If you had hung out on 42nd Street in the ‘70s, you would have seen samurai films competing with motorcycle flicks, drug dramas, horror fantasies and beaver films for your dollars.
In fact, Samurai swordplay movies became an essential part of the Grindhouse tradition. Grindhouse has now become something of a revered dark corner of American film since B-movies have essentially become mainstream and Tarantino has made a career out of geeking out over the genre(s).
This obviously means that the Samurai film occupies a peculiar and distinct place in film history. It has appealed to two constituencies that have only recently begun to overlap. On the one hand, the revisionist Samurai films of the late ‘60s and certainly the ‘70s emphasized gruesome dismemberment over honor, blood spurts over human experience. On the other hand, Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent films Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress became iconic for cinema lovers and exercised enormous influence over American filmmakers and thus popular culture. Kurosawa’s work transformed the western and helped forge contemporary notions of the hero as essentially alone, a ronin on a quest. Not to be forgotten, his work actually shaped the narrative and characters of Star Wars (very loosely based on Hidden Fortress).
Kurosawa’s long shadow has hidden his own influences and the important influences on the genre. Chambara, literally “sword-fighting movies”, have a history that stretches back into the silent era, with Hiroshi Inagaki being one of its most important practitioners. Inagaki shaped the drama in ways that Kurosawa injected with a massive dose of late 20th century angst. But Inagaki carried on as well, and produced perhaps the most important chambara behind Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Moreover, it starred Toshiro Mifune, the astonishingly gifted actor usually identified with Kurosawa’s work.
Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy appeared between 1954 and 1956 and joined Kurosawa’s more well known work in finding a global audience for Japanese film. The three films follow the life of Musashi Miyamato, the greatest of Japanese folk heroes. Little known outside of Japan, Miyamato had a reputation as a spiritual master and artist during the Tokugawa period. In more recent centuries, he became the subject of forests worth of novels and eventually representations in film. Westerners who are aware of him, outside of Inagaki enthusiasts, know him through his mediations in the Book of the Five Rings.
In The Samurai Trilogy, you see Mifune bring to bear all his dramatic powers in recreating the incredibly complex character. Inagaki uses Miyamato’s early experience of resisting the seduction of a mill keeper and her daughter only to be falsely accused of rape. Mifune’s face and body radiates spiritual angst and Inagaki perfectly plots out how this incident becomes a path of spiritual reflection for the humbled warrior.
Inagaki and Mifune managed to convey a sense of suspicion about the Samurai code (Bushido) that supposedly undergirds the whole drama. While Kurosawa famously does this in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance in The Samurai Trilogy became paradigmatic for that later work. Indeed, Kurosawa fans will immediately recognize Mifune’s almost physical revulsion to some of the formalities of the code, the restriction of human experience that sometimes seems to convulse his body with impatience, scratching his head in very un-Samurai like fashion.
All these ruminations on the spiritual and existential meanings of the trilogy should not scare you away if you just want some ass-kicking swordfights. In fact, the final installment of the trilogy, Duel at Ganryu Island, features an epic battle between Miyamato and no less than eighty Samurai. This idea, the lone warrior slaughtering an impossible number of enemies, became a convention of the genre and Inagaki helped create the archetype.
If you happen to own the late ‘90s version of these films, you’ll still want to pick this set up. The restoration shows just how grimy that original release was. In fact, the ‘90s version feels almost unwatchable in the hi-def era after seeing the beauties of this current restoration.
Criterion is obviously a cineaste’s distributor and always packs in wonderful extras, including a short booklet of essays. We get an excellent essay by Stephen Prince on Mifune’s pre-Kurosawa career, generally completely ignored since we identify him completely with that most well known of Japanese directors. However, as Prince points out, Mifune actually made more films with Inagaki. The pair started working together when Mifune first came to Toho in 1946 and created an important partnership rivaling the one Mifune forged with Kurosawa.
The booklet also contains an essay by historian William Scott Wilson that explores the history of Five Rings. Some of this replicates material that also appears in the disc’s special features. Still, Wilson does a great job of fleshing out the immensely rich history lying behind Inagaki’s work.
I would like to raise the possibility that Inagaki, along with other important chambara directors of the early period, have been forgotten in part because of a general western revulsion against the bushido tradition. This revulsion after 1945 was wholly understandable given how Japanese martial state had wielded those ideals to state power in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Western film nerds came to see Kurosawa, rightly, as a powerful revision of that tradition and thus a maker of swordplay films more acceptable to western tastes.
Criterion’s new set gives us the chance to see how Kurosawa’s work represented a broader, rather than a singular, revision of that ideal. Inagaki raised questions about bushido and it’s meaning, as well as the ways it could be twisted to inhuman ends, through this exploration of Japan’s greatest folk hero.