Director Hiroshi Inagaki made three samurai films with Toshiro Mifune that remain classics of the genre. The films collected on the new Criterion Collection triple-DVD set are, Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). The films were inspired by the true life of one of Japan’s most durable folk heroes, Musashi Miyamoto, a role Mifune was seemingly born to portray.
Although Mifune was already well-known for his role in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon (1950), his work with Inagaki solidified his position as a Japanese film star. While all three of the films in the Samurai Trilogy work perfectly well on their own terms, Criterion’s packaging of them together is the greatest way to see them. Each tells a part of Musashi’s story that is integral to the legend.
The series was not intended as a trilogy from the outset, but Musashi Miyamoto became so popular that it inspire the two sequels. In Musashi Miyamoto we are introduced to the title character. In it we see Musashi’s growth from a wild, headstrong youth chasing glory as a swordsman, to his emergence as a true warrior, having gained a bit of wisdom along the way. Much like the characters of Three Outlaw Samurai, in the end, Musashi Miyamoto has become something of a ronin, who wanders the countryside, seeking spiritual enlightenment, and (when he must) righting the wrongs he is confronted with.
The first sequel was Duel at Ichijoji Temple. In this film we are introduced to the warrior Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), who practically steals the film. He is a fascinating character. When we are first introduced to him, it is during a battle Musashi is fighting with Yoshioka clan (who had ambushed him). Inagaki lingers on Sasaki’s behavior, as he silently watches the fight, before stepping in. Tsuruta’s performance as Sasaki is compelling, as Inagaki is undoubtedly aware, and the movie becomes much more than a simple sequel thanks to it.
The final installment of the trilogy is Duel at Ganryu Island, which continues Musashi’s quest for spirituality and enlightenment as he continues to defend himself against those who would make their names by killing him.
The lovely Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) weaves in and out of all three of the films. She wishes more than anything to become Musashi’s wife. Hers is a futile cause however, as he is fully focused on his quest, even as she becomes more and more desperate. In fact, at one point in the essay by Stephen Prince included in the booklet, “Her relentless obsession with Musashi may strike modern viewers as more characteristic of a stalker.”
The digital remastering of the films is striking, and new English subtitle translations have been created as well. As for bonus features, there are new interviews with translator and historian William Scott Wilson about the real-life Musashi Miyamoto.
The Samurai Trilogy is an excellent example of what has made the mid-century Japanese Samurai films so famous, and all three are highly recommended.