One of the things that becomes clear from watching the Criterion Collection releases is that someone there really likes samurai films (known as chanbara in Japanese, a subset of jidaigeki or ‘period films’). And when I say likes them, I mean really REALLY likes them. There’s a 25-film boxset of Zatoichi films coming up (quite a lot) further down the line, as well as many others in between, but here, an early release, is this trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Such was the popularity of its titular hero (Musashi Miyamoto, referred to as Takezo in this film, as he does not receive his samurai name until the end) that this wasn’t even Inagaki’s first trilogy of films about Musashi. He was a legendary swordsman, not to mention author and artist, who came to prominence at the very start of the 17th century in Japan, and Inagaki sets out to depict his journey. To see these films now, it hardly seems surprising to see the great Toshiro Mifune in the title role — after all, in this very same year, he also starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — though the two roles are quite different. In Kurosawa’s film, he’s a bit of a fool, but here he commands respect — or at least comes to do so by the end, for this first film is dedicated to Musashi’s earliest exploits. A lot of these revolve around the women who fall in love with him, though it’s Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), the jilted fiancée of his friend Matahachi, who has the most lasting relationship with the wandering ronin. The narrative arc of the film is towards Musashi’s maturation (he is even locked in an attic with a stack of books for three years at one point), rather than any big conflict or battle, and the route towards this is via a series of incidents, through which familiar characters start to thread. This all works rather nicely, no little thanks to the richly colourful cinematography, and fine ensemble performances. It would be for subsequent films in the trilogy to develop his fighting skills.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kaoru Yachigusa | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014