Life of a Swordsman (a.k.a. Samurai Saga, 1959)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Life of a Swordsman
Aru kengo no shogai
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Heihachiro), Yoko Tsukasa (Chiyo), Akira Takarada (Jutaro), Keiko Awaji (Nanae), Seizaburo Kawazu (Nagashima), Kamatari Fujiwara (Rakuzo), Eiko Miyoshi (Okuni)
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki

Toho Company, 111 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Akira Kurosawa is far from being the only Japanese filmmaker to adapt classics of Western literature into a jidai-geki context. In Life of a Swordsman, Hiroshi Inagaki creates a samurai version of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Berjerac. This movie is also known by the English title Samurai Saga, though I prefer the slightly less generic alternative title mainly on the grounds that "Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Saga" is so likely to be confused with the far more commonplace citation of "Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy."

Toshiro Mifune stars as Heihachiro, the adaptation's counterpart to Cyrano, and yes, he has the silly nose and everything. Instead of a Pinocchio-style extended proboscis, Heihachiro has a comically wide nose spread halfway across his face. This is not the only time Mifune wears heavy facial makeup in an Inagaki film (see also Samurai Banners), and it fits within the typically theatrical Inagaki style so well that after a few minutes you accept it as a natural part of the character.

Heihachiro is introduced about 15 minutes into the movie in one of Mifune's all-time best entrances. In the middle of a ceremonious musical performace, Heihachiro lays into boisterously heckling the singer and jumps up on stage to rant and rail and make a mockery of the whole dignified proceeding, for reasons that are initially a mystery. At first it looks like we're in for yet another variation on the standard Mifune Kikuchiyo character type, of the uncouth ruffian who bursts into a scene to start kicking up dust and raving like a maniac without regard to social propriety. He comes across as a bully terrorizing the poor lady who was trying to sing, and we wonder if Cyrano starts out as the villain in this version of the story.

But as Heihachiro explains himself, we understand that he's in the right with his outrage, and this character is not the hellraising simpleton we might have expected. As the story progresses, we see that Heihachiro is in fact a thoughtful and scholarly poet who only adopts the stance of warrior rage when circumstances demand. It's as if Inagaki and Mifune deliberately intended the character's scenery-chewing entrance to play upon and confound audience expectations about Mifune's screen image. More to the point of the story, the introduction sets up the idea of putting on a dramatic performance in order to achieve desired objectives, with romance being the key pursuit later on.

Inagaki's always masterful use of color is especially evident in The Life of a Swordsman. In fact, the opening shot of the movie is of a captive peacock on display. Heihachiro and many of his clansmen wear an unusual fabric of orange and black stripes that makes them east to recognize. Jurota, the shy suitor who benefits from Heihachiro's love poetry, is likewise color-coded by his pale green kimono throughout the movie. The object of both men's affections, Princess Chiyo, is introduced by two observers pointing out "that girl in the red kimono."

The trademark Cyrano scenes of romantic serenading covertly facilitated by a silver-tongued confederate are ideally suited for Inagaki's cinematic style. We get the typical Inagaki soundstage exterior, beautifully appointed with autumn trees and simulated moonlight, as a rapt Chiyo listens from her window to the tag-team wooing. Before the dilemma of the love triangle can resolve itself on its own terms, the participants are torn apart by war. Heihachiro and Jurota go off to fight in the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara, a conflict depicted repeatedly in the film collaborations of Inagaki and Mifune, including Samurai I and Daredevil in the Castle. The battle scenes bring along some classic low-tech Inagaki special effects and fake lightning, which are always awesome to see.

In the tragic aftermath of the war, the movie wraps up with a heavily emotional and memorable coda that I won't spoil here. Like the rest of The Life of a Swordsman in general, the finale flirts with being melodramatic and lacks the level of true poetry you might find in Mizoguchi, but the talents of Inagaki and Mifune succeed at turning this ugly man's story into something beautiful.

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