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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 6/24/99

The Samurai Trilogy

reviews by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
1954 (1998) Toho Company Ltd. (Criterion)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/ C

Specs and Features:

93 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layer, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (34 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD mono), subtitles: English

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
1955 (1998) Toho Company Ltd. (Criterion)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/ B+/C

Specs and Features:

103 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layer, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (35 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD mono), subtitles: English

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
1956 (1998) Toho Company Ltd. (Criterion)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/ B+/ C

Specs and Features:

104 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layer, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (38 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD mono), subtitles: English

Ah, samurai films. In my heart of hearts, there is nothing better than a samurai film. When I was a kid, I'd talk all my friends out of being cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or superheroes, and into acting like samurai warriors. We'd get sticks and have sword fights, dress in full black, and run around the woods hunting each other down like dogs. I had a pretty good childhood.

My first experience with samurai films was with Star Wars. I didn't quite grasp just how much Star Wars was like a samurai film when I was a kid, but looking back on it, I'd have to say that it's a fair summation -- even more so with the new Episode I. Anyway, I started to dig the whole honorable sword fight thing, and I'd go to my local video store with my parents, and ask for sword fight movies. I was given Seven Samurai by the local video clerk, and I loved it. In fact, I couldn't stop watching it. The video store clerk ended up giving me a copy on my birthday, because I rented it so much. He also turned me onto a whole bunch of other Kurosawa samurai films: Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress (the film upon which Star Wars is based, and that even then, made me go hmmm...) and Sanjuro. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

My father didn't quite know what to think of me watching movies I had to read. One time, after he watched Yojimbo with me, he went out and rented Fistful Of Dollars for me, and from that point on, I considered samurai films to be cowboy movies in disguise. Now I'm really into spaghetti westerns as well. My mother didn't care, as long as I wasn't running the streets and doing drugs. The Kurosawa samurai films were the only ones available to me as a kid, but as I grew older, and my passion for the genre grew with me, I sought more and more titles. Over the years, I've dug up The Sleepy Eyes Of Death, Lone Wolf and Cub, and the Zatoichi series, and I still watch samurai films with the same child-like passion.

That's why it's my great pleasure to turn you on to a series of films that are very dear to me, The Samurai Trilogy. Except for the fact that you have to "read" them, The Samurai Trilogy is very much like a series of American costume films. They are very watchable, very understandable, and very entertaining. The films are based on the book Musashi Miyamoto, which has been called the Japanese Gone With The Wind - a comparison that, although true based on popularity and sheer scale, seems unfair, mainly because I'm not a big fan of Gone With The Wind.

Musashi Miyamoto was a real historical person. He was a master swordsman, philosopher, and painter. Miyamoto was a well regarded man through his life, and after his death. Even today, many business students follow his writings (most notably Gorin No Sho - a.k.a. The Book of the Five Rings). But so what? Do the films deliver? You betcha.

The Samurai Trilogy isn't from Kurosawa -- but that's okay. The director was Hiroshi Inagaki, who went on direct two other samurai masterpieces, Chushingura (1962) and Samurai Banners (1969). The films follow Miyamoto from being a young ballsy kid, up to his early retirement (which he eventually left to do battle once more), all the way battling those who stand before him. The first of the films starts with Miyamoto as a young man (then known as Takezo), who goes off to fight in the Japanese civil war, around 1600. He survives his first battle, but he and his friend are both hurt and tired, so they take up refuge with a woman and her daughter, and things kind of start there for Takezo. You have to pay attention, because virtually all of the characters introduced in the first film will follow Takezo through the later films in various ways. To go too much into story, would be a disservice to the films themselves - they really should be watched by all fans of big epic movie-making. Suffice it to say, Takezo goes from head strong young man, to brute thug, to enlightened Buddhist, to an undefeated warrior, and eventually to content farmer. It takes three films, and a little over 5 hours to tell this story. And what a story.

The cast of characters are all intriguing and well drawn. From the women who love him, the Buddhist priest who teaches him the road to enlightenment, and his young student in the final film, you will feel like you will know each and every one of them. Even though I have never read the book these films were based on, the entire film plays out like a beautiful novel. It also helps that Takezo is played by Toshiro Mifune, one of my top three favorite actors of all time (Robert Shaw and Chow Yun-Fat are my other two, if you care). His acting is so good here -- he goes through such a range, it's a marvel to behold. Mifune was just so damn good at what he did. God bless him.

Of course, samurai films wouldn't be anything without sword fights, and there are some great ones in this series. The first film has plenty of battles, often with a great number of people involved in each. The second film opens with a bang, as Takezo battles a warrior armed with a chain and sickle, and it just gets better from there. The series ends with a battle featuring Takezo, against his long time fan and biggest rival, Sasaki Kojiro, on the beach of Ganryu, a rivalry that grows out of the second film. The final battle, even if it's not as elaborate as the others, is breathtaking, mainly because it's the last one, and the angel of death hovers so close to our main character.

I think The Samurai Trilogy is a very important set of films, and they work so well on a great many levels. I'd like to see more people fall in love with these films. Hopefully, the samurai genre will be rejuvenated after that Steven Spielberg guy makes Memoirs Of A Geisha in 2000.

As they stand on DVD, the trilogy looks and sounds wonderful. I guess you should keep in mind that these are old movies from another land. The film quality differs from country to country, and as a rule, Japan was pretty good when it came to storage. Too many pre-50 films have been lost, thanks to... well, we Americans. But since The Samurai Trilogy was made in the mid 50's, we're okay. The film stock is grainy and/or washed out in parts, but overall it looks really good. They are in color, and sometimes the color looks slightly off, but this is probably due to the early color processes. I don't think any problem with the film, is due to the transfer or restoration. For what these films are, The Samurai Trilogy looks great. The audio is in the original Japanese mono, and sounds fine - no problems there. You can't get caught up with extras on a set of films like this, so just getting a trailer is a plus. It's nice to see how film trailers looked back then, and compared to early Hollywood trailers, these Japanese trailers seem much more like our modern day variety. All in all, Criterion gives us a neat package with this trio of discs.

If you get the chance, take a road trip down the film history highway, and check out some cool, early samurai flicks, outside of the Kurosawa gallery. The Samurai Trilogy is a good place to start. As I state above, if you don't mind reading, these films are chock full of great actors, wonderful storylines, and pack enough thrills to make a modern day filmmaker wish he'd stayed in school -- or behind the video store counter.

Todd Doogan

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

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