From the Back Row: The Samurai Trilogy
Before there was the original Star Wars trilogy, before there was the Three Colors trilogy, before there was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Godfather trilogy, and the The Man with No Name trilogy, there was a collection of three epic films from director Hiroshi Inagaki about Japan’s most famed samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, that have become known as the Samurai trilogy – Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956). Often overlooked and forgotten, many of those that have viewed it – including myself – consider it one of the elite trilogies in film and some of most memorable in all of Japanese cinema.
The trilogy follows the romanticized story of the real life Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi, during the early 17th century – the man who is often considered the most skilled swordsman in history. Played by the legendary Toshirô Mifune (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), Musashi’s story begins when he is young and wild, as he impulsively leaves his village to join up with an army on its way to battle. He is inconsiderate, rude, and arrogant – and when his reckless behavior and attitude results in his being falsely accused of treason, a kind, but strict monk who sees potential in the young man saves his life, but under the condition that he vigorously studies the samurai code. While doing this, Musashi meets the young and beautiful Otsu, who soon falls in love with him – but his goals and feelings aren’t entirely clear and throughout the films we watch as he matures and duels his way into becoming a legend of unimaginable proportions.
Seven Samurai (which oddly enough, came out the same year as the first film of this trilogy) and Akira Kurosawa’s other samurai-centered epics may get most of the attention and glory when film buffs think of Japanese cinema, but Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy is comparable to all of Kurosawa’s work in its epic scale and grandeur. While it may lack the particular masterful style of Kurosawa’s work, it makes up for it in sheer beauty and the excellent development of the Miyamoto Musashi character – largely in part to Mifune, who I think gives the greatest and deepest performance of his career here. If you found the transformation of Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai to be brilliant, you’ll be blown away by his portrayal of Musashi, from his start as the naive and reckless rogue to an honorable and legendary samurai master.
While the first two films develop all of the characters wonderfully and have some great duels to keep the pacing up, it’s the final film, Duel on Ganryu Island, that really shines and is the true masterpiece of the three films. The inevitable duel that takes place on Ganryu Island is one of the most magnificent scenes in all of cinema – in beauty, in brilliance, in emotional punch, and just plain and pure awesomeness.
If you like Japanese cinema or if you enjoy character-driven epics, this is in the upper tier of both. As a whole, this is a masterpiece on par with any of Kurosawa’s work. Sadly, once the 1970s hit, Japan became increasingly conservative, and Inagaki could no longer find funding for his films, which Japanese investors considered “too expensive.” He turned to alcohol for comfort and died as a result of it – lonely, old, and not having made one film during the last decade of his life despite his desire to. It’s a tragic tale, but with it, he’ll forever be remembered as one of the true pioneers of Japanese cinema and bringing to life one of the greatest trilogies and characters that I know of.