The Samurai Trilogy
Criterion has newly released Hiroshi Ingaki's Samurai trilogy as a box set of DVDs (previously featured in the pages of Animefringe). This set of Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel at Ganryu Island, comes at a much lower price than the three DVDs sold individually and thus it may persuade fans like myself who have held off buying the DVDs until now.
The Musashi trilogy follows the life story of Musashi Miyamoto, considered the greatest swordsman in Japanese history (the recent manga, Vagabond is a testament to his enduring popularity). Based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, the films follow Musashi from his origins as a hotheaded backcountry samurai who fights on the losing side of a major battle. After escaping the battle with his friend Matahachi, he stumbles upon a mother and daughter, Oko and Akemi, living in the wilds. The women prey on the spoils of dead samurai; Matahachi betrays Musashi and leaves with the women to Kyoto. Musashi returns to his village, only to be captured as prisoner by the province's officials. Matahachi's fiancée, Otsu, helps him escape, but they are both captured. The village priest intercedes on Musashi's behalf, and Musashi is allowed to become a retainer for the provincial lord. After studying, however, he decides to travel throughout Japan, winning renown and polishing his skill. While he journeys, both Akemi and Otsu follow him, attempting to win his love. Through his journeys he learns that justice and compassion, not just sword skill, makes the samurai. His journey from a reckless youth to a powerful swordsman, to the epitome of bushido justice culminates when he meets and battles the youthful Sasaki Kojiro, who like him is not only talented, but he is also ambitious.
Though the box set for the films is new, the movies themselves are among Criterion's earliest releases. As such, there isn't a lot of additional content that later Criterion DVDs are known for. Most of the Criterion Japanese film DVDs that I own have a commentary track and other extras. Rashomon even comes with excerpts from Akira Kurosawa's autobiography and the stories that inspired the film. Sadly, the Musashi box set has no such extras, outside of a small DVD insert describing each film and the theatrical trailers for all three movies. With so much important Japanese history (which the DVD deals with in poor subtitles) and cultural significance, a commentary track could have helped the films out immeasurably.
As mentioned above, the subtitles have a few problems throughout the three films. The subtitles often have more description than the film's actual text or dialogue. For example, at the beginning of the later two films, the subtitles describe the action thus far, though nothing like that are in the films themselves. Opposed to linear notes (something anime fans are used to seeing), I think adding more information in the subtitles was a less than ideal way of imparting that information. Additionally, a couple of times in the later two films, subtitles at the beginning of a scene flash for less than a second, dropping that dialogue for anyone who cannot understand the spoken Japanese.
More egregious, however, is the fact there is no new content on these discs. Re-releases are usually an opportunity for companies to add more content to a DVD to increase its worth. Instead, Criterion seems to think that simply lowering the price of the films is enough incentive to move these DVDs.
The films themselves are classics, of course. Together, they have a very "epic" feel, and they are the first fully conceived film trilogy. The Musashi trilogy is also one of the first Japanese films in color (for perspective, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai came out the same year as the first film). The color does seem old (and if your TV's color is not set well, the first film especially will look murky), but it is beautiful and the film's cinematography definitely benefits from the color. Unlike Seven Samurai, Musashi is not a realistic film; made in the 1950s, it is the story of a Japanese hero, a super samurai. The battles in Musashi are beautiful. They are choreographed art, not the ugliness of real battle captured in Seven Samurai. The music by Ikuma Dan is what one would expect from an epic film: beautiful, strong, grand, and thematic.
Though the films have a lot of great sword fighting (Musashi won sixty duels during his life), the real motivation for the characters is more human. The films chronicle Musashi's life from a backcountry samurai to an enlightened samurai, who values justice over sheer power. He is further contrasted with Sasaki, who just like Musashi before his enlightenment, he dreams of becoming famous through battling. The love triangle between Musashi, Akemi, and Otsu stands as important as the dueling.
The acting is great; Toshiro Mifune, one of the greatest Japanese actors of all time plays Musashi, while Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, is a perfect example of Japanese womanhood. A number of well known Japanese actors make the rounds in the films, including Minoru Chiaki and Takeshi Shimura, both of whom co-star with Mifune in Seven Samurai. However, Mifune as always steals the show (not difficult, considering the role he is playing). Unlike nearly every action star after him, Mifune plays both a tragic figure and a powerful swordsman. He can kill twenty men in battle, but then he can believably cry and still be an action star. Not even Clint Eastwood can pull that off. Indeed, even with today's technology and "Beat" Takeshi, the recent NHK Musashi drama has a hard time comparing to Ingaki's classic films.
These are classic samurai films, some of the most important films in the genre. Criterion's bare bones release can't change that. Though the Musashi trilogy has a lot of action in Musashi's many duels and fights, the films are concentrated on Musashi's evolution as a man and his relationship with Akemi and Otsu. The emphasis on human emotions raises the films above hack and slash fests like Zatoichi and makes Musashi one of film's most enduring classics.