A few years ago I decided to work my way through the classics of cinema. Many of them I really enjoyed, but there were some that were a bit of a struggle to sit through, at the end I would say that was a bit of a struggle, but it was a worthy film. The Samurai Trilogy was on my list but I hadn’t been able to get to it (partly because of the lack of availability, which has been rectified by the recent Eastern Eye releases). I was a little worried that it would be another ‘worthy’ film, but I had nothing to fear the films are great and a real joy to sit through.
This second instalment picks up right where the first left off. With Musashi wandering off on his journey of spiritual enlightenment: his quest to become a true samurai. Like all good sequels should this film better the impressive original in almost every way.
First and foremost I was struck by the delicate painterly beauty of the Technicolor cinematography. While the black and white photography in Kurosawa’s early efforts ( Rashomon and Seven Samurai) is gorgeous It’s really nice to see the Samurai world in colour, not only for the great natural vistas but for the Kimono’s. I don’t know how historically accurate the costume department was trying to be, but I didn’t realise how lurid some of the designs were, with an emphasis on bright orange, green and red. Lets not forget the guys either as they (especially Toshiro Mifune in some fetching blue pants) looked very dapper in their samurai garb.
Musashi (and Mifune in a typically great performance) is the star but it’s actually the supporting cast (especially in the strong middle section) that drive the story. The women (Otzu, Akime and Oko) are more complex then window dressing or love interests (the central romance between Otzu and Musashi is far from straight forward) and the villains (Seijuro and Kojiro) aren’t entirely without sympathy.
The story is strong, building on the first part nicely. The characters that went their separate ways are now brought back together. Musashi has come back home to duel with the Yoshioka School. The head of the school Seijuro is getting music lessons from Akime (with her mother Oko and new husband Matahashi in tow). Otzu has been waiting patiently for Musashi and now gets her chance to see him again. Things have changed of course and it’s really interesting to see what path each character takes. Along with Seijuro there is the introduction of another major player the shady samurai Kojiro who’s skill with the blade may match that of Musashi. While his intentions aren’t quite clear (yet) you know he will be Musashi’s rival (you’ll have to wait for the final episode to see the outcome of their inevitable duel). Kojiro (as played by Koji Tsuruta) makes you realise that a charismatic villain is a great thing (and somewhat rare nowadays.)
Of course the characters are complimented by the strong and decidedly dramatic plot. It is almost Shakespearian with the prerequisite amount of Jealousy, envy, betrayal and misunderstanding to keep the plot from stalling. Though it is not heavy handed at all, the film is actually quite delicate and light, which is part of the reason it’s so easy to watch. To delve too deeply into the plot here would ruin one of the central enjoyments of watching the film (well, that and the fact that it’s pretty complex, it is based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s massive 1930’s novel Musashi after all). It’s essentially a classical melodrama (in the Hollywood sense); action is definitely not the central focus of the film.
Speaking of action, there’s probably less of it then you would expect in a story about samurai. The duel’s themselves are swift and exacting (Mifune proves again that he’s a deft hand with a blade) but it’s the build up’s, the stillness in-between that really impress. The big ambush duel against the 80 students may disappoint some as it mostly takes place in darkness making it hard to pick out exactly what’s going on. This is partly due to the quality of the film stock (though it has been re-mastered well), the sequence has an impressionistic beauty and is really well staged (if you want a full on samurai vs an army duel try the Lone Wolf and Cub series). The action is part of the plot not a distraction from it, fighting is one of the key components (well, he is a samurai) Musashi must master if he is to complete his journey.
Interestingly the film doesn’t shy away from the selfishness of Musashi’s decision to become a Samurai. In one key scene Musashi realises (with some pain) that his love for his sword outweighs that for Otzu, his path is a lonely one. His is also not yet a perfect Samurai, though he is shown winning numerous challenges he has been told (by a wise old man no less) that he still relies on too much instinct and brute force. These wise words become an important factor in the final duel (which also features a moment not totally unlike ‘use the force, Luke’. Maybe Kurosawa wasn’t the only Japanese director George borrowed from.)
I don’t think there’s much more I can say, this is a great film. The ‘journey continues’ ending should have you rushing out to grab the next instalment, in fact it wouldn’t be much of a struggle to watch all three back to back. Hiroshi Inagaki really deserves his place alongside Kurosawa and Ozu as one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers.