he puts the young man first through a rough period meant to break him--much like the wild horse that Takuan himself tried to break earlier in the film--and then imprisons him with a library of books and plenty of undisturbed time in which to read them. (My one criticism would be that I find it difficult to believe that so many common people were literate at this time in Japanese history, although I admit to little knowledge of it.)
The hero's friend, Matahachi, makes a perfect foil for Takezo. He has responsibilities, a place in society, and much to live for, yet throws it away to join in the dangerous pursuit of fame and glory. When confronted with temptations, he gives in, and although he chastises himself for his weakness, he doesn't learn from his mistakes. Near the end of the film he bitterly blames his wife for his disappointments, unable even as an adult to take responsibility for his own poor decisions.
The film has several strong female characters. The young orphan Otsu, the heroine, is loyalty itself. When she realizes she has put the young Takezo in a very bad position by assisting in his capture and that she is herself a prisoner of her circumstances, she frees him and flees with him to the wilderness. Her own loss should he abandon her would have been immeasurable, helpless as she is without family to rely upon, yet she evinces a belief in his goodness that helps shape the new man will become. The two woman living on the battle field are powerful survivors. They do what they must to create a life for themselves, and although they later fall into a life of self indulgence, their gender and their lack of connections within traditional society leaves them few choices. They are the people that circumstances have made them, while Matahachi, who is again a perfect foil with his youth, his gender, his family ties, and his prospects, becomes the person he is by poor choices and an inability to accept responsibility for them.
This is a thoroughly satisfying film, and I expect to purchase the others in the collection as I can afford to do so.