Aggressively plunging into a rich story and never relenting, Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto provides the same snappy pacing and riveting battle sequences that made Akira Kurosawa legendary. Contributing greatly is Toshiro Mifune’s madcap act as the untamed Takezo, which serves as a reminder to the world that he’s perfectly comfortable on the outskirts of Kurosawa’s shadow. That Mifune’s performances are overblown is a criminal misconception, but sadly one that occasionally arises during some mindless soliloquy about the greatest of all actors. While Mifune is indeed frequently wild, his work is constantly laced with subtle gestures and actions such as slapping bugs off his arms or scratching an itch. Here, we see much of that but also a quiet emotion in his eyes, a hidden longing for a more honorable life—something that is addressed in Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple.
Lest I indicate that Samurai I is merely a Mifune vehicle, Inagaki fills the world with vibrant colors and scenery, breathing life into the forests and wilderness. The story is rather simple; Takezo and his close friend Matahachi leave their village to fight in the war. After losing, their voyage home is interrupted when Matahachi is seduced by the widow Oku and her daughter Akemi. In the first sign of Takezo’s honorable side, he rejects their advances and returns to his village, where he immediately finds himself accused of treason and is forced to escape. Fortunately, a monk rescues him from death and sets him on the path to nobility, training him in the ways of the Samurai code. Meanwhile, Takezo falls in love with Matahachi’s old sweetheart from the village.
The themes explored here are primarily those of trust, honor, and nobility. No relationship exists on firm ground; all contain a blend of harshness and care. The monk’s conversion of Takezo is gradual, and begins with him tying Takezo to a tree branch and letting him dangle until he softens his harsh stance. The romances hang by a thread, challenged by countless threatening circumstances, and only those with the strongest wills persevere. Takezo’s character arc covers all the bases—his trust is betrayed again and again, but he refuses to discount his faith in humanity. His nobility and honor are a process, but one that develops believably and honestly without unexplainable emotions. It’s a testament to Inagaki’s direction and Mifune’s fire that we believe this throughout. As the first part to the Samurai trilogy, Musashi Miyamoto sets the stage for gripping sequels while standing on its own as marvelous entertainment and art. It’s easy to be lost among the many gems of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, and the other great Japanese directors, but Inagaki’s trio of gems shouldn’t be missed, with Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto front and center.