Director Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenplay Hiroshi Inagaki, Tokuhei Wakao based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and a play by Hideji Hōjō
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kōji Tsuruta, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
Samurai III is the third part of the story arc that finds hero Miyamoto Musashi (Mifune) fully evolved from wild and powerful rube, to burgeoning power with the samurai sword to wise complete samurai. In this final installment, Musashi is travelling with his protege and happening upon a fighting tournament. His humility is put to the test when his young liege calls the tournament winner out. Even as he tries to avoid a fight, he is recognized as the winner of at least 60 one on one contests. Then the word is out.
Meanwhile Sasaki (Tsuruta) is nearing the end of his travel with the maligned Akemi (Okada). He abandons her as she cannot stop loving Musashi. Problem is, Otsu (Yachigusa) has Musashi’s heart. It all feels like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
Sasaki defeats four samurai at once. Musashi arrives afterword and discovers that it only required one stroke for each of his opponents, and he is transfixed.
Soon they meet and agree to battle the next day. This is delayed by a year at Musashi’s insistence. This is kind of where the reality mixes with the movie and it feels like they chose reality. So, we wait a year.
During the interim, Musashi, ever learning about himself, decides to settle and become a farmer. Intrigue follows in the form of the two women after his heart. He finally comes to admit his love for Otsu, but not before Akemi nearly burns it all down.
Meanwhile, Sasaki has had a year to cash in on his reputation. He takes a position of honor, becomes comfortable and lets his hair grow to a sinister length. He stays hungry for the clash with his true rival.
The last installment of the trilogy narrowly avoids greatness by concentrating on the love story. It’s not that any of the storylines are done poorly. On the contrary, they’re about as evocative as was possible at the time.
The treatment of Akemi, sold into prostitution by her mother, is incredibly harsh. Though resentful that her mother’s reputation precedes her, she responds in kind. She knows no other way, other than to deceive.
Otsu and Musashi’s handling of their obvious feelings for each other is awkward. It may correspond with the times, or it could be just a victim of editing. Either way, it’s too long and winding for something so obvious. Perhaps if it were done in one film, like Angie Dickinson and John Wayne in Rio Bravo, it would be more fulfilling. After three films, the viewer just wants them to get on with it.
Tsuruta is a formidable opponent for Musashi. He’s not a very nice man for women. Like Musashi, he feels the calling to fight the very best. Unlike Musashi, he’s not afraid of the truth that he’d rather die by the blade than live by the plow. They are mirror opposites in personality, but they both have an extreme sense of honor.
Musashi is a great character arc for Mifune, aside from the incessant back and forth with women. What might have been is mixed by what censors would allow and the knowledge of tradition at the time. The only time it feels forced is when he’s trying to get on with Otsu. It feels like he has no idea how to land a kiss, much less give a girl a compliment she can understand.
The last fight is brilliant. Seeing Musashi’s intelligence at work, he comes to beautiful setting of a beach with the sun at his back. He takes advantage, using an oar fashioned into a sword to counter Sasaki’s intricately long sword. This reflects on the legend of a man who changed his tactics to meet whatever challenge he faced.
These movies are good fun. There are some limitations in filming, like the obvious shots of Musashi with a filmed background behind him mixed in with the real thing in the final battle. In the end, they feel like pieces of a whole. Just not all of the pieces. They have intrigued me to further study by reading the massive works of Yoshikawa. Who knows, I could like these better in a year. Or worse. It will never be less than very good.
(**** out of *****)