I've finally gotten down to the first in the trilogy of films based on a story that has been touted as the Japanese's equivalent of Gone with the Wind. The Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, is based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, which tells of the story of the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi, and an intriguing character who has authored The Book of Five Rings which you can read more about here.
What more, the titular character is played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, and that itself is a major treat and a draw for more contemporary audiences. Sadly to say, as with most first films in a series, this one sets out to establish the baseline character of Mushashi, or Takezo as he's better known in his early days, an orphan brought up by relatives and who possesses great strength, but is brash and ill-disciplined. Together with his best friend Honiden Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), who had to leave behind his fiance Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), they sign up for war in the hopes of being samurai warriors at the end of battle, only to discover they're fighting on the losing end, and become fugitives.
What transpires later involves their flight from the dark, a couple of seduction scenes by a mother-daughter pair of grave-diggers whose fancies for Takezo gets turned toward Honiden, therein splitting the two best friends up, and Takezo being persecuted by his village folk for deserting his best friend since he returned to the village as the sole survivor. But the shrewd monk Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) sees a diamond in the rough in Takezo, and therefore sets him up to fall under his tutelage, while at the same time Takezo has to decide for himself how to deal with some new found love in Otsu.
There's romance, there's battle scenes, there's the obligatory hero who's still unsure of his destiny. By the time the film ends, it leaves you with a lot of subplots still hanging in the air, but I'm crossing my fingers that all these will be addressed in the next two installments.
It's a mid 50s film, so fight scenes aren't that polished to perfection. Instead we see Takezo's rather rough and unfanciful swordplay, in part being the gruff character that he is, knowing no finesse in the art of a duel, and also being a foil for realism, where enemies get cut down ruthlessly without wasting time. Technically one should pass over some of the shortcomings such as abrupt camera angle changes, cuts and edits, and it's indeed a pity that the film is not presented in a widescreen format, which would have been quite a spectacle given the vast landscapes that the film was shot in.
Perhaps another indication of how dated this period drama is, is in the treatment of the women characters. I guess given socio-inequality then, the women folk are seen to be terribly in need of a manly figure to be head of their household, and more than willing to be submissive, and obedient, just so to be at the side of their men. It's a far cry from today's world really, where women are far from the weaker sex they are portrayed in the film. Sure a key female character here is as conniving can be, and future installments (I've taken a look at the cast list) seem to demonstrate that there's still more to it all than meets the eye.
In short, Samurai I has set the stage, transforming Takezo from nobody, to a ready warrior yet to be tested in the real world. As he sets out for some reality based education, it would prove all the more interesting as he is likely to chance upon old friends and foes, and this time, being skilled and more refined in his ways, would prove to be engaging material for the subsequent films to deal with. Already those two film titles have "Duels" in them, so they should fill for a climatic finale battle each, given the obvious lack of a crescendo this one turned out to be.
The Region Free DVD by Criterion is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect raio with monoaural sound in Japanese and English subtitles. Visual transfer however is not pristine and some obvious pops and cackles were visible. Scene selection is available over 34 chapters, and there are no extras other than a 2:50 theatrical trailer.