Though it's a story drawn from medieval Japanese history that I had little familiarity with going in, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto still felt pretty familiar to me. This first installment (which I'll refer to as Samurai I from here on out) of a film trilogy makes for an excellent primer on classic samurai cinema, even better for a general interest moviegoer than the more famous and celebrated release from that same year, Seven Samurai. I say that not because Seven Samurai is lacking in any respect, nor because of any perceived obscurity in Kurosawa's presentation of a powerful, riveting drama. It's just that the story of Samurai I follows the comfortably familiar "heroic journey" arc that supplied the foundation of so many popular and beloved epics over the past thirty-odd years - and will presumably continue to for decades to come. It's the kind of film that can help novices forget that they're reading subtitles and watching a movie that's over 50 years old, once they get swept up in the spectacle and settle in with archetypal characters who fit right in with the heroes and villains we instinctively recognize and react to within moments of their screen entrance.
To test this hypothesis, I invite you to watch this trailer, with untranslated Japanese subtitles. There may be a few of you who can read them (my daughter could probably do a passable job of translation, generally speaking) but even if you can't, my hunch is that you'll get the gist of the story a mere 2 minutes and 48 seconds.
For the benefit of easy reference, I offer the following recap of familiar tropes (that were, I'll remind you, still fairly fresh when this film debuted):
- The stoic hero brushing off the pleas of his true (but unconsummated) lover to accompany him on a journey he knows he must make alone
- The pulse-pounding charge of tumultuous battle that gives our naive protagonist his first chance to demonstrate the lion-hearted courage that separates him from the rank and file
- A quick recap and intro of the main characters - aforementioned charismatic, virile hero and delicately attractive female love interest; the hero's bumbling, cowardly and troublesome sidekick; the sexy young tart who supplies a little music and a lot of eye candy; the wise, benevolent elder who helps the hero transform his raw talent into focused discipline; the shrewd temptress whose schemes and betrayals set the plot in motion
- Back to our female lead, virtuously pleading once again and demonstrating her willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of the man she loves
- A vivid highlight reel of lusty embraces intercut with sword-wielding hand-to-hand combat
- Tense chase scenes and white-knuckle, barely plausible last minute escapes
- Nice scenery, both natural and period-architectural
- And did I mention it's all filmed in glorious Eastmancolor? (For 1954, that was still a pretty big deal, especially in Japan)
Of course, Samurai I has more going for it than just run-of-the-mill action/adventure cliches. Its exotic setting, the powerful screen presence of Toshiro Mifune and a narrative drive that engages with spiritual and philosophical aspects of its protagonist's interior development make Samurai I a distinctly enjoyable variation on themes that have proven to be so bankable ever since the trilogy formula became something of a standard in the early 1980s.
A lot of the most popular blockbusters in recent memory came to us in this easily digestible, tripartite format: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Back to the Future and many other, usually lesser, imitators. The particular stylistic method employed in the Samurai series, composed of clearly defined opening, middle and concluding sections that tell one long, complex story, also sets this apart from earlier trilogies released by the Criterion Collection that at least partially predate the Samurai films. I'm thinking of Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, Rossellini's War Trilogy and the Renoir Stage and Spectacle box in particular, which all fit together thematically but don't link together a continuous narrative like the Samurai films do. The closest threesome of films resembling the Samurai Trilogy that comes to mind is Eisenstein's never-completed Ivan the Terrible (only Parts I and II survive), which succumbed first to the pressures of Stalinist censorship and ultimately to its director's failing health and death. But even that story of a traumatized youth who rose to the imperial Russian throne, as powerful as it is, seems more like the extravagant creation of a visionary genius than the kind of broadly accessible, timeless myth that easily packs the theaters when presented with style and confidence.
Since I'm only reviewing Samurai I here (the other two films will have to wait until I reach their turn in my chronology of Criterion releases), I can't comment on where the story will go, but the basic contours shouldn't be so hard to figure out for anyone who recognizes the pattern. I'll start with a summary of what happens in Episode I. Takezo, a wild young man without family or personal connections, decides to put in with an army passing through his village. He's convinced of his ability to fight his way to samurai status based on his brawn and fearless determination alone. His pal Matahachi would also like to answer the war cry, but he's obviously conflicted between his family obligations, including his engagement to Otsu. Despite his promise to Otsu that he won't leave her, he immediately breaks that commitment in the next scene and happily joins Takezo as they walk off to do battle.
They quickly learn that the army has a special place for volunteers like them - digging ditches! But in the pivotal (and famous) Battle of Sekigahara, Takezo and Matahachi manage to survive the slaughter of their comrades and make a hasty escape, far from home. They stumble through the darkness into the isolated homestead of two women, mother and daughter, who ultimately turn out to be seductresses. The weak and foolish Matahachi gets lured into their trap, but Takezo recognizes the hazard and leaves, but only after valiantly rescuing them from danger. Having offended the local authorities in doing so, Takezo becomes a reluctant outlaw, though his only intention was to make a name for himself and return home to enjoy the respect he thinks he deserves. Now a hunted man, he does what he must do to ensure his own safety despite the bounty placed on his head and the cruel abuses heaped on any who would assist him along the way. His wild fury exacts a dreadful cost on many of those who pursue him, until one day he is finally captured by Takuan, a wise priest who sees in him the potential for greatness, but only after he's been brought low - figuratively speaking, that is. In actuality, his humiliation and ultimate transformation come partly as a result of being lifted up high: Takezo spends a fair amount of screen time bound in ropes, hanging from a tree!
Through this ordeal, Takezo takes on a new identity, becoming Musashi Miyamoto (based on a historic personage, Musashi seems to have the same perennially adaptable screen appeal as figures like Robin Hood and King Arthur, at least to Japanese filmmakers.) The audience knows that beneath the surface of this wiser, disciplined warrior there resides a savage fury that could yet be unleashed at any moment. We don't get to see much of the valiant Musashi in action quite yet - that will be saved for future installments. Samurai I is the story of how the hero got that way. The last we see of him is a proverbial stride into the sunset as Musashi manfully departs the comforts of love and leisure that surely could be his, if he so chose, in pursuit of the undefined destiny that awaits.
The Samurai I DVD itself is a relic of Criterion's early years, a bare bones edition that lists only the theatrical trailer (posted above) as a Special Feature. Even the cover art indicates a lack of attention to detail in that it features a scene that doesn't appear in this film (the famous sword duel on the beach that actually occurs in the series finale.) Quite a contrast to the lush graphic design and abundant extras of contemporary Criterion releases. In this case, a commentary track isn't all that necessary; as in the case of Twenty-Four Eyes released that same year, the emotional vocabulary, cinematic techniques and broad themes communicate themselves adequately without much need for expert illumination. And I'm not really too concerned with the film's historical veracity either - the legend of Musashi is sufficient for me. Especially on hi-def TVs, we see the flaws of a fairly primitive transfer, with numerous scenes turning out very dark and difficult to distinguish, but as DVD Beaver makes clear, it's still the best one on the market. Oddly enough, the trailer looks a lot better on my screen (less pixelated, warmer colors, more film-like) than the main feature - usually, it's the other way around. I also get the sense that we're seeing a cut version of the original. Not necessarily censored (I doubt there was anything much more explicit than the few glimpses of blood we see when wounded villains fall back grimacing into tight close-ups) but maybe just shortened or irreparably damaged. There are a fair number of dark jump cuts where the screen goes black for an instant, giving the sense that something got deleted. But despite these complaints, I still enjoyed a number of gorgeous color sequences that offer enough promise to make me wonder if a restored, upgraded version of Samurai I and its follow-ups will ever be released by Criterion or anyone else. I'm not sure how big a market there really is for a new edition of the Samurai Trilogy, but in any case, it's worth checking out for anyone who wants to get in on the ground floor of what turned out to be a flourishing, vibrant and influential movement in Japanese and ultimately global cinema.
Link to my review of Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple