Review: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

I was drawn to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, starting with Musashi Miyamoto (1954), MusashiMiyamotoDVDCoverfor the simple fact that it’s shot in colour. Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai came out in the same year but is, of course, in black and white – it wasn’t until 1970 that he would begin shooting in colour with the commercially disastrous Dodes’ka-den. Surprisingly, the first Japanese colour film only came out in 1951, with the first Japanese colour film to be released in the West, Gate of Hell, not made until 1953. I’m fascinated by that early use of colour. Carmen Comes Home used Fujicolor, but Gate of Hell and Musashi Miyamoto were made with Eastmancolor, a US technique. It’s extraordinary seeing the way colour changes the way the films are shot, and so much of what makes Musashi Miyamoto worth watching is the vivid colourscape – lush green scenery, vibrant clothes, colourful blossoms.

Based on the 1935 fictionalised account of Musashi Miyamoto’s life, first serialised in the Asahi Shimbun by Eiji Yoshikawa, the first film in Inagaki’s trilogy charts the famous swordsman’s transformation from a young man with dreams of being a successful soldier into a warrior-scholar on a pilgrimage of training. At the start of the film he hasn’t even taken the name Musashi Miyamoto, and for most of the 93 min running time, he’s still known as Takezo. Beyond its pioneering use of colour, I was also interested in the film because of its star: Takezo/Miyamoto is portrayed by longtime Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. By 1954 he was already a star for his work alongside Kurosawa on films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon. I’ve already been stunned by his performances in Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, but while there’s nothing bad to say of him in Musashi Miyamoto, it’s unfortunately not one of his more memorable roles.

Takezo / Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune)

This is emblematic of the problem with the entire film. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but one might expect much more of the film that won the (honorary) 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Seven Samurai, while released in 1954 in Japan, wouldn’t compete at the Oscars until 1957 when it was more or less snubbed – despite being the much better film). Perhaps it’s my lack of familiarity with either the historical Miyamoto or the modern myth of him, heavily influenced by Yoshikawa’s novel, that left me feeling unsatisfied, but the film seems oddly weighted. Inagaki would release two further films to complete his trilogy, but I’m unclear on whether this was always his intention. If it is, then it’s easy to see this as a kind of origin story, doing the legwork to get Miyamoto from unknown villager to famous swordsman. If it’s meant to stand alone, it doesn’t really work – ending as it does without tieing off any
of the hanging plot threads.

The Criterion release features some great artwork

Visually compelling butpoorly paced, the film managed to make what should have been a brisk hour and a half feel somewhat tedious. I’m watching Musashi Miyamoto as the first part of Criterion’s release of the whole Samurai Trilogy, so I’ll certainly be returning to the two later films, Duel at Ichioji Temple (1955) and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). Given the titles of the latter and that Mifune ends the movie as the Musashi Miyamoto of legend, I’m hopeful that they’ll offer more excitement.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto / 宮本武蔵 (Miyamoto Musashi)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

Japanese Release Date: 26th September 1954

Version Watched: 93 min, Criterion Collection

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