Criterion: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (****) begins a great adventure

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – 1954

Director Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenplay Tokuhei Wakao, Hiroshi Inagaki based on Miyamoto Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Rentarō Mikuni, Kuroemon Onoe, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada, Mitsuko Mito

In 1600, two soldiers (Mifune and Mikuni) on the wrong side of the Battle of Sekigahara scramble to survive soldiers of the Tokugawa shogunate who search for them. They end up hiding out in the house of a widow (Mito) and her daughter (Okada). From here, the paths diverge. Mikuni’s Matahachi leaves with the other two after Mifune’s Takezo fights off a bunch of bandits with a literal child’s toy. Thus begins the hunting of Takezo as he heads back to his homeland.

Most of the film shows an unfair treatment of the ultimately noble Takezo. He is treated like a wildling by everyone. His reputation is manipulated by Matachi’s mother, who doesn’t want to accept that her son chose not to come back. Matachi’s betrothed, Otsu (Yachigusa) is forced to the realization, when she receives a letter from the widow telling her not to wait. This is because the exceptionally weak willed man married Oko, even though he’d already made a move on her daughter. For all of these actions of others, Takezo is made to suffer.

The amount of suffering is remarkable. His decision to continue fighting (and winning) with the wooden samurai sword belies the way he views himself in this first film. His willingness to dig ditches while others lose the war, then to go on fighting when all is lost shows a man who sees himself as a loser who wants to die honorably in battle. Fortunately not everyone sees him this way.

The strangest and most grueling sequence occurs during act two, the first time he is captured by the priest, Takuan Sōhō. He calmly captures Takezo, and, sensing his wild passion inflicts an incredible punishment upon him that lasts for days. The priest ignores the pleas of Otsu, who now understands how noble the wild man really has been all along. Eventually, she helps him escape.

I will leave the last act for you to discover. Suffice to say, this is the first of three films of a legendary person who eventually becomes the titular Musashi Miyamoto.

This is definitely a star turn for Mifune, if there ever was one. His performance is exceptional and layered. He is still young enough to play the unsophisticated, passionate rogue. The film is beautifully dense with a delightful colored palette. While the characterizations of the townspeople are simplistic and ignorant, this is all in respect to the legend. The people we need to get character from are all on point, especially the widow, Matachi, Otsu and the priest.

If the film is lacking anything, it’s only that feeling of a complete story. This film has the makings of an epic, begging for continuation.

(**** out of *****)

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