Friday, November 11, 2016

Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)



With the  Criterion Collection leaving Hulu, I wanted to get a last peak (on the streaming service at least) of the Samurai Trilogy. Based on the samurai Musashi the trilogy follows the samurai from his youth as a glory hungry strong man to a wandering ronin committed to mastering the soul of a samurai itself.

The first movie, Musashi Miyamoto, is in its way, the first steps of the "origin" story. As a young man, Takezo is strong and dreams of acknowledgment by his peers in the village. He is proud, headstrong, and known as the "wild one" by his family. He talks his friend Matahachi into going with him into "the Great Battle."

His side loses.

Takezo and Matahachi recover with the aid of a widow and her daughter. Romantic inclinations don't work as anticipated and the widow takes off with her daughter and Matahachi.

Takezo goes through a long route of pain and suffering to let Matahachi's mother and betrothed know that Matahachi is alive but will not be coming back. This leads to Otsu, the former betrothed, falling in love with Takezo.

The problem is that to get to the mother and Otsu; Takezo did numerous illegal things of which he eventually is held accountable for. This results in him spending three years in a castle against his will in what would be a flashback scene today, because, at the end of that time, Takezo is now Musashi and is ready to walk the warrior's road on training.

The second movie, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, follows Musashi as he becomes more refined. At first, a monk sees him in a duel and notes that Musashi is "too strong." While we see Musashi's work, Sasaki Kojiro is also introduced. Another noted samurai, another noted sword saint. Their paths follow separate but similar roads.

Musashi's testing of his mettle leads him against the Yoshioka school. The students there seek to protect their master, to ensure the good name of the school. It goes badly for them. Musashi cuts through their ranks until the ending where the leader of the Yoshioka school, Seijuro, manages to meet Musashi for their agreed upon duel.

Mushashi easily overcomes Seijuro but leaves him alive, recalling the earlier observations about being "too strong".

When we get to the third movie, Duel at Ganryu Island, Musashi is a changed man. Still a slave to his passion for sword mastery but no longer interested in the material wealth or the social status aspect of that mastery. Meanwhile, Sasaki Kojiro has risen in the social sphere and his own swordwork remains peerless.

Which leads to a final confrontation with Musashi.

The movies today would be different in numerous ways. First, the action sequences would be far more bloody. Part of the "entertainment" value of these old films for me is watching all of the people "killed" and falling dead while the blows that struck them such clearly didn't touch.

Another thing that would be different is the dialogue. For a three movie set, there is surprisingly little dialog.

If you're a fan of the actor Toshiro Mifune, no study of the actor is complete without this old classic. If you're a fan of Usagi Yojimbo, you'll note some familiar names like the squire Jotaro, or the themes of wandering ronin testing their skills against an established school. You'll note the treatment of a samurai's sword as if it were the samurai's soul.

The Samurai Trilogy isn't the best set of films in the genre. It's not going to surpass Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or numerous others. But it is a solid gem of the genre and it's also an excellent showcase of how films were made at the time.