Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy gave Toshiro Mifune one of his most important starring roles, as Musashi Miyamoto, a masterless, wandering samurai whose skill with a sword is so great no one can match him. Musashi is among Japan’s supreme folk heroes, a seventeenth-century warrior whose exploits have inspired books, plays, movies, and television shows. With his power and charisma, Mifune was a natural choice for the role. His career was still in its early years, but he was a bankable and popular Toho star and, with Akira Kurosawa, had found international acclaim with Rashomon (1950). The first film in the trilogy, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), inspired two sequels, Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956); was a hit at home and overseas, winning the Academy Award for best foreign film; and remains popular and famous to this day. The kind of superswordsman Mifune plays here became an indelible part of his image, inspiring even Kurosawa to tweak it in Yojimbo (1961).
The idea that Kurosawa inherited a star image created elsewhere seems counterintuitive, but only because Mifune is so closely linked in the popular mind with the director, with whom he made sixteen films. Inagaki’s name is not so well-known, especially to overseas audiences, and yet Mifune made more films with him than with Kurosawa. They began working together shortly after the actor arrived at Toho in 1946, and kept doing so regularly up until Inagaki’s final pair of films, Samurai Banners (1969) and The Ambush: Incident at Blood Pass (1970). Some of their most acclaimed work together—The Rickshaw Man (1958), Tatsu (1962)—occurred outside of the samurai genre.
Mifune’s iconic image of graceful, unstoppable force is on full display in The Samurai Trilogy, as when he plucks flies out of the air with chopsticks in order to intimidate a foe or when he strides into battle in the one-against-all showdown that concludes Duel at Ichijoji Temple. This image, though, had not yet appeared in the work of Kurosawa, who had cast Mifune mainly in contemporary dramas, and in ways that played ironically with his charisma. Seven Samurai was Mifune’s first chanbara (swordplay film) with Kurosawa, made the same year as Musashi Miyamoto (1954 was a banner year for Toho, with those two pictures and Godzilla in release), and in it Mifune plays a buffoonish, tragicomic figure who can only aspire to the prowess he displays as Musashi in The Samurai Trilogy.
Inagaki was one of the inventors of the modern samurai film. He began work during the silent era as an actor, worked as an assistant to the established director Daisuke Ito, and then himself moved into directing in 1927. Swordplay movies had to that point been rigidly formalized, kabuki-style productions; Inagaki and other innovative directors like Masahiro Makino and Ito introduced a more naturalistic playing style and flexible camera work and cutting, while preserving the dancelike choreography of kabuki in the sword fights themselves.
Inagaki rapidly established himself in the period film genre, with The Wandering Gambler (1928) and A Samurai’s Career (1929). Movies focusing on famous warriors became a specialty of his. Samurai Banners, for example, portrays the sixteenth-century warlord Shingen Takeda and his trusted general Kansuke Yamamoto (Mifune) in their struggle with rival warlord Kenshin Uesugi. (Kurosawa made a film about Takeda some years later, 1980’s Kagemusha.) Inagaki made two films in 1933 about the wandering gambler and warrior Chuji Kunisada; a trilogy about the renowned swordsman Kojiro Sasaki (1950–51); and then a fourth film about Sasaki in 1967. Mifune appears in the Sasaki trilogy as Musashi Miyamoto, assaying the character several years before The Samurai Trilogy, which itself was a color remake of a Musashi trilogy Inagaki had made in 1940 and 1942. Sasaki appears as a prominent character in the two trilogies about Musashi, and Inagaki brought Musashi back in Hiken (1963). As all of this suggests, over the course of his career, Inagaki created an elaborate tapestry with these characters. And with Chushingura (1962), he made what many consider the best film about the famous saga of the loyal forty-seven ronin.
Inagaki’s two Musashi trilogies are based on the wildly popular novel Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa (and on a play based on that novel), which appeared in more than a thousand serial newspaper installments from 1935 to 1939. Yoshikawa studied historical records and Musashi’s own writings but invented characters and changed the sequence of events. The Samurai Trilogy follows the novel in concentrating on Musashi’s life from his midteens, when he left the village of Miyamoto, until his defeat of Kojiro Sasaki in combat on Ganryu Island, when Musashi was twenty-nine.
Musashi Miyamoto portrays Musashi’s transformation from a wild youth who hungers for fame as a swordsman to a more seasoned and temperate warrior. Highlights from Musashi’s life in this film include the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara, wherein Ieyasu Tokugawa defeated the Toyotomi clan and emerged to control the country. Musashi fought for the losing side in this battle and became something of a renegade afterward, which the film memorably pictures in the spectacle of a bound Musashi suspended high above the ground from a tree as a warning about the price of misbehavior. As the film ends, Musashi embarks upon the wandering life of a swordsman in training. The second film centers on Musashi’s spectacular duels with the Yoshioka clan, which ran a prominent school of swordsmanship in Kyoto. At age twenty-one, Musashi decimated the clan and destroyed the school. The third film focuses on Musashi’s legendary duel with Sasaki, a warrior whose prowess had earned him the nickname Demon of the Western Provinces. The trilogy ends—as does Yoshikawa’s novel—with Musashi’s victory over Sasaki, and, indeed, this event seems to have marked a major turning point in Musashi’s life. Thereafter, he fought fewer duels, rarely killed an opponent, and pursued a more inward, spiritual life that found outlets in painting, sculpture, and writing.
While the films are organized around these key events in Musashi’s early life, the thematic core of the trilogy is his search for spiritual harmony and discipline, for a means of balancing and tempering his astounding martial strength. The movies employ Yoshikawa’s strategy for dramatizing this pursuit by having Musashi encounter numerous characters who bequeath important lessons. There is a village priest named Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) who, seeing Musashi’s wildness following the Battle of Sekigahara, instructs the youth to embark as a wanderer on a quest for wisdom. But first, Takuan locks Musashi in a small room in Himeji Castle filled with books, which he has no choice but to immerse himself in until he reaches a deepened spiritual outlook.
A second priest, Nikkan (Kokuten Kodo), appears in Duel at Ichijoji Temple and tells Musashi that his sword is too strong and needs tempering with mercy and chivalry. He reappears later on in the same film to remind Musashi that he will not mature until he can experience love. Another master is Koetsu Honami (Ko Mihashi), a swordsmith and patron of the fine arts in Kyoto who, it is implied, introduces Musashi to the arts; a subsequent scene shows Musashi producing a brush-and-ink painting. In Duel at Ganryu Island, we see him creating a wood sculpture.
The challenges of love are embodied by Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), a woman from Miyamoto who is devoted to Musashi and whom he loves. She wants Musashi to abandon the Way of the Sword and make a life with her. Throughout the trilogy, Otsu pursues Musashi across Japan, intersecting his path at key moments to tempt him with the lures of romance and a material life. Yoshikawa’s novel and the films present Otsu as a paragon of virtue, endlessly patient and self-denying, but her relentless obsession with Musashi may strike modern viewers as more characteristic of a stalker.
Delineated more successfully and powerfully is the warrior Sasaki, who emerges as such a fully formed character and occupies so much screen time that he nearly displaces Musashi from center stage. As played by Toho’s popular actor Koji Tsuruta, Sasaki has a feline grace, and a mellowness and quietude that evince great authority. He makes a spectacular first appearance in Duel at Ichijoji Temple, striding silently across a bridge as Musashi is ambushed by a group of Yoshioka warriors. Instead of concentrating on Musashi’s battle with the Yoshioka clan (the bigger and decisive fights come later in the film), Inagaki studies Sasaki and his quietly menacing demeanor as he watches Musashi fighting below the bridge. The introduction reaches a splendid conclusion when Sasaki demonstrates his signature tsubame gaeshi (return of the swallow) technique, slashing off the topknot of the warrior Toji Gion (Daisuke Kato), whose hair tumbles down around his astonished face before the lumpen thug can react. In Duel at Ganryu Island, Sasaki strikes so swiftly that he cuts down an actual bird in midflight. Sasaki is brutal, but he shows a genuine regard for Musashi and a tragic understanding of his own limitations that ultimately make him a sympathetic figure.
This network of recurring characters that enmeshes Musashi throughout the trilogy, all challenging him with their demands, is the invention of novelist Yoshikawa. But while the ensemble approach makes for good storytelling, the surviving historical records about the real Musashi are even more striking. He was a true ascetic and lone wanderer. After killing a man in his first duel, at age thirteen, he gave away his possessions and left his village to live on the road as a shugyosha, a traveling swordsman developing his mastery by challenging other swordsmen. He seems to have been a genius: he fought more than sixty duels and was never defeated; he distinguished himself as a fine artist, producing exceptional painting, sculpture, calligraphy, and metalwork; and he wrote a treatise on the practice and philosophy of Buddhism and the sword—The Book of Five Rings—that continues to be read today. Musashi never entered a lord’s service as a samurai, never drew regular wages in a lord’s employ, was never intimately involved with a woman, never had a teacher in the martial or the fine arts, scorned material possessions, cautioned against relying on deities, disparaged attachments to particular weapons, often fought with a wooden sword instead of a steel one, and was idiosyncratic in dress. This flouting of convention, coupled with his brilliant physical abilities and disciplined pursuit of spiritual wisdom, helps to explain the tremendous fascination this eccentric figure has commanded in a culture in which conformity carries such weight.
Following Yoshikawa, Inagaki’s films make Musashi a less subversive and radical figure than he seems to have been. All the same, they were highly influential samurai movies, filmed and choreographed in a manner that, having become standard studio practice since Inagaki and his colleagues developed it in the 1920s, was about to vanish from the genre and from cinema. This is especially apparent in Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island, which were back-lot productions, filmed on soundstages—in contrast to the shot-on-location Musashi Miyamoto—and feature more heavily saturated colors in their sets and costumes.
One of the most striking things about the films today is their aspect ratio. Instead of the anamorphic widescreen format (Tohoscope) that would soon become commonplace in the samurai genre because it enabled filmmakers to choreograph complex, horizontal groupings of combatants in ways that served the ritualized moves of sword fighting, Inagaki worked in the 1.33:1 ratio that would remain cinema’s norm until the late 1950s. The spherical lenses he used frequently gave him more depth of field than was possible in widescreen, so his staging takes advantage of movement in depth rather than lateral motion.
Also very classical is the absence of gore. Severed limbs and spurting arteries hadn’t yet arrived as a movie convention, and the fights in The Samurai Trilogy are relatively chaste, not showing the carnage that such duels would have actually resulted in. Nor do viewers hear the results of violence. Sound effects portray the clash of steel swords but not the rending of clothing and flesh and the breaking of bone—a sonic threshold Kurosawa would be the first to cross with 1962’s Sanjuro. Inagaki’s later films conform to the more explicit standards that came to typify the genre—Mifune gets an arrow through the eye, for example, in Samurai Banners—but The Samurai Trilogy has the look and feel of classical-era studio pictures.
The trilogy’s fame probably rests more than anything on its fight scenes, and these are memorably staged and choreographed, with much of the action concentrated in Duel at Ichijoji Temple. Highlights of the trilogy include Musashi’s charge across the field of battle at Sekigahara; his duel with Shishido, a chain-and-sickle master played with sinister malice by Eijiro Tono; his battle with the Yoshioka clan; and, of course, the penultimate face-off with Sasaki.
Inagaki’s visual approach to such scenes is often oblique and lyrical, as in his almost offhand depiction of the Battle of Sekigahara (perhaps an influence on Kurosawa’s depiction of the Battle of Nagashino in Kagemusha) and in the cutaways from swords to streamers blowing in the wind as Sasaki squares off against Yoshioka samurai in Duel at Ichijoji Temple. Elsewhere in that film, when Musashi arrives at a temple to fight Denshichiro Yoshioka (Yu Fujiki), amid snowflakes falling in the moonlight, they draw swords and Inagaki abruptly cuts away to a courtesan in a scarlet kimono singing in a courtyard. As she sings, Musashi enters the courtyard, having already defeated Denshichiro—Inagaki has leapt over the fight entirely. This visual poetry, which flows from economical, indirect staging, complements the full-bodied treatment given to other fights. With such variation, Inagaki nimbly resolves the challenge of keeping the duels fresh and interesting across the length of three films.
Japan’s past was very real for Inagaki, and he spent his career exploring it within the borders of classical studio narratives, without the irony and self-consciousness that have proliferated in the work of later-generation filmmakers. In The Samurai Trilogy, he gave Mifune a defining role in which the actor could project his larger-than-life persona in ways that Kurosawa had not yet permitted him to. When an enlightened Musashi is released from the book-filled room at Himeji Castle in the first film, Mifune appears on-screen as the iconic figure for the first time in the trilogy, moving with a regal bearing and a confident, restrained, focused energy. Inagaki deftly places this appearance as a kind of climax near the end of the first film. Musashi has broken through to a new depth of soul, and Mifune the star shines forth. His physical performance tells us everything we need to know about the transformation of the character. And with this magisterial bearing, he truly became the celluloid counterpart of Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s most famous swordsman.
Stephen Prince is a professor of cinema at Virginia Tech and an honorary professor of film and media at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books on cinema, including The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.