From the Back Row: The Samurai Trilogy

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“Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.”

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.

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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.

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Last Edition: Le Samouraï

Jonathan
Jonathan is a writer and teacher constantly in pursuit of his fortune and glory. In the meantime, he graciously volunteers his genius to the internet, providing his insight on cinema and showering lessons of life to all of those who cross his path.

10 Comments

  1. I've never seen these films but I think they may have come up before and I've since added them to my long list of films to see. For all I know, there's likely a nicely packaged set that I could pick up – will have to look into that.

    I love that first picture on the beach. Beautiful.

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  2. Of course I know who Mifune is – Seven Samurai rakes ass! But I've never seen this trilogy. I'll add it to the queue pronto.

    You convinced me with the last two paragraphs. It sucks when a legendary film maker dies and we never know what we might be missing (especialyl if they didn't accomplish much in their short lives). Sweet. And nice article.

    You have one convert here.

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  3. ok I'm not down with the lingo Andrew: Toshiro raking ass is good where you come from? I consider Kurosawa's Red Beard my favorite film of all time, so Toshiro in the principle role is like a God to me, something hallowed.

    As part of my never-ending pursuit to see all of the Criterion films I ran into this trilogy last summer… I very much enjoyed the first film, but I had real problems with the second one, so much so I never came back to see the final film… now you tell me it is the best… ugh… I guess to be completist I should and will see it.

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  4. Andy, the direct influence on Star Wars was "HIDDEN FORTRESS" which had a similar story and characters, although Lucas borrowed and absorbed a lot of the technical and visual aesthetics of Kurosawa, as he was a fan in general. He wanted Toshiro Mifune to play Obi Wan Kenobi (hence the japanese name) originally, but Mifune refused, so he got Alec Guinness. George Lucas went on to bankroll Kurosawa's RAN in the early 1980s. Hope that answers your question.

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  5. Lucas bankrolled Kagemusha, along with Coppola. As that was the film Kurosawa was "forced" to make to prove he was still a viable director and capable of making a film that could make money before anyone would back Ran.

    Though Lucas and Coppola very well could have backed Ran as well, as I can't remember. I do know they both were involved with Dreams, so I can only assume you are right about Ran.

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  6. Here comes a massive tangent: Not having grown up with SW the first time around, I've never really bought into the hype of those films. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy them but watching them for the first time in my teens didn't really do much for me. No mind blowing going on here but like I say – it may have something to do with when I saw them.

    And staying with the Lucas tangent, I really dislike that man's film making. Unless he's going to go back and make more films like THX, I would be happy if he never picked up a camera again. That said – I do think he has a fantastic imagination (I've even loved some of the fantasy novels he's helped pen) but I haven't really loved anything of his since THX.

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  7. As "refuse to grow up" nostalgia, George Lucas is full of great ideas…it's the process of getting that pesky screenplay and actors together that bothers him. Like Indiana Jones franchise and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi demonstrate, if he farms those things out to competent folks, the results are pretty darn good. Heck, I even have a soft spot for Willow (considering my big hate-on for Ron Howard, that says something).

    And yes, this thread has devolved from a cinema landmark trilogy of great chambara films to Ron Howard. Sorry about that folks. Definitely my fault. :(

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  8. Kurt nailed my thoughts exactly. Lucas has the ideas, the imagination, just not the technical skills it takes to direct and work with actors – and definitely not with writing dialogue.

    With that said, I'll never jump on the "I Hate Lucas" bandwagon, because I'm forever grateful for the original Star Wars trilogy and especially Indiana Jones.

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