Criterion Corner: The Samurai Trilogy (#14-16)

I’ve said it before: there’s an effect not unlike Stockholm Syndrome that can come with long-form storytelling. If you follow the fates of a set of characters over a longer time, if you watch or read about a community over many chapters, seasons or volumes, it’s very well possible that you begin by bouncing off of, or even disliking, the story and its characters – but we are likely to hold on to the things we enjoy, minimise those we dislike, and over time we justify the time we’ve put into a story by investing in it emotionally. A film is usually over after two hours, and unless we revisit it at a later stage, it never really has this opportunity to win us around – but a series? A game lasting 50+ hours? A graphic novel that tells its story over ten volumes? At least for me it’s like this: either I stop early, or I keep going, because there are some interesting elements or characters I like, or perhaps I’ve heard from so many people that the story becomes really engrossing – and after I’ve put a certain amount of time into this story, I’ll find that I’m invested, because otherwise I’d have to tell myself that this time was pretty much wasted. Is it something of a psychological self-protection mechanism? Or do some stories simply need more time to have the intended effect? I suspect it’s a combination of the two – but, honestly, how am I to tell?

I came to director Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy because the best cinema in the world ran a series of films titled Mythos Samurai at the beginning of this seemingly endless year. We saw most of the films they were showing, but among others we missed Harakiri (which I wrote about a while ago, after watching the Criterion issue) as well as Inagaki’s three films. In no small part because they star Toshiro Mifune, an immensely charismatic actor that I know mostly from his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, I ordered the Criterion set that collects all three films, but after a surfeit of samurai and their sword-wielding endeavours we didn’t immediately watch them, waiting instead until now.

Personally, I found it difficult going from Kurosawa’s films about samurai and ronin, and from other samurai films we’d seen, like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana and the aforementioned Harakiri, to Inagaki’s trilogy telling the story of legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. In these other films, the world of the samurai and its values are seen critically. The Samurai Trilogy, however, adapts a novel that came out in 1935. It embraces these values wholeheartedly, and as a result it feels… simplistic, perhaps? Or conservative? There is a feel of legend or folk tale to the overarching story about the legendary swordsman, and while there may be some appeal to that, in these films it expresses itself in characters that are largely one-dimensional. Aside from Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune), his rival Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta) and a handful of other characters, barely anyone in these films warrants more than one or two words of description: the mentor, the antagonist, the pining lover, the blowhard, the scheming woman. Compare these with the more complex characters of, say, Kurosawa’s films and it’s difficult not to come away feeling that there is something almost childish about the Samurai Trilogy.

In fact, what I found myself reminded of frequently was the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that I read as a child: stories of chivalry and valour, in which men proved their honour in battle and women were there either to pine for these men or to tempt them. These stories were intriguing at the time because of the world they depicted, a world that was both unfamiliar and easy to understand. The same appeal can be found in the Samurai Trilogy, but I find that it doesn’t work on me as well as it did when I was small. Inagaki’s films strive for the pathos and epicness that Kurosawa’s films often achieve, but to a large extent they lack the wit, and the mythos is never really undercut.

At the same time, I would be lying if I said that the films didn’t wear down my defenses over time, and to a large extent this is due to Mifune. It is his performance, in part, that makes these films: they don’t give most of the actors much to do beyond a small set of characteristics and emotions, but Musashi Miyamoto is arguably the character that develops the most, from a young man barely more than a child (admittedly, it takes some suspension of disbelief to accept 34-year old Mifune as a teenager) to the master swordsman putting aside his sword to become a farmer. Mostly, however, it is Mifune’s considerable screen presence and charisma, as Miyamoto too is less a complex character in any modern sense than a knight errant out of myth and folklore.

If Mifune is one of the stars of the Samurai Trilogy, the other is certainly the cinematography. The trilogy takes its protagonist from the muddy trenches of the Battle of Sekigahara to bustling cities and secluded temples, and it finds varied and interesting ways of staging pursuits and battles. The more intimate and romantic scenes may not be as memorable, but it is generally not that side of Miyamoto’s life that works best in the films anyway. Inagaki isn’t above some crowdpleasing shots, especially in the climactic battles of the second and third films, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), but he also knows when to withhold things from the audience, for instance showing us the lead-up and aftermath of a key fight in Duel at Ichijoji Temple but neither the fight nor the deathblow themselves. The casting also plays into the aesthetics of the trilogy, especially with Koji Tsuruta’s Sasaki Kojiro, Miyamoto’s fanboy supreme whose greatest wish is to face his idol on the battlefield, who looks like he’s just stepped out of a Japanese wood print of the era. As these are relatively early colour films, the style does vary, with some scenes taking on naturalistic hues while others have the garishness of Technicolor’s most glorious examples, but overall the films still feel visually cohesive.

Verdict: All in all, it’s easy to see the appeal of Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy – especially their visuals and Mifune’s magnetic screen presence – but they are very much films that benefit from their audience knowing what to expect. For viewers coming from Kurosawa’s works and his samurai and ronin that succeed at being iconic and critical of the mythos at the same time, the characters and morality of the trilogy can feel flat and simplistic. The films are also old-fashioned in their depiction of combat, which is as bloodless as later films in the genre are the opposite, painting the screen in gallons of the red stuff. The material is handled with so much respect that I found it difficult not to wish for the subversiveness and wit of some of Kurosawa’s samurai films (that star Mifune in parts that are very different from his honourable knight errant Musashi Miyamoto), and especially the female characters have little to do but pine and scheme. Nonetheless, for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre or the iconography, the trilogy is well worth seeing – just allow for the fact that you won’t be watching this for the characters or for an interesting, surprising plot. The Samurai Trilogy, and the stories it is based on, are much better looked at as the fundamental pattern against which more revisionist films are to be read and understood.

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