Judge Gordon Sullivan laments that, while penmen are more powerful, they rarely get trilogies.
"A passionate epic that's equal parts tender love story and bloody action."
For most American audiences, if they're aware of the genre at all, the combo of Toshiro Mifune and Akria Kurosawa is the gold standard for samurai films. Whether it's the wild-man epics of Seven Samurai or the more coldly calculating character of the Yojimbo/Sanjuro pairing, Mifune and Kurosawa have created a near-definitive series of samurai portraits throughout their collaborations (which also included, it should be noted, a number of non-samurai combos like High and Low). How silly did I feel when I realized that although Kurosawa and Mifune had worked together early in both their careers, it was actually director Hiroshi Inagaki who put Mifune into samurai garb first. More importantly, the trio of films that Mifune and Inagaki made together featuring the exploits of Mushashi Miyamoto stand as tall in the samurai world as anything that Kurosawa created. No matter where you stand on the individual films, everyone can agree that Criterion's The Samurai Trilogy (Blu-ray) re-release features a near-perfect audiovisual upgrade in hi-def.
All three films in Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy are included on two discs. In Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, we watch the young and brash would-be samurai Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune, Rashomon) grows from wanted fugitive to enlightened warrior. Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple follows the enlightened warrior as he battles the famous fighters of the Ichijoji Temple, while Samurai III: Duel at Ganru Island features a wiser Miyamoto facing off against Kojiro Sasaki.
Taken together, the trilogy is about the awakening of a fabled warrior. Musashi Miyamoto apparently lived a life not unlike what's portrayed in these films. From an illiterate peasant he grew to become the greatest swordsman of his age, and perhaps of all time. He left behind his teachings in The Book of Five Rings, and today is known as much as a philosopher (read by Japanese businessmen) as he is as a swordsman.
What's most compelling about this trilogy, however, is the way in which it turns Miyamoto's story into a series of episodes. While Kurosawa often went for an epic feel that expanded even the smallest moments of a samurai's life into grand encounters, Inagaki instead condenses a life full of adventures into its key episodes. In the best possible way, the Samurai Trilogy plays like gripping television. Rather than an epic sweep achieved by focus on minute historical detail, Inagaki captures the highlights of Miyamoto's life in its most exciting and important moments.
Another of Inagaki's choices reinforces the television feel: unlike Kurosawa, Inagaki completely eschews the widescreen format. All three Samurai films are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the classic ratio for both films pre-widescreen, but also classic television. However, what Inagaki sacrifices in width he gains in depth. Instead of staging elaborate side-to-side spectacles, Inagaki's image has near-infinite depth in places. Numerous battles scenes take place with multiple plans of action, like the Citizen Kane of samurai films. Though not superior (or inferior) to Kurosawa's method, Inagaki's elegant framing offers a substantially different take on the samurai genre, one that's easy to appreciate in an era of hyper-bloodshed.
Criterion has released all three of these films before (both as single-disc edition and together as a trilogy), but really there is no comparison with The Samurai Trilogy (Blu-ray). Created from a low-contrast print struck from the original negative, the Samurai films look positively gorgeous. Detail is strong, grain is appropriate, and colors pop in surprising clarity. Black level are consistent and fairly deep, especially for a Technicolor feature. No significant compression artifacts or digital nastiness mar the look of the films. The LPCM mono tracks are similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, with little to give away their age. There's a bit of hiss in the second film's soundtrack, but otherwise, these are highly listenable renderings taken also from original elements.
Extras include an interview with William Scott Wilson about Miyamoto, and he returns in the booklet to discuss The Book of Five Rings along with Stephen Prince, who provides a lot of background info on the films and their creators. Trailers are also included for all three films.
It almost sounds like looking a gift horse in the mouth given the beautiful transfers afforded this re-release, but these films cry out for more informative extras. I really enjoyed what's here—the contributions by Prince and Wilson give a pretty good idea of the context for the films—but these flicks were instrumental in getting samurai films attention in the United States. Apparently, William Holden bought the U.S. distribution rights because he loved the film so much. Also, since these are the only films in the Criterion Collection from Inagaki, it would be nice to have more extras about the prolific director and his history (especially with Toho studios) and how he relates to other samurai filmmakers like Kurosawa.
As for the films themselves, some might find them a bit too episodic, going from one duel to the next rather than sticking tightly to the minutia of Miyamoto's life. The kind of bird's-eye view afforded by Inagaki's directing could leave some viewers feeling uninvolved with Miyamoto, unable to care about his exploits because less has been done to make him a fully fleshed character rather than a mythic warrior. Those raised on more recent samurai films (or those inspired, Kill Bill style, by samurai films) might find everything here a bit tame. The gushing blood-and-wire antics that rose in the wake of '50s and '60s samurai films aren't in evidence here, and there's very little that wouldn't fly on primetime television these days. That might be too tame for those raised on the more violent features that followed.
The Samurai Trilogy (Blu-ray) is one of those releases that just cries out for a double dip. The audiovisual upgrade is profound, and even if the extras haven't received the same upgrade it's still a marvelously attractive package. For anyone with even the remotest interest in samurai films this trilogy is essential. For those looking to get into samurai films, there are infinitely worse places to start than this Blu-ray
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Scales of Justice, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Perp Profile, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Distinguishing Marks, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Scales of Justice, Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple
Perp Profile, Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple
Distinguishing Marks, Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple
Scales of Justice, Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island
Perp Profile, Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island
Distinguishing Marks, Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island
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