Samurai Trilogy Discussion
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
The first film in this trilogy opens with a very subtle bang; so subtle you may not have realized you heard it in the back of your mind. The conflict in this film is not one of wars and violence, love and betrayal, but conflict of conviction and of the mind. It is a film that has some questions, and because the main character is changing and evolving, and is unsure of himself; answers are not given. This is a compliment not a criticism; the film does a great job of telling an engaging story and creating memorable characters, but these characters are not as simple as they appear, and the film has more going on than what is seen at face value. I have yet to see the second two films in the trilogy, so take this first part on with that knowledge. I am going to give my quick thoughts about the three films individually, and then do a conclusion when I have seen all three films.
The most impressive thing to me right from the start was the landscapes and backdrops; very colorful and ornate in a way that make the viewer aware of their beauty. The story constantly weaves the characters in and out of the towns and cities and into nature, allowing for plenty of beautiful natural shots. The acting by Mifune has been praised by plenty, and I will join them in their song. He is at his best here, full of complex emotions deep down, and wild and mad on the outside. Some may call the story simple or his acting over the top but I have to disagree. First, the time at which the film was made must be considered, the acting style taken in that context is not over the top, but simply some of the best. Second, on the surface yes it is a straightforward story, but there are plenty of subtle clues littered throughout the film that let us know some of the deeper feelings the characters are struggling with.
For example, take the ending of the film. Miyamoto admits to Otsu how much he loves her, and even submits to her will and allows her to come with him. We all know he is going to walk away without her as she prepares to leave; this is not surprising anyone if you have seen a samurai film before. Before he leaves however there are two shots of reeds being pulled by the current of the stream. It is a beautiful image to symbolize his need to move on and shred any roots he had as Takezo, and to truly become Miyamoto. He takes the time to carve, “forgive me” in the railing of the bridge. This is especially touching if we consider how Otsu has been hurt before by a man going off and promising to return to her. He takes the time to let her know he understands how this will hurt her, and wants her to know he is sorry and asking for her forgiveness.
His time onscreen as Miyamoto is limited in the first installment, but in the short time we can already witness his transformation. He walks more firmly and more slowly; speaks with more conviction but less volume; has deeper thoughts and emotions, but keeps them within himself. Even when he is admitting his love for Otsu, it is with a calm and forward resolve. The animal that everyone was trying to kill has been tamed and reborn by the monk. Part of what created the animal was his desire for fame, and his arrogance on the battlefield, and perhaps his lack of direct family, but I believe a large majority of it was due to the loss of his friend. He is a man of absolute conviction, and I think it hurt him to see his friend not only abandon him, but his wife back at the village as well. In his eyes, he still cares for his friend, but he cannot ignore the wrongs of Matahachi. When he did get back to the village, only to be betrayed by Matahachi’s mother, I think it cemented these feelings.
When he was hanging from the tree his spirit was not broken by physical exhaustion, but by the exhaustion of his ability to be able to count the people who cared for him, and people he cared for in return. That is why when Otsu let him down it made such a strong impression on him, and why when she showed her hands to him, he began to cry. They were not tears of sadness, but an expression of joy, celebration, and relief; someone in the world cared for his life. The priest was not counting on Otsu to let him down, but when she did he was able to adapt and change is plan accordingly, and locking him in the castle to study, he had a reason for him to get out, a goal at the end simply besides his own life, Otsu. The priest even admits to Otsu he knows little about love, which is a bit of play on words; he knows little about the physical interactions of love between two people, but he is a studied monk, and knows the concepts and ideals of love better than most. It is a combination of studying, mediation, and love that changed Takezo into Miyamoto; I have a feeling the journey he is about to start at the end of the first film will change Miyamoto into the legendary samurai that is the stuff of legends.
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
I am enjoying the series as a whole, and so far the second film is my favorite. Having not seen the third film, the second is more of a continuation than a sequel, and if the third film continues this trend, and I think it will, you could really watch all three back to back. It picks up right where the first film left off, some time has passed and our samurai is a bit older, but we are immersed right back into his world and we feel as if we haven’t missed a thing. The second film made several impressions on me: the costume design is simply gorgeous, the landscapes and backdrops continue to be stunning, the music is epic and awesome, and Inagaki really used lighting to benefit the story. I enjoyed this more than the first, because it was more intricate. The first film had many subtle details and hints to uncover, but the emotions and relationships here are intertwined and strained in very interesting and honest ways.
Mifune is still at his best here, and he does a great job of giving as a swordsman, not a samurai. He is one the way to becoming a samurai, but Mifune holds back and revs up in the appropriate manner to show us his character is still just a brutally strong, and skilled swordsman. Newcomer to the trilogy, Koji Tsuruta, as Kojiro Sasaki, is a real benefit to the film. He is confident without being cocky, and even ads in some very dry humor from time to time, which was appreciated. I will say I have read a bit on what to expect in the final installment, and I am glad to see Sasaki will be returning because I do like his character, and story wise he is the only character presented that could pose a real challenge to Miyamoto.
We get a very good look at Miyamoto in this film, a deeper and more open view to what drives and motivates this great man. Although we get to see these things, what we see is not easily described or understood, he is a complex character. All around him, he is being constantly reminded of and forced to face his past. He starts off meeting a young orphan, who is a version of the man Miyamoto used to be, full of fight, naïve, and yet to understand the life he has chosen to follow. He eventually meets a geisha, who reminds him of Otsu, and he is forced to face his fear of affection, and he leaves that relationship with a better understanding of who he is, and what people are important to him. The most revealing and exposing thing we learn about Miyamoto, and subsequently he learns about himself, is the value of victory without taking a life. In the beginning he is met with a chance encounter with an old teacher, who states he is too strong, but leaves Miyamoto to ponder his words without explanation. He spends the entire film taking life, and thinking of himself as a skilled swordsman, and it is not until the final encounter that he realizes the meaning of the old master’s words. His choice to claim victory, and not take a life, finally gave him momentary peace, although it would not last, and he continues his long walk of solitude.
The lighting lent itself well to the moods of the scenes in the film. The final battle was especially dark, showing the anger and darkness in the heart of Miyamoto, and we saw things brighten up when he was around Otsu. In addition to the scenery, there are many shots displaying natural beauty, one in particular we saw a similar version of in the first film. In the first film we saw reeds in the water, in this we see a strong river flowing around rocks, creating white water and more noise than the reeds in the stream. As Miyamoto is growing stronger he is becoming more solid, more steadfast, and less easily moved. However, this means when things to come against him, they will crash in a more chaotic fashion.
As much as we want to see Otsu and Miyamoto live happily ever after, we know this cannot be and the two characters know it cannot be, well not in this installment at least. I think Otsu is so deeply in love with him, that she rejected him on the river side because she was afraid of being just a random act, not an act of love. Additionally, she turned him down for the fact that he just threw himself on her suddenly and not in a very romantic way, a little subtlety goes a long way. I am excited to see the conclusion, and so far I can see why the series is treasured, and I am enjoying all the epic qualities of the films so far.
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
So good to know where the idea for catching flies in chopsticks for Karate Kid came from, assuming this film didn’t borrow that idea from a previous one. Moving on, as I am writing about the third and final film, I will also be interjecting some of my final thoughts about the trilogy as a whole. The ending in my mind was perfect; the final shot of the sole boat crossing the water could not have been done any better. The final battle was as epic and tense as all the buildup led us to believe it would be. The two lovers never quite reach that state of bliss, but I think they finally understand how their love works and they both come to acceptance of that fact. All loose ends were tied up, and as a trilogy, it was entertaining, moving, epic, tense, and beautiful; I was very pleased and I am glad it is now in my collection.
This, of the three, was the most traditional of samurai films. It had our samurai doing small acts to display his talent, he was quiet and withdrawn, and did things that did not make sense to most of the characters surrounding him in the story. However, this is not a negative, I feel all these element work well, because we saw the journey of how he reached his current state. This film helps to further display his understanding, that winning and strength are not the only keys to victory. The tear at the end, was more than appropriate. He lost his greatest rival, his best competitor, and his greatest challenge, what was their left for the great Miyamoto to do but weep? It was one of the reasons I believe he chose to postpone the duel for a year. He wanted to focus his mind, on that one thing for a whole year, he wanted to hone his body and his spirit, but he also knew that no matter the outcome, both men would not be the same after the duel. I was sad to see Akemi die, but in the back of my mind knew it was coming; she was a character full of hardships from the very first film, and it was inevitable that her fate would lead to an untimely death.
This trilogy, for me, captured the life of a man in film. It would be easy, except for the time, to watch all three back to back. It was a samurai action flick, a love triangle drama, and existential discovery film all rolled into three great installments. The scenery and cinematography has some truly stunning moments, the pinnacle being the final duel, and the acting by Mifune was nearly perfect. I have no real critiques of the films, there were little things here and there, but nothing I feel that is big enough to be a detriment to the trilogy. I have heard previous viewers mention the films to be too dark, but the Criterion blu-ray was clear and bright for all the nighttime scenes. Others have also mentioned the portrayal of the women as nothing more than objects, but I find that argument hard to justify. I actually consider Otsu and Akemi to be two very strong women, both exhibited deep commitment, fortitude, and strength. The other side of that is the era in which the film was made must be taken into consideration, just as with the style of acting. The final part of that is a difference of cultures, Japanese culture, especially surrounding love, is very complicated, and I won’t pretend I know all the details of how it works, but I have picked up enough from watching other films, that nothing in this trilogy struck me as inappropriate or sexist.
If you are a fan of samurai films, and have the time and resources to get your hands on this collection, go for it! It has more than enough to set it apart from being just another samurai film. It epic scope, score, and scenery are worth the price of admission. The journey of Miyamoto is one that has cemented itself in history, and this trilogy does a just job of bringing that journey to life. For me, the most striking image is the face of Miyamoto right before he goes in for the final killing blow. It is full of determination, focus, calm, strength, conviction, death, and respect. It is important for us to take the time to consider everything that is going through his mind, as he seems to know he is about to land the killing blow, and the director gives us this opportunity, as he recognized it was important for the spirit of the trilogy for the audience to have that moment, and he recognized Miyamoto deserved that moment. It is moments like this, that are scattered throughout the trilogy, that help to make it epic, help to make it grand, and help it to remain on my mind, days after I have finished watching the final frames leave the screen.