Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – Review
During a civil war between East and West, Takezo and Matahachi leave to join the ranks of samurai moving through their town of Miyamoto. Takezo is an unattached orphan and tells Matahachi, who is engaged to Otsu and has his mother Osugi to attend to, to stay behind, but Matahachi can’t help but follow his friend. After Matahachi is injured in battle, Takezo and he escape to an unassuming cabin where lives Oko and Akemi, two grifters. The two friends are split up after an attack by brigands offers an opportunity for Oko to try to seduce Takezo, and Takezo returns to Miyamoto with the intent of alerting Otsu of Matahachi’s betrayal; unfortunately, when Takezo is waylaid by border guards, a fight breaks out and he becomes an outlaw in his own town. Now he and Otsu feel trapped by the society around them, as a Buddhist priest named Takuan intervenes to try to teach Takezo how to redirect his energy toward the cause of honor and virtue.
Much of the earlier part of Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto seems right out of a familiar Republic Studio era Western serial, with the background of civil war, an almost brotherly friendship pulled apart by love triangles, and Japan’s graceful mountains standing in for American frontier. The story seems to hurdle from situation to situation, with a lot of characters jumping to conclusions backed by orchestras swelling pathos. It is not until Takezo gets back to Miyamoto that the real meat of the movie starts moving and we get some insight into Takezo’s inner struggle to contain his outer wildness.
This makes Toshiro Mifune perfectly cast as the sometimes pathetic, sometimes raving Takezo. Mifune’s acting is particularly physical in comparison to his counterpart, Rentaro Mikuni, who seems limpid and dazed wherever he goes. A really beautiful sequence in the mountains near Miyamoto tell the whole story as Priest Takuan instructs Otsu to “play the bamboo flute to relieve your sorrow” which also serves as a romantic bait to reach out to the isolated Takezo, appearing out of the reeds like Frankenstein’s monster after a several day manhunt.
The most noteworthy aspect of this movie however is cinematographer’s Jun Yasumoto’s 4:3 compositions. Sprawling mountains, steep cliffs and walls, and tall trees add an up-down balance as equally visually as the typical horizontal framing, which makes much of the movie reminiscent of Japanese landscape drawings, which tend to be composed from top to bottom instead of horizontally. This approach isn’t merely aesthetic either, as it makes for really great drama when Takezo is tied and hung from a tree by Priest Takuan to slowly wear him out over the course of three days.
The empathetic and quirky Takuan provides a great balance to the mirrored loneliness of Otsu and Takezo, the former slowly being binded by her obligations to her mother-in-law to be and the latter constricted by society’s ostracization. Outside of these three characters, director Hiroshi Inogaki’s presentation of Edo-era Japanese society is rather bleak. Everyone is either base or exploitative, and ready to manipulate or fight each other at a moment’s notice. It’s a strange tonal shift near the end when Takezo is finally granted an opportunity to spend years in seclusion for ‘moral training’ and the true route to being a samurai actually begins. It’s unclear whether Inogaki had thematic intent behind this characterization of Japanese society or if the extremes to which all the characters exploit each other is just melodrama.
Hopefully a check-in with Mutahachi, now married Akemi’s villainous mother Oko, indicates that the paths of Mutahachi and Takezo will meet again in a later installment of the Samurai Trilogy.
Author: Dane Benko
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