1954 was a big year for Japanese cinema. Included in its bumper crop of notable films was Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (both recipients of the Silver Lion at that year’s Venice Film Festival), Keisuke Kinoshita’s “Twenty-Four Eyes” and Ishirô Honda’s “Gojira.” Another significant release was Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto,” which would go on to win the honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (before a competitive category was established). Starring Toshirô Mifune and spinning an exciting tale of feudal Japan , it proved to be a substantial and appealing film for Western audiences still in the midst of discovering Japanese cinema for the first time.
Based on Eji Yoshikawa’s novel about the renowned samurai Musashi Miyamoto who penned the strategic text “The Book of Five Rings,” the film begins in the year 1600. When we first meet Mifune’s character, he goes by the name of Takezo. He and his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) are restless young men who yearn to achieve glory in battle. While Takezo is practically a free agent, Matahachi is bound by obligation to both his betrothed Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) and his mother Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi). Regardless, the two men enlist as foot soldiers and soon enough find themselves in the terrible Battle of Sekigahara – on the losing side. With Matahachi wounded, the two men discover the home of Oko (Mitsuko Mito), a widow, and her daughter Akemi (Mariko Okada). They spend two months there hiding and recovering, during which romantic tensions arise between them and their hosts. It is revealed that Oko and Akemi suffer from extortion at the hands of bullying brigands and strip dead samurai of their valuables in order to come up with the necessary payments. Takezo and Matahachi help fight off the thugs, but become separated when the women flee to safer settings. Matahachi goes with them while Takezo returns to their home village only to find himself a hunted man unjustly accused of deserting his friend.
Inagaki appropriately deploys a whole slew of cinematic techniques to illustrate the enthralling story. Crane shots, pans and tracking shots are all liberally used, giving the film a dynamic charge. The period setting is richly reconstructed through elaborate costumes and buildings (in some cases actual buildings, such as the Himeji Castle ). Another substantial element of its impressive production value is its use of Eastmancolor, wielded with great skill by cinematographer Jun Yasumoto. Like other notable color films from the 1940s and ‘50s (think Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” and Renoir’s “The River”), “Samurai I” has a pleasantly vibrant look about it, as exemplified by blue and pink kimonos, swelteringly green underbrush and, in one sequence, a hazy yellow afternoon.
At the center of the film is Mifune, who gives another of his legendary, electrifying performances. While the film is called “Musashi Miyamoto,” it is in fact an origin story revealing how the legendary warrior came to be. Thus, for the majority of “Samurai I,” Mifune is not Miyamoto, but Takezo: an impulsive, reckless and undisciplined man who dreams of achieving fame through combat. Mifune portrays him with raw ferocity and rage that really comes through when the inhabitants of his home village work themselves into a state of near hysteria and launch a frenzied search for him. This effectively forces him to become an animal in the wilderness – a cunning survivor who must rely on his wits and strength in order to stay alive and avoid getting caught by the authorities. While hiding throughout the village, he makes contact with Otsu to tell her that Matahachi is alive, but wisely withholds the reason for his absence. One of the film’s most entertaining characters is the wise, good-humored Buddhist priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), who has many great scenes with Takezo, matching his blunt anger with patience, ingenuity and spunk. Through many cruel yet comical methods, Takuan seeks to redirect Takezo’s brutal nature towards the purpose of doing good in the world, shaping him into the man who will be known as Musashi Miyamoto.
As plainly indicated by its title, “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” is only the first part of a trilogy Inagaki made about Miyamoto. The structure of the film itself only reinforces its introductory status, as it is essentially one big exposition for character and story arcs that will be further explored in the later installments. While very well made and highly enjoyable in and of itself, “Samurai I” nicely fulfills its purpose as a grand setup for a bigger adventure that I am all too eager to continue following.