Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Miyamoto Musashi
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Takezo/Musashi), Rentaro Mikuni (Matahachi), Kuroemon Onoe (Takuan), Kaoru Yachigusa (Otsu), Mariko Okada (Akemi), Mitsuko Mito (Oko), Eiko Miyoshi (Osugi)
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao

Toho Company, 93 minutes
Color, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy comprises the most familiar samurai films worldwide beyond Akira Kurosawa, a notoriety stemming in part from the fact that Samurai I won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. The trilogy tells the story of legendary real-life samurai Musashi Miyamoto, based on an enormously popular 1930s novel by Eiji Yoshikawa described as the Gone with the Wind of Japan. The novel is widely known to take liberties with historical fact in favor of dramatic value – for instance, Musashi's love interest Otsu is said to be Yoshikawa's invention – and the story really boils down to being half swordfights and half soap opera. It's also a classic hero's journey, as we witness the great samurai's humble origins as an ambitious but undisciplined peasant named Tokezo, portrayed by Toshiro Mifune.

The movie opens in 1600 on the eve of the battle of Sekigahara, a decisive showdown between the forces of the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi that precedes the 260-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. Tokezo and his friend Matahachi decide to go to war with dreams of leaving behind their lives as poor farmers in the village of Miyamoto and becoming rich and powerful samurai. But the reality is a major disappointment – the pair only make it to the rank of common soldiers who find themselves digging trenches when word comes down that their side has lost the war. With the Tokugawa victors out to hunt down all the defeated Toyotomi supporters, Tokezo and Matahachi flee as injured war fugitives.

They find refuge with Oko and Akemi, a mother and daughter who make their living through the dishonorable practice of scavenging armor and weapons from dead samurai. Akemi is easy to identify throughout the trilogy because she wears a little bell on her sleeve that jingles whenever she move. Soapy romantic entanglements begin to develop when Akemi has feelings for Matahachi, but she drops her interest when she learns that he is engaged to a girl back home named Otsu. Both mother and daughter make passes at the unattached Tokezo, though he promptly rebuffs both of them. After the fugitives have defended the Oko and Akemi against a gang of bandits, Matahachi abandons his friend to run away with the women, and he ends up spurning his fiancee to marry Oko.

Tokezo makes a perilous return to his home village to inform Matahachi's mother Osugi and Otsu about their absconded loved one. After Tokezo is identified at a checkpoint, there is a massive manhunt to track him down. Ultimately a priest named Takuan captures him with the assistance of Otsu. Takuan decides to adopt Tokezo as his special project, using his clout with the local authorities to have the wild fugitive placed in his custody. The priest strings Tokezo high up in a 1,000-year-old cedar tree and leaves him to hang there (not by his neck) for several days in an effort to drive the anger and hatred out of his captive. Takuan speaks to Tokezo about the spirit of the true warrior and Tokezo's poor choices in pursuit of his ambitions. During this process Otsu begins to fall in love with Tokezo, and one night after Takuan threatens to behead him tomorrow, Otsu secretly releases Tokezo.

After a brief freedom, Takuan apprehends Tokezo again, and for the next phase of Tokezo's rehabilitation he is confined to an attic filled with books of philosophy and wisdom. We cut to three years later, and now Tokezo is a changed man. His years of enforced scholarship have brought him to a level of enlightement, and his formerly savage demeanor is replaced by calm and confidence. Takuan arranges for Tokezo to be granted a position as a samurai, and he is given a new name considered more worthy of his elevated status: Musashi Miyamoto. But Musashi argues that he is not yet ready to begin his service as a samurai, and he needs to go on a journey to gain skills and experience before he can be a true warrior. Before leaving on his odyssey, Musashi bids farewell to Otsu, who has been faithfully waiting for him all this time. Musashi refuses her pleas to accompany him on his adventures, and he departs with a promise to return.

Now here's where I have to insert that, despite the glowing reputation of the Samurai trilogy, I really don't care for it all that much. My general feeling about Samurai I is that the story is flat, the characters' motivations are simplistic and their convictions change at the drop of a hat. Story developments seem to happen "just because" without much reason to believe in these people or care about what happens next.

For instance, I can't grasp why Tokezo rates treatment as Public Enemy #1. He was just a piss-ant farm boy freshly recruited in the army to dig trenches in the mud, and after the war he's being tracked down by 200 men as if he had been a master general commanding whole battalions. As Akemi says while comforting Matahachi, it seems unlikely anyone would come searching for two such important soldiers.

Also, aside voicing his lusts for glory and greatness, we really don't see Tokezo doing much that's wrong or objectionable up until the time Takuan captures him. He behaves honorably during the stay with Oko and Akemi, condemning their ransacking of fallen samurai and declining his opportunities to sleep with them. Then he shows valor and self-sacrifice by risking his neck to bringing the news about Matahachi to Otsu and Osugi. He's even so conscientious about Otsu's feelings that he can't reveal that her fiance is with another woman. Overall Tokezo's actions show him to be a really decent guy. If he acted more like an asshole through the first half of the movie, it would make more sense for Takuan to string him up from a tree and preach about his need to straighten up and fly right.

What bugs me even more is the unruly Tokezo's abrupt transformation into the gravely serious warrior-poet. Similarly, the story's various romantic connections are seemingly governed by an on/off switch. Otsu forgets her fiance Matahachi at the drop of a hat in favor of Tokezo. What foundation is there, really, for that couple's instant soulmate connection? They spend about a couple of hours alone together before Tokezo's incarceration, and that's enough to keep her faithfully waiting for three years?

Samurai I was the first samurai movie I ever saw outside of the Kurosawa canon, and it was a long time before I ever felt the motivation the see the rest of the trilogy. I realized that this was only the first chapter establishing the origins the great Musashi, and watching only it was like giving up on the Star Wars saga after seeing only The Phantom Menace, when you have no idea who the little blond kid grows up to become. But I didn't care. My disappointment with the first part was enough to convince me for a long time that no samurai movies aside from Kurosawa's were worth pursuing.

Of course, I've learned a lot differently since then, and now I can appreciate Samurai I more than I did as a neophyte. But my initial judgment of the series' lackluster quality has only been confirmed with my discovery of Tomu Uchida's little-known Zen and Sword saga, a five-part adaptation that delivers an entirely superior vision of the Musashi Miyamoto legend.

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