Most people associate Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune with his iconic role as the noble samurai, wandering alone throughout feudal Japan getting into sword fights. And most people associate this image with Mifune’s work with director Akira Kurosawa, the pair having collaborated on 16 films.
However, before he was Yojimbo, Mifune’s first foray into being a ronin was not for Kurosawa, but in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, three hugely influential films from the mid-50s. While he appeared in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai the same year as the first part of the trilogy, it was his role as real-life folk hero Musashi Miyamoto that set the standard by which Mifune’s persona would forever be measured. Mifune actually made more films with Inagaki than he did with Kurosawa, so stick that in your bamboo pipe and smoke it.
Based upon Eiji Yoshikawa’s hugely successful novel, Musashi, Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy follows a very specific span in the life of seventeenth-century swordsman, writer, and artist Musashi Miyamoto, the most famous and celebrated folk hero in Japan. The films depict his growth from a brash and arrogant young Wildman, through his education, his life as a shugyosha (or wandering duelist), and his greatest duel and subsequent withdrawal from the world of swordplay. What made Musashi so outstanding is that he was untrained in swordsmanship officially, having never studied at any dojo or under any teacher, yet he was undefeated throughout his many duels. He also never went into the employ of any lord or Shogun, meaning he was never a true samurai, despite his many achievements.
The first film in the series, 1954’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has Mifune playing Takezo, the village troublemaker who would eventually become Musashi. He is despised in his town and has no close relatives. After being hunted as a fugitive for several nights following his desertion from the army, he is caught and strung up by a kind but firm Buddhist monk who wants him to change his ways, despite Takezo preferring to be beheaded. Through being forced to read books to enlighten himself, he emerges a calmer, less hot-headed man, ready to learn more by traveling and dueling.
In the second film, Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), Musashi spends most of his time dueling and adapting, with more and more samurai hearing of his exploits and wanting to challenge him. It culminates in the titular duel between Musashi and the 80-some-odd men of a lord, followed by a fight with the lord himself. And in 1956’s Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, Musashi has all but given up his wandering, dueling only when directly challenged and being forced to help a town beset by bandits. Eventually, he travels to Ganryu Island where he has his most famous duel against another master swordsman, Kojiro Sasake (Koji Tsuruta).
These films are not just blind action movies, far from it. They are about a man’s ever-growing desire to reach inner peace and outer perfection. We see a real growth in Musashi within each movie and in the trilogy as a whole. His interactions with different characters are meaningful, and each of them has their own change and character arc. Chiefly, this can be seen in the character of Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) who began as the bitter fiancé of Musashi’s friend who falls in love with the swordsman. Though he clearly loves her as well, his desire for perfection with the sword does not allow him to settle down. Otsu is continually true to her love for Musashi, almost to the point of insanity, and spends much of the second and third films wandering the country hoping to find him again. Because of this, hers is the saddest story in the films and represents what Musashi is giving up in order to achieve his goal.
Other significant figures include Akemi (Mariko Okada) a prostitute who is also in love with him, Buddhist priests Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) and Nikkan (Kokuten Kodo) who teach him lessons about anger, power, and restraint, and swordsmith Honami (Ko Mihashi) who teaches him that the blade of his sword is the same as the soul of the samurai.
In the second film, we’re introduced to the aforementioned Kojiro Sasake, Musashi’s opponent in his most famous and storied duel. Though in real life, the two met only once, at the duel itself, the film shows Kojiro observing Musashi closely and being at the events of the Duel at Ichijoji Temple. Kojiro is supremely confident in himself and has the skills to back it up. He is portrayed as unfeeling though not a villain. He knows Musashi to be the greatest swordsman he could ever face and is keen to keep the man alive until he can face him. There is the utmost professional respect between these men and at no point do we see Kojiro as a particularly bad guy, just colder and more calculating than Musashi. In most movies, we’d have a vendetta established between the two men that would give the duel personal stakes, but here it is simply each man’s desire to face the other that gives the finale its dramatic oomph. For each of them, they will either die at the hands of or kill the best opponent they have ever met, neither outcome being particularly favorable to them. What is Yin without Yang?
Hiroshi Inagaki’s direction in these three films is fantastic. Going against what was common at Toho Studios (and samurai movies in general), Inagaki shoots his Samurai Trilogy in the classic Hollywood aspect ratio of 1.33:1 instead of anamorphic widescreen. While this limits the lateral movement of his camera, it allows him much greater depth of field which he uses to his advantage with staging his action. Unlike what you’d expect in typical samurai films, Inagaki chooses not to show all of Musashi’s duels. This would become tedious, and so only shows ones that really matter. He’s also much more concerned with the tension before the swing of the swords than the clang or cut that follows.
In reality, samurai duels were incredibly quick as the warriors were trained in speed and efficiency and not in dazzling sword movements. These films have a look very similar to American studio pictures of the time in their bright, vibrant colors. Many scenes are shot on soundstages as opposed to on location which gives them a very refined, though artificial, feel.
While Kurosawa’s samurai films remain the more revered, and Mifune’s work in them remains the more iconic, these three films — certainly of an older-school of filmmaking — allow Mifune to shine within the confines of a “regular” samurai adventure series. He’s a tragic figure, a complicated man, and a brilliant swordsman, who lacks any of the snarl and swagger of Sanjuro or Kikuchiyo, Mifune’s most famous Kurosawa characters. If you have a weekend and want to watch some fantastic and exciting older movies, then definitely check out The Samurai Trilogy.