[dir: Hiroshi Inagaki; prod: Kazuo Takimura; writer: Hideji Hojo (play), Hiroshi Inagaki; Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Rentaro Mikuni, Kuroemon Onoe, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada, Mitsuko Mito, Eiko Miyoshi, Akihiko Hirata, Kusuo Abe, Eitarô Ozawa, Akira Tani]
Running Time: 93 min
Plot: With his closest friend, Matahachi, Takezo (the town’s wild, orphan kid) leaves his village to join an army on its way to battle. After their side loses, they seek shelter in the isolated home of a widow, Oko, and her daughter, Akemi. Oko seduces Matahachi, who forgets his betrothal to the virtuous Otsu. Oko, Matahachi, and Akemi go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to the village. Matahachi’s family rejects Takezo’s report and has him arrested for treason. A monk rescues him from death and sentences him to the study of the samurai code. Otsu and Takezo fall in love, and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant.
Hiroshi Inagaki’s colorful but square movies have received unnatural acclaim in spite of their being badly dated. This trilogy, featuring Toshiro Mifune as legendary, real-life samurai Miyamoto Mushashi, is his most major claim to fame. But why it should be such a claim is beyond me.
The movies detail the evolution of Miyamoto Mushashi from enthusiastic young warhound to sadder and wiser warrior. This first one spends almost three hours on Mushashi’s early years as an energetic nutcase. He tramples down the countryside, searching for fame and fortune until a wise but boring monk tricks him into several years of serious study. The movie ends with Mushashi vigorous in his quest for victory and enlightenment.
Mifune does a great job, giving another fierce performance as the iconic samurai. But Inagaki’s direction is virtually lifeless for most of the movie. What few scenes of action there are excite but pass quickly, leaving us set up for giantly long scenes of nothing happening. Once the monk gets Mushashi into his clutches to educate him, we’re all set up for a siesta, and the scenes of Mushashi’s education then don’t fail to give us just that. Somehow, these films have grown in reputation over the years, to the point that they are considered classic. While Inagaki’s work with color was innovative at the time, nothing else about this film says “classic” the way the work of Akira Kurosawa or Hideo Gosha does. It’s just straightforward, plodding filmmaking.