Musashi Miyamoto 1: Zen and Sword (1961)
Directed by Tomu Uchida

Musashi Miyamoto 1: Zen and Sword
Miyamoto Musashi
Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (Takezo/Musashi), Wakaba Irie (Otsu), Isao Kimura (Matahachi), Rentaro Mikuni (Takuan), Satomi Oka (Akemi), Michiyo Kogure (Oko), Chieko Naniwa (Osugi)
Screenplay by Masashige Narusawa and Naoyuki Suzuki

Toei Company, 110 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo
(Part of the Miyamoto Musashi Set of 5 Discs)

Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy may be the best known film version of the Musashi Miyamoto legend, but it's far from the only one. Musashi stories date back to the earliest silent films in Japan, preceding even the serialized 1930s novel by Eiji Yoshikawa that would become the standard basis for Musashi screenplays. Tomu Uchida followed a few years after Inagaki with a five-part adaptation that was virtually unknown in the U.S. until AnimEigo released it here on DVD in 2010 (bless 'em). By many accounts the Japanese consider Uchida's version to be the best and most faithful version of the Yoshikawa novel. I haven't read the book, but having seen both the Inagaki and Uchida series, I strongly prefer the Uchida version, sometimes referred to as the Zen and Sword saga.

Blasphemy, I'm sure many Samurai trilogy fans will say. After all, who could play the ultimate chambara hero better than the ultimate chambara actor, Toshiro Mifune? Believe it or not, Kinnosuke Nakamura can. Mifune is no doubt the better actor overall, but I never liked how abrupt he made the shift from animalistic Tokezo to wise and sophisticated Musashi. Nakamura makes it more of a believable transition through the character's development, and he gives Musashi a vulnerable human aspect. He's still able to laugh and smile occasionally instead of playing the emotionless warrior. So don't avoid this series for fear that this other guy in Mifune's role will suck, because he doesn't.

And as much as I admire Inagaki's other films, I have to say Tomu Uchida is a more talented director. Inagaki never produced anything as sublime as Uchida's Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji. And Uchida just seems to have a better handle on the Musashi story. Comparing the two series, you can find enormous differences and see where Inagaki has edited and rearranged the story. Many plot elements are more logical in the Zen and Sword version, and in some cases it seems Inagaki was attempting to sanitize the Musashi character to be more heroic and less morally ambiguous. Uchida permits him be more flawed and tormented, and therefore more compelling.

Since the Zen and Sword series has five installments, obviously he has the ability to include a lot of the story that Inagaki had to leave out. You might expect that Uchida's version would begin earlier in the chronology to give us some additional prologue, but actually it picks up later than Inagaki did, with Tokezo and Matahachi already on the battlefields of Sekigahara. Dialogue conveys the backstory of Tokezo convincing Matahachi to go to war and leave his fiance Otsu back home. Akemi is introduced as a scavenger looting the dead soldiers around Tokezo and Matahachi, making her and her mother seem more menacing from the start, instead of coming across as sweet and innocent. Akemi acknowledges the jingling bell on her kimono, which was never discussed in the Inagaki trilogy, explaining that it was a gift her mother Oko gave her as a child and she's always worn it.

Tokezo doesn't become the subject of romantic interest from either Akemi or Oko as he did in the Inagaki version. Here the ladies are strictly interested in Matahachi, who chooses to stick with them instead of going back home to Otsu. When Tokezo sneaks back into town as a fugitive, he doesn't bashfully beat around the bush about his friend's infidelty in speaking with Matahachi's mother Osugi – he spits the truth right out. Uchida makes Osugi is a much more formidable character, the fearsome "Granny of Hon'iden," and Osugi's vendetta against Tokezo remains and active plot thread throughout all five parts of his saga, whereas Inagaki tired of Osugi and Matahachi and abandoned them midway through.

Tokezo's capture by Priest Takuan with Otsu's assistance goes pretty much the same way as in Samurai I, as does his being strung up in the giant cedar tree. One minor but significant difference is that Otsu manages to liberate Tokezo from his arboreal suspension with relative ease, whereas she suffers serious rope burns on her hands in the Inagaki version. This is one of the few points where I think Inagaki did a better job, because it was a touching moment for Tokezo to see how Otsu had willingly bloodied up her dainty hands to rescue him. We don't get that sense of sacrifice here.

But Uchida more than makes up for it with his superior depiction of Tokezo's long period of isolation in the attic of enlightenment. Reading and studying alone obviously isn't the most cinematic subject, but whereas Inagaki's solution was to skip over that time, Uchida chooses to devote some screen time to Tokezo's internal struggles in seclusion. Tokezo confronts visions of blood on the walls and the disapproving ghosts of his ancestors pleading with him to change his destructive ways. I was never satisfied with Inagaki's instantaneous switch from the wild Tokezo to the monasterial Musashi, and Uchida makes the transformation more gradual, more painful and more believable. And this is only the beginning.

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