Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto [宮本武蔵] (1954)
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Rentaro Mikuni, Kuroemon Onoe, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada, Mitsuko Mito, Eiko Miyoshi, Akihiko Hirata, Kusuo Abe
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Expectations: Moderate. I liked this well enough when I saw it 10–12 years ago.
Sometimes you see films too early in your life and their intricacies are lost in a haze of unfulfilled desires and expectations. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is one such film for me, as I saw it roughly 10–12 years ago, hoping for a rip-roarin’ samurai action film. It’s a film about the most famous samurai of all time so he should totally kick the most ass, right? While that logic still makes sense to me, it is a flawed way to approach this film, and is a big reason why I only moderately enjoyed it back then. This time, however, I was able to fully appreciate it for what it is: a tale of how Musashi Miyamoto becomes Musashi Miyamoto.
As the film opens Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) and Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) watch warriors marching to battle from their vantage point high in a tree. Takezo wants nothing more than to be out of his hometown, where people look down on him as a ruffian and a troublemaker, so he talks Matahachi into joining the troops with him. They fight together in the Battle of Sekigahara, but their faction loses and control of the area slips to the enemy party. Takezo and Matahachi now find themselves fugitives, and with Matahachi wounded they need to find shelter at all costs.
This suggests a more exciting film than the one at hand, but it is the setup for the central arc of the film: that of Takezo’s personal journey to becoming Musashi Miyamoto. You might say that’s a bit of a spoiler, but as they titled the film after the character I’d imagine everyone already knew it was coming. Not to mention the fact that Musashi Miyamoto is the most famous swordsman of all time in Japan, so to know this fact about the film spoils nothing. In fact, it adds a lot of thought to the process of watching the film, as we know Takezo eventually redeems himself. And it’s the path to that redemption where the true beauty of the film lies.
The grand, outward struggles of Kurosawa and many other traditional samurai pictures are nowhere to be seen in Inagaki’s film. In Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, the only villain is Takezo himself, or more accurately his reckless, unfocused spirit. It’s ironic that the film is titled Samurai when it’s anything but a traditional samurai film, instead presenting us with Takezo’s desire to become a samurai when he’s not a person worthy or disciplined enough to take on that title. In this way it is the ultimate samurai tale, taking us on a journey of spirit and personal discovery, where most films leave this to backstory and the imagination. There have been many “young ruffians made into honorable warrior” films, but Samurai I rarely feels triumphant about Takezo’s progression. With every step forward, we are happy for him, but it also leaves something important in his wake, creating an incredibly affecting tragedy.
I wish every Criterion release had a special feature directly comparing the old home video versions and their newly restored version, because this movie didn’t look anything close to this impressive when I watched it on VHS all those years ago. The cinematography is crisp, colorful and full of life, and coupled with the direct and to-the-point camerawork, it works to create a very impressive visual feast for fans of classic cinema. The locations are especially beautiful to behold, with all kinds of mountains and flowing streams filling the screen. There are small moments of action as well, and the frank camera of Inagaki captures them well. They aren’t particularly exciting in a cinematic sense, but you feel like you’re there as an on-looker, watching it all unfold before you. This creates a unique sensation while watching, and reminds me of Sam Fuller’s words about shooting trained stuntmen from a distance to create a sense of realism.
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is a stunning film if you’re ready for it, but those looking to get their samurai action fix on should look elsewhere. This is actually a mix of ’50s melodrama and personal discovery, and a great example of both. I eagerly await digging into the sequels to see how they build on the character of Musashi and the very promising, tragic ending to this chapter of his life.