Monday, November 16, 2009

“It’s not over yet. I may get a captain’s head!”

In 1954, Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki began a sweeping trilogy focusing on one of Japan’s greatest historical heroes; warrior, philosopher, artist, badass Miyamoto Musashi. The first of these movies, Miyamoto Musashi (or Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto on the American DVD release) tells the origin of the legendary swordsman. Starring Toshiro Mifune, the film series was based on a novel about the man, so liberties were naturally taken, but a figure like Musashi generated a lot of legends about him anyway. So sit down and buckle up, because you’re about to get Musashi’d (he was so badass his name deserves to be a future-perfect verb)

So a rebellious youth convinces his buddy (who’s betrothed) to run off to war to seek fortune and ADVENTURE! What they find is being on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, where in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory that would pave the way for his hegemony over Japan, heralding the end of a long period of civil wars for supremacy. Anyway, injured, our main characters find a small house where a mother and daughter help heal them and then have them fight off some bandits. The women make a play for our hero, but he doesn’t want them, so he leaves. His buddy, finally healed up from his serious wounds, decides to stay with the two ladies as their protector, completely neglecting the fiancée he left back home. Our real hero returns to Miyamoto village where, thanks to his wild behavior, he gets every law official in the area wanting him brought in for punishment. He finally gets captured by a Buddhist priest who seems to have plans for the wild swordsman.

Takezo/Musashi Miyamoto: Toshiro. Mifune. All right, you probably need more than just that. Takezo is the “wild one” of his village, so much so that his relatives have all disowned him. He runs off to war to seek fortune and glory, survives battle and becomes a drifter. After his buddy decides to abandon his fiancée, Takezo returns to his home village, killing a few guards at a checkpoint. As the town officials try to bring him in, he keeps killing more guards in self defense and hides out in the woods like a bogeyman. Finally captured by a clever Buddhist priest, he gets strung up in a tree for two days to, basically think things over, but he eventually escapes and then gets captured again by the priest, who locks him into an attic full of books, telling him to train and bring himself under control before he earns the name Miyamoto Musashi. He’s quite the badass, but he’s also unbridled and wild, not thinking much through before acting.

Honiden Matahachi: Rentaro Mikuni plays Takezo’s buddy who’s an indecisive little prick. On the one hand he wants to marry his girl, but on the other he wants to follow Takezo to war. Matahachi eventually crosses the line into full douche bag when he tries (and eventually relents) to rape a woman and then abandons his fiancée to follow two shady women to Kyoto, eventually marrying one of them. His mom’s a real bitch too.

Otsu: Kaoru Yachigusa plays Matahachi’s long-suffering ex-fiancée. An orphan in the village and cared for by the town priest, she’s a good girl, honest and true. After Takezo’s return home, she finally learns what became of her jerkass betrothed and starts to grow closer to Takezo.

Priest Takuan Osho: The Buddhist priest in Miyamoto village who takes care of Otsu and later resolves to capture Takezo. A clever chap who’s apparently very well connected with government officials, he captures Takezo, brings him back to town and hangs him in a tree for two days, all while cheerfully countering Takezo’s shouts and promises of bloody vengeance. He just smiles back and says things that are obviously intended to be a lesson for Takezo, who doesn’t really get it. For being patient enough to not only catch the future Musashi, but also for giving the wild swordsman a chance to make something useful of his life, he manages to out-badass Takezo.

Hiroshi Inagaki filmed the movie in color (the quality of which varies from shot to shot because of age) and the movie isn’t so much lush as it is moody. Rain shows up during Sekigahara, creating a hopeless atmosphere, then as Takezo travels around, the lighting and color help set the moods he’s in as he wrestles with himself. The use of shadows in particular is fantastic in this film, and Inagaki set up lots of fantastic shots. The movie is 93 minutes, but the pacing both makes it feel like a longer film that feels short for a long film (an…odd phrase, I realize, but that’s the feeling). The action scenes themselves, while not that prevalent, are brutal and quick, with a wild intensity to them and an “unchoreographed” feel to them, especially when villains find themselves getting “Musashi’d” (Yeah, I’m trying to force a meme here. Indulge me).

Eiji Yoshikawa wrote the novel, Hideji Hojo wrote the play and Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao are credited as writers. Whatever. The result is a tightly crafted character piece that tells an interesting origin story for one of the greatest swordsmen in history.

The original score by Ikuma Dan is not a constant presence in the film, but there are moments of high emotion where it soars dramatically.

Miyamoto Musashi is a very compelling film that is much more of a character drama than straight up action, but it does both of those things well. A lot of loose ends are left over at the end, but the film is clearly meant to be the first chapter in a larger story, so its forgivable. Absolutely recommended as a dramatic foreign period film, and if that doesn’t sell you on it: Toshiro Mifune being nonstop awesome.

Not finding the trailer on Youtube, so here's the IMDB link for it

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