Friday, May 21, 2010

Five Films For Five Rings-Animeigo’s ‘Miyamoto Musashi’ Boxed Set

It’s no secret that a lot of us here at the SA don’t think much of Miyamoto Musashi’s popular image as ‘The Ultimate Samurai’, feeling instead he’s the ‘Most Overrated Samurai’. There’s a lot of misinformation in the English language world bandied about concerning Musashi, much of which you can read about in a prior post that dissected the godawful History Channel/Mark Dacascos Musashi love fest, ‘Samurai’. However, this criticism doesn’t extend to films-as works of fiction, we rate them solely on their artistic merit and entertainment value. Since many Japanese films dealing with famous historical figures are based on novels, it’s really the only way to go-one can hardly fault a film that’s based on a work of fiction for being inaccurate. Rather, one can look at them as taking place in a fantasy/different timeline version of Japan-much like the Last Samurai, Shogun, or even Taiga Dramas that play fast and loose with the facts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Animeigo’s newest boxed DVD set, Toei’s five film Uchida Tomu/Nakamura Kinnosuke ‘Miyamoto Musashi’ series. For those who like their symmetry, there’s a film here for each of the rings in Musashi’s autobiography/sword training manual “The Book of Five Rings”. Animeigo’s set is a sword slash above any other multi film or TV series dealing with Musashi, and only the 2003 film ‘Ganryujima’ keeps it from being the best cinematic treatment of the man (well, unless you count the zombie Musashi in ‘Samurai Resurrection/Makai Tenshou’-jidaigeki doesn’t get any better than that).

The series is based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel ‘Musashi’ (which was originally serialized in a Japanese newspaper in the 1930’s). Yoshikawa’s novel is almost wholly responsible for the deification of Musashi and his popularity today and has formed the basis for most films portraying him. One of these that many viewers will already be familiar with is the well known Inagaki ‘Samurai Trilogy’ starring Mifune Toshiro. While the Inagaki series has a good reputation in the west (thanks in no small part to Mifune and its inclusion in the ‘Criterion Collection’), we’ve always found it rather pedestrian and lacking. One might say it’s as overrated as Musashi. Mifune turns in a one note performance as Musashi and the other performances come up flat. The Nakamura series also contains a better sampling of celebrated incidents from the Yoshikawa book, with one notable exception. Musashi’s battle with the kusarigama (sickle and chain) master made it into the Inagaki films but not Uchida’s. Interestingly enough, Uchida and Nakamura reunited years later to produce a film based around this omitted incident. Uchida died before the film was completed but it was eventually released. Some consider this to be a ‘sixth film’ connected to the 1961-65 series, but we don’t. It obviously isn’t part of the original cycle’s concept and overview, and is better considered a separate treatment of the character using the same director and star. In any case, the Uchida/Nakamura ‘Musashi’ series outshines the Inagaki version in acting, presentation, emotional impact, and depth.

The first film in the series, “Miyamoto Musashi (1961)”, follows the early years of Musashi beginning with the aftermath of the battle of Sekigahara. Musashi (here still known as Takezo) and his friend Matahachi find themselves on the run after having joined the losing side. The two end up hiding out at the home of Oko and her daughter Akemi. Matahachi falls for the older woman and when the home is threatened by bandits, Takezo stays to fight while Matahachi leaves with the women. Takezo returns to his hometown to inform Matahachi’s mother Osugi and fiancée Otsu what has happened, but finds himself the object of Osugi’s anger and hunted by pro-Tokugawa samurai. Zen monk Takuan manages to lure him out of hiding without further bloodshed, but the sputtering Takezo finds himself hanging from the branches of a thousand year old tree and left to die. The monk’s ultimate plan plays itself out, but will it be too late for Takezo?

“Duel At Hannya Hill (Hannyazaka No Ketto, 1962)” opens with Takezo studying the ways of the samurai while restricted to the haunted tower of Himeji Castle. Upon ending his three years of isolation, he forgoes an offer of employment from Lord Ikeda, changes his name to Musashi, and embarks on a musha shugyo (a pilgrimage taken by a samurai to gain experience, see the world and hone their sword skills). He also abandons Otsu, who has fallen in love with him and waited three years for his release. Musashi seeks outs challenges from warriors and martial arts schools of all types, from the sword skills of the Yoshioka dojo to the Hozoin monks and their distinctive spear style. Along the way he picks up a child apprentice, is pursued by Osugi (seeking revenge for her son Matahachi, who she believes to be dead) and manages to make enemies of a large group of local ronin. The final showdown at Hannya Hill sees him pitted against the full might of the Hozoin monks and the lawless ronin.

Musashi’s feud with the Yoshioka School comes to a head in “Birth Of The Nito-Ryu Style (Nitoryu Kaigan, 1963)”. Before battling Yoshioka Seijuro in the penultimate duel, Musashi attempts to extort a lesson in swordsmanship from the venerable Yagyu Sekishuusai. This film is also the first in the series to feature an appearance by his ultimate nemesis, Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro is played by Takakura Ken and presents a more physically intimidating Kojiro than most of the actors who have essayed the part. We also find out more about what has happened to Osugi, Oko, Akemi, and Matahachi as they make their own way through life-but still have fates that are intertwined with Musashi’s.

The Yoshioka School plans their revenge on Musashi in “Duel at Ichijyo-ji Temple (Ichijoji No Ketto, 1964)”. While trying to hide his fears early in the film, Musashi is ridiculed by a famous geisha whose company he has been gifted with. She sees beyond his surface calm to the fears and frailty within him-this after he has just returned from killing the younger of the Yoshioka brothers. After hiding out in the geisha’s teahouse, Musashi emerges and is confronted by the assembled Yoshioka. He agrees to fight one final battle against them-one which uses a child as his ostensible opponent with 73 members of the dojo acting as his seconds. In my opinion, this is the best of the five films, not so much because of the wild duel near the end but because of the moral dilemmas Musashi faces.

Finally, “Duel At Ganryu Island (Ganryu-jima No Ketto, 1965)” has as its centerpiece the famous duel between Musashi and Kojiro. It ties up several loose ends from the earlier films (such as the fate of Akemi and Matahachi, along with the resolution of Osugi’s vendetta against Musashi). Musashi, in an effort to redeem himself for having slaughtered a child, takes up farming with a boy whose father has just died. He is called back to the way of the sword when Kojiro issues a challenge to him-one which Musashi may not survive even if he wins. Takakura Ken is especially effective in this film, as he presents both a Kojiro who is full of confidence-and yet also one with a subliminal realization that he might have taken on more than he can handle.

Unlike most movies dealing with Musashi, the films don’t over glorify his every action-many times he’s portrayed as a shallow and hard headed jackass. Despite the fact that he spends three years locked up in Himeji Castle reading, studying, and supposedly making himself a more worthy person, it becomes apparent throughout the series that Musashi has just acquired a somewhat more civilized veneer-his core remains the same. His actions are continually questioned by other characters throughout the series. Otsu tells him that continued dueling will not result in any self improvement, but just more blood on his hands. Musashi deliberately provokes a fight with Yagyu swordsmen who have invited him to a blossom-viewing party. Buddhist monks eject him from their retreat on Mt. Hiei for the crime of killing a child-a deed which Musashi petulantly denies culpability for, trying to lay the blame on his foes and equating striking down the child with destroying a flag. Musashi angrily reacts to a Buddhist priest who states strategy should be used for the betterment of society and not for one’s own aggrandizement. Even Sasaki Kojiro wryly observes that Musashi is following the ‘Path of the Loser’. Musashi only realizes the truth after he has achieved what should have been his greatest victory-he disgustedly throws down his weapon and cries out to the heavens that following the way of the sword has left him empty inside, spiritually bereft and unfulfilled. It’s a moment unmatched in any other Musashi film.

Nakamura Kinnosuke still manages to make Musashi a sympathetic character with an outstanding performance. Nakamura, who is just beginning to have his films commercially released in the west, shows the emotional range he displayed in another recent Animeigo release (Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai). His Musashi not only presents the fierceness and primitive rage of Takezo, but of a more understanding and educated Musashi later on. Throughout the series he allows the dark side of Takezo to emerge, usually at moments of high stress, to crack the facade of the cool, capable swordsman Musashi wishes to be seen as. Many of the films end with Musashi ranting in denial at a particularly tough lesson he has just learned. Nakamura allows us to see a man who is truly trying to conquer his evil side, taking two steps forward and one step back. This Musashi is allowed to show kindness and consideration for those around him and develop somewhat deeper relations with other characters than one usually sees in Musashi films-certainly moreso than Inagaki’s trilogy, where Mifune is basically in ‘master swordsman’ mode 24/7. This results in the ‘Uchida’ Musashi being a more complex, subtle, and layered character than the simple martial arts superman he’s usually seen as.

While there isn’t as much emphasis on the second tier actors as in some Musashi adaptations, they all turn in believable performances. Oka Satomi as Akemi is particularly good-while many actresses have portrayed her as a bitch, Oka gives her a sweet and vulnerable side that makes her a likeable character (having said that, Uchiyama Rina from the NHK Musashi Taiga Drama still ranks as the best Akemi). Irie Wakaba as Otsu also manages to infuse her character with dignity and conscience, making her more than the hysterical obsessed Musashiphile she usually is portrayed as. Naniwa Chieko’s Osugi is the perfect crotchety old Japanese grandmother-she’s way over the top, but it works given her character’s personality. While the actors portraying Musashi’s friend Matahachi (the role changed hands after the first film) and Takuan (Musashi’s spiritual guide) come off a bit flat, overall the supporting cast does an excellent job.

Director Uchida Tomu always keeps his focus on the story and characters-it’s a workmanlike job but effective. There’s not much in the way of obvious ‘art house’ shots, but Uchida subtly stages settings and lighting to underscore the action on the screen without drawing attention to it. And occasionally an ‘art house’ shot does turn up, as when Musashi is seen lying amongst a sea of blood red ferns after having carved his way through the Yoshioka School (scenes which were shot in hues of green and blue). The symbolism is stark and effective-Musashi has immersed himself in bloodshed. There’s also a striking sequence in the first film where Musashi is confronted by the ghosts of his ancestors in Himeji Castle while blood pours forth from the walls and floor.

And as everyone has come to expect, Animeigo’s translation and subtitling are the best in the business. Different levels of subtitling can be selected to match the viewer’s proficiency in spoken/written Japanese. Extras for the set include an audio commentary by film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, trailers for each of the films, program notes, and image galleries. As with many of Animeigo’s boxed sets, the program notes are spread out across five films and seem a bit sparse when compared with their single disc releases. There’s surprisingly little information given on the historical Musashi, with most of the content devoted to cultural issues. Disc one does contain bios for Musashi and Kojiro, but leaves out large chunks of Musashi’s career. The image galleries are well done, and a particularly nice touch is that the film’s posters are reproduced-both in full screen and in individual close up shots of sections of the poster that allow viewers to read the text. The real gem of the extras is Stuart Galbraith IV’s commentary on disc one. Galbraith (who also provided the excellent commentary for Animeigo’s Tora-san set) packs an incredible amount of film history into 110 minutes. Ranging from cultural observations to cast and crew information as well as commenting on the film itself, he keeps his presentation lively and engaging. Particularly interesting is the discussion of how Inagaki’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’ became famous in the west while it was considered inferior to the Uchida version in Japan (it was largely due to a famous Hollywood actor’s response to the popularity of ‘Seven Samurai’ in the USA). Also brought on board is Charles Ziarko (first assistant director from the classic miniseries Shogun) to discuss how Japanese filmmaking differs from Hollywood. Going the extra mile, Galbraith gives an extended overview of the historical Musashi that doesn’t omit the ‘embarrassing’ parts (such as his participation in putting down the Shimabara Rebellion).

So it is that we find ourselves in the unusual position of writing words of praise for Musashi-or at least the Nakamura version in this five film set. The series will be of interest to both fans of Musashi and for those looking for a somewhat different presentation of the man. Depending on your point of view, ‘Miyamoto Musashi’ can be seen as a glorification of martial adeptness-or a condemnation of placing objects and technical skill before one’s soul. Nakamura breathes life into the Musashi legend and gives the character real humanity and depth. You can order the Miyamoto Musashi DVD boxed set directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store.

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