Toshiro Mifune is likely forever linked with Akira Kurosawa and the numerous samurai films he made with that most renowned Japanese filmmaker. Mifune’s gruff, effortlessly capable ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro is perhaps the most indelible image of the entire genre. But before truly breaking out in Kurosawa’s films, Mifune starred in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, a series of films based on the life of 17th century samurai and Renaissance man Musashi Miyamoto.
Adapted from the epic novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, The Samurai Trilogy has a scope that is appropriately sweeping and almost functions as one continuous film. Mifune stars as Takezo, an unruly aspiring samurai who goes on to become the great Musashi Miyamoto, an unrivaled swordsman who finds ultimate balance in his life by also pursuing writing and art. Mifune’s transformation from wide-eyed youngster to the impenetrably calm Musashi is wholly convincing, and Inagaki’s graceful classical direction allows the viewer to be easily transfixed by the unwinding tale.
Criterion’s two-disc set includes all three films — Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island. In each, we witness Musashi’s attempts to further his skills; his quest for self-improvement, often initiated by a priest; and his conflicted relationship with Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), who desperately wants him to give up his wandering lifestyle and settle down with her.
While the first film does an excellent job establishing Musashi’s character, the subsequent two films possess most of the action and compelling swordfight sequences. As Musashi’s reputation develops and his undefeated streak grows, a challenger arises in the person of rival samurai Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), and it soon becomes clear that a showdown between the two is inevitable.
The Samurai Trilogy is fantastic classical moviemaking, anchored by an incredibly charismatic lead and possessing a tale borne from irresistible source material. While Inagaki’s films may not reach the breathless creative heights of Kurosawa, there’s a stylistic grace and a steady hand that makes each film feel perfectly realized, and the compound effect of watching all three films in short order only makes that more clear.