Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 1: The Samurai Trilogy

11 Mar

April 1, 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest film actor in history. (He died in 1997.) I have tons of Mifune films I want to write about and I realize I can’t do it all in one piece, so I’m putting together a series on Mifune leading up to his centennial date. I’ve written about the Samurai Trilogy before, including a planned blog post that got delayed once I learned Criterion had released a new, updated, remastered edition that I needed to acquire and watch first. (The previous Criterion edition suffered from inferior print quality and inadequate subtitles.) I watched the new edition this month.

VHS edition:

First Criterion DVD edition:

Second Criterion DVD edition:

The Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki for Toho Pictures, stars Mifune as a wild untamed youth named Takezo, from Miyamoto Village, who becomes a polished swordsman and artisan, renamed Musashi Miyamoto, and travels Japan in the early 1600s seeking wisdom and enlightenment, but mostly tests of skill, all while being pursued by two women who knew him before his transformation. The three films, all photographed in color, are:




Musashi Miyamoto is the most legendary swordsman in Japanese history and stories about him have been dramatized on film from the beginning of Japanese cinema. This trilogy wasn’t even the first time Mifune had played the character. Nor was it the first time Inagaki had told the story. He had directed a similar trilogy in black-and-white during the war. Both Inagaki trilogies were based on a series of novels on Musashi by Japanese author Eiji Yoshikawa. These novels, which began as a newspaper serial running from 1935 to 1939, have been published in English as a series of five volumes. I’ve read all five. The novels also formed the basis for a five-film MUSASHI MIYAMOTO series done at Toei Pictures from 1961-65 and starring Kinnosuke Nakamura as the title character. Musashi himself wrote a book late in life called The Book of Five Rings, a guide to strategy which has been translated into English and is still in print. (The book was very popular among businessmen in the U.S. during a period in the 1980s when the U.S. was trying to duplicate Japan’s postwar “economic miracle.”)

SAMURAI I: MUSASHI MIYAMOTO was the first depiction of Musashi in color. Toshiro Mifune was 34 when he made the film, playing a character who starts out as a wild youth named Takezo who goes off recklessly into battle at Sekigahara in 1600, only to emerge, lucky to be alive, with his wounded friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), and on the run from pursuing Tokugawa soldiers. He and Matahachi are given aid and comfort by a mother-and-daughter team, Oko (Mitsuko Mito) and Akemi (Mariko Okada), who make their living pillaging the battlefield corpses of the samurai and selling their plunder. Abandoned by the others, Takezo heads back to his village with the intention of informing Matahachi’s mother, Osugi (Eiko Miyoshi), and childhood sweetheart, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), that Matahachi is still alive. However, he runs afoul of the local authorities and soon becomes a wanted man, killing or maiming anyone who tries to capture him. Only the Buddhist priest, Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), aided by Otsu, is able to entice Takezo into surrendering into his custody. From there, Takezo is locked in a chamber in Himeji Castle and forced to begin a long period of isolation engaged in study and meditation, emerging after three years as a new man with a new name, Musashi Miyamoto, and a new mission—to travel Japan, train as a swordsman and find instruction wherever it appears. Otsu, who has fallen in love with him, has waited patiently all this time for him to emerge, only to be accorded an all-too-brief reunion.

SAMURAI II: DUEL AT ICHIJOJI TEMPLE follows Musashi as he becomes famous for a series of duels in which he kills several formidable opponents and sets the stage for the climactic duel with Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihiko Hirata), who heads a noted school of sword technique. Befriended by a renowned sword master (Ko Mihashi) in Kyoto, Musashi is taken to a geisha house and spends considerable time with Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), the star courtesan, who falls for the reticent, naïve Musashi and tries, to no avail, to teach him the pleasures of love. Musashi, however, appreciates the sophistication and delicacy of the geisha arts and is a favorite of the young girls who are geisha-in-training. Eventually, though, he is pulled back into the ongoing challenge from the Yoshioka School. During the course of  all this, he meets, for the first time, the cocky young swordsman, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), who will be Musashi’s most famous opponent. Several other characters, including Otsu, Oko, Akemi, Matahachi and Osugi, all wind up in Kyoto at the same time. Otsu and Akemi meet and learn that they each love Takezo, as they still refer to him. Oko practically gives Akemi to Seijuro, who, upon learning that she loves Musashi, rapes her and robs her of her virginity. After the climactic duel, staged in the countryside amidst a rice field, Otsu and Musashi wind up together again for a brief idyllic sojourn in a mountain hut until a misunderstanding separates them once more.

SAMURAI III: DUEL AT GANRYU ISLAND has a number of different narrative arcs and includes Kojiro Sasaki’s brief affair with Akemi and a long stay by Musashi and his new companions, the boy, Jotaro, and the horse trainer, Kumagoro, in a farming village under attack by bandits. Eventually, Musashi is challenged by Kojiro and has to prepare for yet another duel, this one being the most important of his career.

In the course of the trilogy, Mifune has to transform from a maddened youth, angry at his village and the local authorities for branding him a criminal when all he wanted to do was make amends with Matahachi’s family and then leave, to a devoted student of arts and philosophy and then a wandering loner eager to follow the path of the sword. Mifune is most convincing as a wild man, giving a furiously physical performance, fighting everyone who comes near him and running up mountain roads, up hills and through forests. Even when tied up and hanging from a tree, he looks fit to bust out at any moment, cursing at the monk and the townspeople and only calming down after a long talk with the monk one stormy night while still trussed up.

For much of the rest of the trilogy, Mifune has to hone that animal wildness and channel it into his duels, while showing great restraint in his dealings with Otsu, Akemi, Yoshino and various nobles, monks and other characters he comes in contact with. He is summoned to meet various lords and high officials and understands how to behave and show respect even as he turns down various offers of employment in order to continue his quest. Remarkably, they all seem to understand completely. While we believe Musashi is reformed and genuinely devoted to his mission, there’s still a sense of smoldering strength and fury underneath, of constantly having to keep a lid on. He’ll never be totally satisfied and rarely be able to commit.

In one long sequence in SAMURAI III, he does in fact settle down to farm for a spell and puts the same focus and intensity into his farming as he does with his swordsmanship. He’s his own man and completely in charge of his destiny. However, when both Otsu and Akemi show up, roughly at the same time, he finds their presence distracting, even though Otsu would gladly be his wife and work the farm with him. He can’t seem to work as hard when either of the women are there. When bandits threaten the village, he teaches the farmers to defend themselves, echoing his famous role as one of the title group in Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), made the same year as SAMURAI I.

It’s a very physical role for Mifune, as so many of his roles were, and he has many action scenes in each of the three films. Some of the scenes are quite arduous and involve running and climbing through rough terrain, while wearing pairs of flimsy sandals. (He often looks barefoot.) In the climactic duel in SAMURAI II, he has to work his way backward along a narrow strip of mud in the rice paddies while fending off multiple opponents and trying not to fall into the water. Much of the work he does is quite strenuous and I found myself uncomfortable at the thought of Mifune getting injured or suffering from exhaustion. (Granted, Mifune was such a force of nature and so committed to his roles that I really shouldn’t have worried.)

And when he’s not in action, there’s still a lot going on inside him, so he’s never fully at rest or at peace, even when engaging in more artistic pursuits like sculpting a figure of a female deity, whom I believe to be Kannon, goddess of mercy. His young companion, Jotaro, insists the sculpted figure resembles Otsu. These scenes show other sides of him as he seeks to make himself more rounded and not just a notorious swordsman. One can argue that he seems most at peace in the trilogy when he sits in his room at the geisha house drawing an ink painting while Yoshino’s delightful young apprentice geisha sits with him and watches in awe. Because she’s so young, he feels none of the pressures he gets from the adult women who have expressed love for him, so he can be himself. The young apprentice asks nothing of him.

Musashi is quite an idealized figure here and in the novels and the women characters seem to have been added to the narrative by the original author, Yoshikawa. The Criterion DVD edition includes talks by scholar/translator William Scott Wilson who insists these women did not exist in Musashi’s life. (According to Stuart Galbraith IV, in his book, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, original Japanese press releases for the film insisted that the farewell message to Otsu that Musashi carved on the rail of Hanada Bridge was still legible. I feel sorry for those fans who went searching for this message—unless, of course, the press agent meant the one carved for the film’s shoot!)

Here’s an excerpt from a passage I wrote about Yoshikawa’s novels after finishing them some years ago, following a screening of the trilogy:

The books give us a much fuller portrait of Musashi than the films do. We get inside his head, listen to his reactions to his experiences and move with him as he travels in search of training and wisdom. He takes time to read. He takes time to paint, to sculpt, to farm. He studies nature and seeks out teachers wiser than himself. But he seems unable to learn how to reciprocate Otsu’s love. We get a sense of what everyday life was like in Japan during this period (roughly the first decade of the 17th century, right after the ending of the civil war that left the Tokugawa Shogunate in power). We travel to many small towns and villages, but also to Edo, just as it’s bustling with new construction, soon to become Japan’s capital, and Kyoto, in its flowering as a center of culture, art, politics, and pleasure. It’s easier to understand the characters when we see them in this kind of context.

One aspect of the trilogy that troubles me is the sheer amount of unrequited love on display, as the sharp-eyed Kojiro points out to Akemi in a scene where he finds her working in a geisha house in SAMURAI III.

Any man who’s not Musashi who falls for any of the women is bound to get rejected. All the women seem to prefer Musashi over anyone else and he is simply incapable of reciprocating for any length of time. I didn’t feel too bad for the geisha, Yoshino, because she’d be more than capable of getting over it. I felt terrible for Akemi who gets buffeted about far and wide, although that feeling was mitigated by shock at an act of outright treachery that she commits in the third film and one for which she is duly punished. Most heartbreaking of all, of course, is Otsu, the one most devoted to Musashi and who gives up all for him. It’s not clear at the end of the third film that Musashi will actually return to her after the duel with Kojiro, although it’s implied he will. I can’t rely on that, since my rule in such matters tends to be that if it isn’t shown, it doesn’t happen.

As Otsu, Kaoru Yachigusa gives the most affecting performance by a Japanese actress I’ve ever seen. In the documentary, MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI (2016), which I wrote about here, Yachigusa, interviewed on camera, refers to the love between the two this way: “For the Japanese, I think, it’s more reserved. We don’t show it outwardly so much.” The subtitles may be missing something, since that doesn’t describe her portrayal of Otsu at all. Otsu shows her love demonstratively in scene after scene throughout each of the three films. In fact, so does every other woman in the film, starting with Oko, Akemi’s mother.

I was startled to learn while researching this piece that Yachigusa died a few months ago, on October 24, 2019, at the age of 88. I saw no obituary for her, nor was she mentioned in the end-of-year “In Memoriam” tributes on TCM and at the Academy Awards. When I watched the trilogy last year, both Yachigusa and Mariko Okada (Akemi) were still alive and Yachigusa had been active as late as 2018. As far as I can tell, as of this writing, Okada seems to be the only surviving cast member of the trilogy.

Director Inagaki distinguished these films with superb color cinematography (Jun Yasumoto for the first two films, Kazuo Yamada for the third) and ample location shooting around Japan, including a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji in the third film.

The set design and background décor are impressive in every scene as we follow Musashi into castles, mansions, temples, geisha houses, rundown inns and farming villages.

We get a strong sense of life in Japan in the early 17th century as the country sets about the process of unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which is depicted in a spectacular sequence early in SAMURAI I, a battle which cost the lives of 70,000 men. Takezo and Matahachi fought for the Toyotomi Clan, the losing side, and are shown in the film to barely escape with their lives.

The films have a sweeping, full-blooded orchestral score by Ikuma Dan, which bolsters the epic quality of many scenes. However, there were quieter scenes that would have benefited from zero music accompaniment, particularly an affecting scene early in SAMURAI I where Priest Takuan, camped at a fire in the hills and cooking food, gently invites the starving fugitive Takezo, hidden nearby, to come and join them to eat. Takezo does so and furiously shovels a bowl of rice into his mouth as the Priest, slowly, assuredly, shames him into giving himself up. It’s a beautiful scene, not least because of Mifune’s wounded expression and vulnerability, but it would have been even more effective with a quiet soundtrack.

While the films are not artistic masterpieces like Kurosawa’s films, they certainly achieve their goal of creating entertaining spectacles which bring to life Japan’s storied past, although in mythic terms, a strategy Inagaki would employ to great effect in a series of later color epics featuring Mifune, including THE RICKSHAW MAN (1958), SAMURAI SAGA (1959), THREE TREASURES (1959), DAREDEVIL IN THE CASTLE (1961), CHUSHINGURA (1962), RISE AGAINST THE SWORD (1966), KOJIRO (1967), SAMURAI BANNERS (1969) and his last film, closing out a 42-year career, MACHIBUSE (1970, aka INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS).

If I had to compare Inagaki to an American director, I would cite John Sturges and his film about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), an idealized but thoroughly compelling account of two legendary figures of the old west. Sturges is also the director of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. Like Inagaki, Sturges was a great studio director, but he was no artist like John Ford, whose own film of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE while slower and more challenging than Sturges’ film, is a genuine work of art, just like Kurosawa’s films.

SAMURAI I received an Honorary Oscar at the 1956 Academy Awards ceremony for “Best Foreign Language Film first released in the U.S. in 1955.” It was the last such Oscar awarded before foreign language films got their own competitive category the following year. In reading Stuart Galbraith IV’s The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, I learned that Hollywood star William Holden had visited the Toho set of SAMURAI I while in Japan to shoot THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (1954) and was so impressed that he arranged to distribute the film in the U.S. himself, going so far as to record narration over parts of the subtitled film and appear in the film’s U.S. trailer. I’ve never seen this version of the film and I wonder if a copy even exists anymore. I’d be happy just to see the trailer. Neither of the two sequels was released in the U.S. until 1967. Galbraith discusses this and indicates that Toho tried to sell and market them earlier but got no interest from distributors. Where was Holden then? Off in Hong Kong shooting LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING and, later, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, and in Sri Lanka shooting THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

Since starting this piece, I went looking among my nonfiction books about Japan for one which covered the story of Musashi Miyamoto. Indeed, I found one that had originally been written in the late 1800s, long before cinema was invented. I’m reading it now and it tells quite a different story, starting when he was twelve years old and the privileged son of a great swordsman, and one that I wish had been dramatized on film.

I have plenty more Mifune films to watch and write about this month leading up to his centennial, so I hope I can keep up the pace. I hope my readers will celebrate Mifune this month in ways of their own.



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