Plot: Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) is desperate for a fresh start and in order to leave his hometown, he decides to join the war effort and he talks his best friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) into going as well, with the promise of adventure and the chance to become a samurai. But things don’t as planned, their side gets routed, and Matahachi is wounded in the battle, so the two men have to evade detection and somehow find some help. A small village provides them with refuge and Matahachi finds more than medical attention, as he falls in with a widow and decides to remain, to start a new life with her and her daughter. Takezo then returns home, but if his reputation was bad before, it is now worse than ever. Despite his good intentions, he is arrested for treason and faces a grim future.
Entertainment Value: The first installment in Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, Musashi Miyamoto begins a personal, sweeping narrative about one man’s ambition to fulfill his purpose and find himself in the process. This is indeed a samurai picture, but the scale is smaller than most and to me, that intimate scale is one reason these movies work so well and stand out in the genre. I love intense, action driven samurai cinema, but this is a great change of pace and the focus on development really pays off, especially if you watch all three pictures. The focus on character depth ensures that while familiar, the narrative feels fresh and keeps you hooked in. At the same time, the movies have been criticized for historical inaccuracies, but this is true of most films based on real life events, so I don’t think it is a reason to dismiss them. The tale of Musashi Miyamoto is well known, so even if the movies take some liberties, I doubt anyone is basing their overall impressions on one source’s take. The pace is deliberate, but that is expected, given the approach taken and the time needed to explore Takezo’s persona and I don’t think the movie is ever slow or drawn out. The tone is intimate and personal, but the movie is also quite ambitious, so it has a good sense of scale and to me, never fails to deliver an interesting experience.
While Samurai I isn’t as action oriented as some samurai movies, it still has some good action set pieces and of course, sword battles. These duels have a grounded, authentic feel and that is an ideal approach, given the dramatic focus. This means the fights aren’t all that complex or overly kinetic, but it works and thanks to the skilled camerawork involved, the battles are quite cinematic. Just expect a more subdued, controlled type of blade work, rather than wild, over the top clashes. The camera also captures the rest of the visuals with immense skill and helps add scale to the journey, which helps make it feel more epic. As I said before, this is a much more personal, scaled down kind of narrative, but the beautiful locales and grand, sweeping camera work works wonders in adding that sense of wonder. The cast is rock solid, with Toshiro Mifune at the center of the movie and he more than delivers. He is able to handle the depth of character needed and of course, handles a sword with a natural presence. Mifune has the lead, but the film invests time in the supporting characters as well, so the rest of the cast is given ample time to shine. The cast also includes Rentaro Mikuni, Mariko Okada, Akihiko Harada, and Kaoru Yachigusa.