Tag Archives: Toshiro Mifune

My Thoughts on: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

Samurai_II_Duel_at_Ichijoji_Temple_poster

Since the first time I watched Throne of Blood (1957) I have been a huge fan of the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), particularly his work in jidaigeki or “period dramas.” For the past several years I’ve been working on viewing as many of these films as possible and from the start I knew this would have to include The Samurai Trilogy, a trio of films that dramatize notable incidents in the life of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), arguably the greatest swordsman to ever live. I received the set as a present last year for my birthday, but due to real-life circumstances, I wasn’t able to finish it until last night.

Each film focuses on a major event (or major series of events) in the swordsman’s life:

-In Samurai I, Musashi is a young man named Takezo who dreams of finding wealth and glory far away from the humble village he lives in. His best friend Matahachi also shares dreams of glory and is engaged to Otsu. After being caught on the wrong side of the battle of Sekigahara (which led to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for nearly 300 years), Takezo and Matahachi are branded outlaws and go on the run. While Matahachi is lured away to Kyoto by a widow and her daughter, Takezo runs wild through the countryside until Takuan, a Buddhist priest, lures him to Himeji Castle (on the premise that Otsu, who has developed feelings for Takezo, is imprisoned there). It’s a trap (of sorts): Takezo is locked into a room inside the castle that is full of books and told he will not be let out until he has bettered himself. Three years later Takezo is released and given the samurai name of Miyamoto Musashi.

530id_110_w1600

Though the film is just over 90 minutes in length, it’s paced in such a way that it feels much longer (such was my impression). Mifune is a delight to watch, as always, and his transformation from the wild Takezo to the stoic Musashi is so extreme you’d almost swear they were played by two different people.

 

Shop Movies + Spend $35, Get Free Shipping

 

-In Samurai II, the story revolves around Musashi’s conflict with the Yoshioka school, as well as his struggle to fully realize what it means to be a samurai. Initially, Musashi believes that one only needs to be proficient with a sword (which he is), but again and again he is chided for lacking chivalry, compassion and affection. Without these, Musashi is merely a killer, not a samurai. During his journey, Musashi gains his first disciple, an orphan boy named Jotaro. Otsu is still in love with Musashi, but she’s not alone: Akemi, the daughter of the widow from the first film also fancies herself in love with the samurai, though at the moment Musashi himself claims to have chosen “the way of the sword” over the love of any woman. This film also introduces Sasaki Kojiro, another talented swordsman who seeks to build a name for himself by dueling and defeating only the best. He wields a massive longsword nicknamed “Drying Pole.” He badly wants to duel Musashi, but is willing to wait until the samurai has honed his talents further.

eV2HJeLxikDVDHIpYx6LcTVdQQC

I definitely liked this film more than Samurai I. Musashi’s conflict with the Yoshioka school was interesting, considering the students kept stopping the head of the school from meeting Musashi in a fair one-on-one duel. My favorite moments were whenever Musashi faced off with an opponent (or many opponents), sword at the ready. His movements are so precise and artful that I wish there were more moments like this. Koji Tsuruta (1924-1987), who played Sasaki Kojiro, was also a joy to watch. His performance is such that you’re never quite sure what the character is actually thinking.

featured_exhib_film_japaneseff2016_trilogy_duelatganryu

-The story concludes with Samurai III and recounts Musashi’s famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryu Island. At the start of this film, Kojiro is frustrated that, despite all his talent, he is still a ronin (a samurai with no master). To remedy this, he applies to become the teacher of Lord Hosokawa, a position that Musashi is also being recruited for. The two swordsman nearly duel one night, but under pressure to accept the offer to become Hosokawa’s teacher, Musashi leaves town and postpones the duel for one year. As a result, Kojiro receives the position and finally receives the status and luxuries that he has always believed to be his due. Finally the duel is set to be held on Ganryu Island. The pair face off on the beach and for a time seem to be equally matched. But then, in a move so quick I honestly can’t describe it, Musashi strikes the fatal blow and Kojiro falls dead. But Musashi takes no joy in the victory.

Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, or maybe it took a really long time for Musashi to get to the island, but I could’ve sworn the duel took place at sunset. But apparently it was sunrise because the sun kept getting higher in the sky as things went on (cause otherwise it’s a massive continuity error). I found myself pitying Kojiro as the story went on. It is made clear that this duel does not have to happen. Had he said so, Musashi would have happily continued living his life and Kojiro could have spent the rest of his days as an honored teacher and samurai. Kojiro’s downfall comes from wanting to be the very best swordsman in Japan, nothing else will do. One character summed it up perfectly when he observed “This man’s ambitions are too great.”

In conclusion, I greatly enjoyed The Samurai Trilogy, it is a must-see for anyone wishing to learn more about the great samurai films. If you’ve seen this trilogy, let me know what you thought about it in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film/TV Reviews

My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

You can become a patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Advertisements

My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

YojimboPoster

Ever since I first saw Throne of Blood on Hulu (back when the Criterion Collection streamed their films on that site), there has been a special place in my heart for Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films (a jidaigeki film is literally a “period drama” usually set during the Edo period of Japan from 1603-1868, though some can be set earlier). And one of my favorite jidaigeki films is Yojimbo (1961), a film that may sound familiar to fans of Western films. Why would that be? Well, listen to the brief summary first:

A nameless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) comes to a small town that is the center of a feud between two families, both engaged in underworld crime. The nameless samurai plots to save the town by pitting the two families against one another by pretending to be a bodyguard (yojimbo) for each side until they destroy each other.

site_28_rand_560239639_yojimbo_627

If that sounds like the plot of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name then you would be correct. What I never knew until I saw Yojimbo is that director Sergio Leone “borrowed” the plot of this film from Kurosawa’s work and repeated it wholesale for his spaghetti Western. Kurosawa filed a lawsuit when the film came to his attention, stating that while Leone had made “a fine movie, but it was my movie!” Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court for a certain percentage of the profits made from A Fistful of Dollars.

Shop Movies + Spend $35, Get Free Shipping

As stated in the brief summary, the nameless samurai comes to a rural town that is slowly being suffocated by two families. It was originally ruled (more or less) by Seibei    (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his gang. But when Seibei sought to retire and announced that he would be giving all of his territory to his inexperienced son, his right-hand man Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) balked and started his own gang in retaliation. The two have been trying to eliminate each other for quite some time but remain locked in a stalemate. Seeing how the town is suffering from the two gangs, the nameless samurai (who later gives himself the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake) determines to eliminate them.

yojimbo-1961-movie-review-gang-unosuke-tatsuya-nakadai

Ushitora (left) and his brothers: Unosuke (center) and Inokichi (right)

Part of what makes Yojimbo such an excellent film is that it turns the traditional depiction of a samurai on its head. As a general rule, samurai were depicted as these noble beings, not a hair out of place and they wouldn’t dream of killing anyone for something as base as money. Sanjuro is the complete opposite of all of these ideals: he’s visibly scruffy; his clothes have seen better days; and his whole world apparently revolves around profit (though this is later tempered when he secretly gives his ill-gotten gains to a peasant family to help them start a new life). Toshiro Mifune completely owns this role for certain. In fact, this film did so well that Mifune reprised the role the following year in Sanjuro (1962).

My favorite part of this film is the middle act where Sanjuro plays each gang off of the other, with both sides completely oblivious to the manipulation. For example, Sanjuro overhears one of Ushitora’s men drunkenly spouting off to a friend about how they murdered a government official. After capturing them and taking the pair to Seibei, Sanjuro goes back to Ushitora and tells them that Seibei’s men captured the pair (leaving out the fact that he made the capture himself).

0seibei

Seibei (left) begs Sanjuro to work for him

The plan nearly goes off without a hitch but there are some complications: right in the middle of Sanjuro’s scheming, Ushitora’s younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns after a trip abroad. And the semi-deranged Unosuke brought back a present: a pistol (that he knows how to use very well thank you very much). On top of this, Sanjuro’s good deed of helping a peasant family escape (including the wife who had been forcibly given to one of Ushitora’s associates as a concubine) is found out by Unosuke, who drags him back to his brother’s gang to be beaten unmercifully until he gives up where the family went. Sanjuro manages to escape, naturally, and he makes sure his only friend in the town, Gonji (Eijirō Tōno) the tavern owner, tells Ushitora’s men that the samurai went back to Seibei’s place to hide.

yojimbo-1961-sanjuro-gangsters-ushitora-kyu-sazanka-toshiro-mifune-seibei-seizaburo-kawazu

This proves to be the final straw: Ushitora and his men set fire to the rival gang’s base (a brothel) and slaughter them all as they come running out to fight, though they do spare the brothel girls as they run for their lives. After killing Seibei’s son and his scheming wife, Unosuke shoots Seibei and the war for the town is seemingly over. Gonji sneaks Sanjuro out of town to help him recover, but is caught taking supplies to him and is captured. Sanjuro won’t stand to see his friend hurt, so he returns to town to dispatch Ushitora and his gang. In relatively short order he kills them all, only sparing a young farm boy that he saw at the beginning of the story running away from the family farm, ordering him to go back to his parents and enjoy “a long life sipping gruel.”

With the gangs eliminated, Sanjuro frees Gonji and with a simple “See you around!” heads off for the road.

The film is made even better by Masaru Sato’s excellent, almost jazz-like score for this film. It doesn’t seem like the kind of music you should hear in a period film like Yojimbo, but it absolutely works. One of my favorite musical moments is, when Sanjuro is stalking Ushitora’s gang for the last time, all you really hear for a minute is a soft tap on a high-hat cymbal.

Have you seen Yojimbo or Sanjuro the sequel? If so, what did you think about them? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Thank you so much for coming by and checking out the blog, your support means everything to me!

For more of my thoughts on Kurosawa, see also: My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

And also see: Live-Action Films/TV for the rest of my film reviews 🙂

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

throne-of-blood-movie-poster-1957-1020199303

Have you ever wondered what Macbeth would look like if William Shakespeare had been a Japanese playwright living in 17th century feudal Japan? Legendary director Akira Kurosawa pondered the exact same question and as a result created Throne of Blood (known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider-Web’s Castle in its original Japanese title). The plot is largely faithful to Shakespeare, but the characters have undergone some changes, so first I’ll list the main characters and their Shakespearean counterparts:

  • Washizu/Macbeth: a loyal retainer of the Great Lord who is unexpectedly promoted to commander of the North Garrison after helping subdue a rebellion.
  • Miki/Banquo: Washizu’s best friend since childhood. He also meets the Witch in Spider-Web Forest
  • Lady Asaji/Lady Macbeth: Washizu’s scheming wife who continually pushes her husband to fulfill his “destiny” as laid out by the Witch.
  • The Great Lord/King Duncan: Ruler of a large territory who places great trust in Washizu and Miki.
  • The Witch of Spider-Web Forest/The Three Witches: Instead of three witches, Washizu and Miki meet only one, who, after singing a morbid song about how all life is connected to the corruption of death, foretells that Washizu will be promoted and shortly thereafter become Great Lord of Spider-Web’s Castle.

3884326-macbeth

Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada)

As I said before, the film is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s plot: After defeating a rogue lord in battle, Washizu and his friend Miki are on their way to meet the Great Lord when they come across a strange witch in the forest. The witch foretells that Washizu will shortly be named lord of the North Garrison and become ruler of Spider-Web’s Castle thereafter. Miki asks his fortune, and the witch replies that while his son will one day rule, he (Miki) will not. The friends attempt to laugh off the encounter, but when the first set of predictions come true (both are rewarded as the witch said they would be), they begin to wonder if the second prediction will also come true (because the Great Lord has a son of his own).

7be7ada2007e4a5855e4f3c9f40bc645_400

Behind the scene with the arrows in Throne of Blood

Washizu (to me) makes the great mistake of telling Lady Asaji about the prophecy and everything that’s happened and from that point on she can’t let it go; Washizu MUST fulfill the rest of the prophecy or he is no man at all. I have to say that Isuzu Yamada’s performance as Lady Asaji is one of the most chilling renditions of the Lady Macbeth character that I have ever seen. Part of the eeriness comes from Kurosawa instructing the actress to never blink on-camera. This gives her a not-quite-human affect and makes it like she’s wearing a mask (which is a reference to traditional Japanese theater, where the actors wore masks to denote their character). Asaji is near-sociopathic when it comes to getting what she wants, especially when she speaks of killing the Great Lord (which, as Washizu points out, would be an act of treason).

TOB - 9

Great Lord Washizu sees Miki’s ghost at a feast

Despite Washizu’s doubts, he finally gives in and murders the Great Lord off-camera when the latter comes to stay at the garrison for a night (Asaji having convinced him that all of this is a ploy that will eventually lead to Washizu’s execution). Despite successfully becoming the next Great Lord, Washizu is far from happy. But he at least sees one happy ending for his story: his dear friend Miki will be named his heir, as will Miki’s son, since Washizu has no children to succeed him. But while Washizu is content to reign and then turn the castle over to someone else, Lady Asaji is not. In a twist specificially created by Kurosawa, the devious wife drops a bombshell on her husband:

Asaji: “I am….with child.”

Washizu: “Truly?!”

Asaji: “….yes.”

The revelation that Asaji is pregnant (and she truly is, it’s not a lie) changes everything and gives Washizu a true motivation to eliminate Miki and his son from the picture. This is done, though Miki’s son escapes. At a feast later that night, Washizu sees Miki’s ghost sitting at his usual place in the hall, which terrifies the guilty lord who nearly reveals the whole truth to his entire court! I love Mifune’s performance in this scene, he is clearly wrestling with his fear and guilt and a part of him wants to badly to scream his sins in front of the world. But there’s still the child…isn’t there? Well, when the time to give birth arrives, a maid delivers the news: Asaji delivered a stillborn child, one that had been dead in the womb for some time, meaning Washizu ordered his best friend murdered for nothing. The loss of the child and the weight of her guilt combine to drive Asaji mad, and we last see her frantically trying to clean the phantom blood from her hands.

Vlcsnap-165532

Washizu with the fatal arrow in his neck

Washizu dies just like Macbeth at the conclusion of the story, but it’s the manner of his death that I’d like to talk about. Just like in Shakespeare, Washizu receives a final prophecy from the witch: he will not be overthrown until Spider Web’s Forest marches up to the castle. Since forests can’t walk of their own accord, Washizu assumes this means he’s invincible and he tells his men as much. But then, one night, an army organized by the son of the murdered Great Lord arrives and strange noises are heard in the forest. In the morning, the soldiers keeping watch cry out in panic, for there is Spider-Web’s Forest walking up to the castle!

Shop Movies + Spend $35, Get Free Shipping

In actuality, the invading soldiers had chopped down the trees to 1) make it easier to reach the castle and 2) disguise how many soldiers and wagons they had with them. Seeing the prophecy come true, Washizu’s men turn on him and suddenly a few arrows are shot at the terrified lord. When he calls them out that killing the Great Lord is treason, a soldier yells back “And who killed our last lord??” Dozens of arrows pursue Washizu as he runs for his life, but every way is cut off by arrows. He’s pierced dozens of times, but he still struggles to get away until suddenly (in one of the best executed jump-cuts you’ll ever see), an arrow pierces his neck, killing him, and bringing an end to the tragedy of Washizu.

throne-of-blood-8

An interesting note about the final scene with the arrows: Toshiro Mifune was really being shot at by live arrows (for the most part, a few are guided by wires which can be seen if you watch for them). His frantic arm movements are actually directing the archers as to which direction they need to shoot in next. This is why Washizu looks so terrified: because Mifune is genuinely terrified!

I would also like to give a quick mention to the wonderful score composed by Masaru Sato (1928-1999), who composed music for Kurosawa’s films for over a decade. He created music that highlights both the good and bad moments in Washizu’s life, and it really adds to the quality of this film.

If you’d like to watch Throne of Blood (which I highly recommend), the Criterion Collection has a restored copy on DVD/Blu Ray. It can also be streamed via FilmStruck. If you’ve seen Throne of Blood, what did you think of it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a good day!

For more of my thoughts on film, see here: Live-Action Films/TV

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂