Criterion Project #24: SAMURAI I – MUSASHI MIYAMOTO (1954)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Spine #14

Year: 1954

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

Whenever you seem lost in this lonely world, or feel your life is heading down the wrong path, I’d recommend sitting down to begin the journey of Takezo, aka the legendary Musashi Miyamoto (Toshirô Mifune). This is easily my fourth of fifth time starting the pilgrimage and it never fails to sweep me up in its sprawling tale of faith and redemption.

To start, I’ve read many opinions on this particular trilogy and understand it can be polarizing. On one hand it recounts the tale of a mythical samurai played by the greatest Japanese movie star of his era, and on the other it features the simmering romance and bittersweet beauty of a melodrama. These films have been called Japan’s Gone With the Wind for a reason. This tends to be the detracting point for some looking for a more direct samurai film in the vein of Yojimbo (1961) or Harakiri (1962). Personally, I don’t understand the issue. The addition of love and devotion only solidifies the complexity of the journey Musashi must travel, and the seeds for this journey are planted in this origin tale.

The film opens with Takezo and his pal, Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni), yearning for war to achieve fame and glory as famous samurai. Takezo is known as a reckless young man within the village and is ostracized from his family on account of his wild behavior. Matahachi, on the other hand, is a soft spoken man who lives with his mother and is betrothed to a young orphaned woman, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives in the temple with a priest, Takuan (Kurôemon Onoe). When Takezo heads out of town to join his countrymen in war, Matahachi bashfully asks Otsu if she’d wait for him if he left, a predicament he quickly leaves her in after she proclaims her devotion to him.

But war isn’t what either of them expected. Before they can attain fame and glory, their army is overrun and the two ambitious men must flee, lest they return home without the notoriety of becoming great samurai. Along the way Matahachi is wounded and the two men must seek refuge. They eventually come across a house in the middle of nowhere, proceeding to take up residence with the two women living there, Akemi (Mariko Okada) and her mother, Oko (Mitsuko Mito). The decision to stay in this home will prove to be a turning point for both men, and for the women they take shelter with.

Before long the women become attached to the two lost men and ask for them to stay. Takezo refuses, but not before he singlehandedly defends the home from a bandit attack. In the wake of the scrum, Oko throws herself at Takezo, only to be rebuffed as he flees into the night. His ultimate goal is unaltered – to become a famous samurai. Matahachi, on the other hand, remains in the company of the women, first trying to bed Akemi, who already has eyes for Takezo, and then settling for Oko and thus abandoning his betrothal to Otsu.

Now, mind you, all of this takes place within the first 35 minutes of a 93-minute film. As samurai films go, I would say this one leans more heavily into the melodramatic elements at the outset than most. But these early scenes are setting the stage for what will become a much larger story in the ensuing films.

The second act of the film is primarily focused on Takezo’s return to his village, where he intends to tell Matahachi’s mother, Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), and Otsu that his friend is alive but will not be returning home for reasons he will not divulge. Upon arriving back at the village he is met at the gates by the town guard, who refuse to let him pass. Takezo attacks the guard, showcasing his immense strength and determination, and in turn becomes a wanted man.

If there is any knock against the film for me it’s the portions of the second act that feature scene after scene of the villagers searching the town and its surrounding areas for Takezo. They can become monotonous, but they also showcase Takezo’s incredible grit and resolve. During this time the film smartly focuses on Priest Takuan and the plight of Otsu, a woman with no family who has been abandoned by her love. Together they decide to search for Takezo and bring him back to face a different type of justice.

This second act is a very important part of the overall story in regards to Otsu and Takezo’s relationship. Having learned of her lover’s desertion, she seeks to help Takezo while the villagers yearn to catch him and kill him for his crimes. What the town doesn’t know, but Otsu does, is that he only returned to the village to impart the information that Matahachi did not die in battle so his family will be at peace. This act of kindness shines through Takezo’s animalistic reputation and Otsu quickly bonds to that.

Before long Takuan and Otsu capture Takezo and bring him back to the temple to begin his reclamation. The single most enduring image from this film is Toshiro Mifune bound and hanging from a mountainous tree at the hands of the Buddhist priest. When I think of this first chapter of the saga, that image appears. It’s the very definition of tough-love and a necessary step in Takezo’s transformation from an undisciplined, arrogant man-child to one of the most renowned samurai in history.

It’s funny watching this first film over again knowing how much larger the story will become in the next two films in the trilogy. It’s essentially an origin story, not unlike the ones Marvel hoists on the big screen every year. All the elements are present – a conceited, immature young man/woman, a tragic circumstance, an unflinching love interest, and of course a wise instructor who sets them on the correct path.

Along the way we get to witness the beauty of the Japanese countryside courtesy of director Hiroshi Inagaki, who imbues the film with tranquility in the form of flowing rivers and streams, windswept meadows, and beautiful mountain vistas. Each gorgeous landscape enhances the bittersweet tale of two lost souls finding one another through spiritual reclamation.

I would totally understand if you watched this film and found the narrative beats to be clichéd. I really would. Each time I watch it I get sucked in by Mifune’s magnetism (man-crush) and the melodrama works for me. Again, there are plenty of people turned off by the familiar structure and the romance and family drama that often take center stage to the samurai portion of the tale. But it’s all necessary in telling Miyamoto’s story.

Unfortunately for me, Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) doesn’t appear on my project for more than six months. It’s the rare trilogy where the films improve as they progress, with the final film proving to be a rousing culmination. The finale of this film is certainly a cliffhanger that leaves you yearning for more, and I’m honestly not sure I’m going to be able to hold out for six-plus months to watch the second part of this saga. A true testament to my affection for Musashi Miyamoto’s tale and Inagaki’s exquisite films. I can’t wait for more Musashi.

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