Review: Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Directed by:
Cast: , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

Like all good reviewers I’m reviewing the first film (Samurai 1) after the second one (Samurai 2), don’t worry I did watch them in the right order.

This is the great first episode of the famous trilogy based on the life of Musashi Miyamoto, its star, everyone’s favourite screen samurai, Toshiro Mifune (well, mine at least).

Musashi really existed, but much like Wong Fei Hung in China his life has been mythologized and his story has become part of folklore. There have been many adaptations of the famous story, this one like many others is based on the famous novelisation by Eiji Yoshikawa in the 1930’s (1935-1939)

Maybe it’s just because it’s old, about samurai and starring Toshiro Mifune but Kurosawa was on my mind when I sat down to watch this. Even from the opening scenes it’s obvious that Hiroshi Inagaki is a very different director. An obvious starting point would be that the film is in colour (Kurosawa held out for many years preferring the sharpness of Black and White) and it really gives the film a great surreal look which fits well with the mythic fable.

The Technicolor cinematography paired with the lush, swirling Hollywood style score really reminded me of a classic Western, maybe something by John Ford. Even the strong melodramatic plot owed a debt to classic Hollywood cinema, while also remaining distinctly Japanese.

This film basically spends most of its time setting up the characters and the basic story. Takezo (Mifune) convinces his friend Matahashi (Mikune) to join the army, hoping that it will be the first step on to road to his goal, becoming a famous Samurai. Unfortunately they end up on the losing side. This failure is basically the catalyst for the whole story. He is an angry young man and in early scenes it is brute force and primal instinct that guide his actions. In simple terms it is a story of enlightenment as Takezo (later to be dubbed Musashi) learns that the path to becoming a true Samurai is a difficult one, and it’s not only about one’s skill with a blade.

Given the Zen-like philosophy that engulfs the movie it is fitting that the mentor figure is a Buddhist priest, Takuan. In a striking sequence that proves to be central to the whole trilogy, Takuan has Musashi strung up. He offers a proposition, either he is killed or he he agrees to change his ways and to be taught the real art of Samurai. Of course he chooses the latter (otherwise it would be a pretty short film) and begins his journey. This is what makes the character interesting, you get to see him grow and see how he implements (both the physical and mental) what he has learnt.

While the entire cast is strong this instalment in particular is dominated by the imposing figure of Toshiro Mifune. His baritone growl is a powerful emotive tool and he’s also pretty nifty with a sword. It’s not all boys and their swords though, the central romance between Musashi and Otzu is quite sweet at times and Mifune proves that it’s OK for tough guys to cry. It’s mostly due to the strong performance of Koaru Yachigusa as Otzu, that her character is never made pathetic or totally simplistic.

Otzu’s betrothed Matahashi decided to take a different path. After meeting with a widow, Oko and her daughter Akime he splits from Musashi while he is off fighting
bandits. The three become a surrogate family of sorts (though things are complicated because the two women were rejected by Musashi and still harbour feelings for him). The character of Matahashi becomes an interesting counterpoint to Musashi’s and the two friends grow apart and go in such different directions.

As you can see there is quite a lot of plot that Samurai has to chew through: this means that there is very little action, but that never feels like a problem because the characters and story are so strong and engrossing (you can also get you action fix in the next two films).

That’s about it. It’s lots of fun to watch, looks great, strong story, great cast and it’s well paced. A perfect addition to any samurai fan’s collection: go and watch it, then watch the next one, and the next one. Go on, be greedy.

9 Bits of Buddhist Wisdom out of 10.
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