Miyamoto Musashi, the famous Japanese sword fighter, has
been immortalized in many books and movies.
In the US,
the most well known adaptation of his life is Hiroshi Inagaki's three
cycle Samurai that has been
released on DVD by Criterion. Animeigo has
just released another multi-film
biopic of the warrior's life, Uchida Tomu's five-movie Miyamoto Musashi
series. Going into the set I didn't
think it would equal the excellent Samurai films, but I was pleasantly
surprised. The 10-hour saga is
wonderful, presenting a conflicted and multi-layered character who
lot in order to stay on the path he's chosen to follow.
With a very nice transfer and some good
extras, this set is a must-buy.
Miyamoto Musashi I:
Takezo (Makamura Kin'nosuke) has convinced his best friend
(Kimura Isao) to leave their small village and find glory, honor, and
as soldiers. As the movie opens the
Battle of Sekigahara has recently ended, and the two villagers were on
loosing side and Matahachi was wounded they manage to convince a young
Akemi, and her mother (who they encountered while they were grubbing
of the dead soldiers for anything they could sell) to hide them in
The older woman nurses Matahachi back to health and they eventually
decide to run off together with her daughter leaving Takezo behind. With few options, Takezo heads back to his
old village, mainly so he can see his older sister but also to inform
Matahachi's mother, Obaba, and his fiancé, Otsu, that the young man is still
Since he was on the losing side of the war, Takezo is a
wanted man and after running a road block the army traces him back to
village. There he's betrayed by
Matahachi's mother, Obaba, who blames the young man for the fact that
has run off, and Takezo barely escapes into the nearby mountains. Living like an animal, the strong and fierce
man starts killing off the soldiers that are looking for him as well as
villagers who aid in the search. There
seems to be no hope of catching the murderous thug until a cagey monk
with a plan.
Miyamoto Musashi II:
Duel at Hannya Hill: Takezo
spends the three years that take place between the first and second
the tower of a castle reading and studying.
He's managed to tame his wild side and has emerged as a samurai. He receives a job offer (presumably very well
paid) from the lord of the area, but he declines. Instead
he wants to travel the land and learn
more about combat and fighting. He has
decided that he will follow the way of the sword, no matter what the
cost. The lord encourages Takezo to change
and Miyamoto Musashi is born. (Mushashi
is spelled with the same characters as Takezo, but the pronunciation is
refined and less 'low brow.')
Musashi proves to be a tough opponent. Traveling
to a famous school, the Yoshioka
Dojo, he wounds several of the students studying there.
He really wants to duel the school's master,
but he's away and when he does arrive the senior students convince the
not to fight. After all, the man is a
lowly ruffian and even fighting with such a person would bring shame on
school. Instead they plan a surprise
attack, which the sly Musashi evades.
He next arrives at the Hozo'in Temple where the monks in
residence practice a well respected martial art and fight with long
spears. In an exhibition with Monk there
Musashi kills his opponent with one blow from a wooden sword and leaves. This angers the other Monks and they make
to ambush the wandering samurai.
Miyamoto Musashi III:
Birth of the Nito-ryu Style:
Starting out immediately after the previous movie ended, Musashi
little conflicted about his last battle, but swears to continue on the
the sword. He sets off on his next
mission, to have an instructional duel with Yagyu Sekishuusai, a famous
swordsman who teaches at a remote mountain dojo. Sekishuusai
is getting old and is no longer
interested in fighting. His time is
taken up with flower arranging and practicing the tea ceremony, and he
to even meet with someone wanting to duel.
Musashi isn't one to give up so easily, so he plans to storm the
and fight anyone who will accept his challenge until the master is
show himself. His plans get sidetracked
however just as they begin.
His business with the Yoshioka Dojo hasn't finished
either. He has sent the school a letter
challenging their master to a duel. The
leader of the dojo is the oldest son of the former master, and he
he's not as skillful as he needs to be to stand against Mushashi, but
school's honor at stake he's left with little choice.
Another travelling samurai, Kojiro, who was first introduced
in the previous film, also starts appearing where Musashi goes. He seems to be studying the powerful man and
it's clear that he's sizing up the competition.
Miyamoto Musashi IV:
Duel at Ichijyo-ji Temple: In the most exciting
installment yet, the
wandering swordsman best the Yoshioka Dojo's new master in a battle,
school becomes outraged. Their
reputation is ruined and the only way they can hope to gain it back is
Musashi. They know they can't take him
on one-on-one, so they plan to ambush him.
At the last moment Kojiro appears and barters an agreement. The Yoshioka Dojo will battle Musashi in two
days time, with the 13-year-old son of one of the senior members being
official challenger. Since the boy is a
minor, several members of the school (73 to be exact) will take his
the battlefield. It seems like Musashi
has no chance if he actually shows up for the battle, but he'd rather
admit that a challenge was too great for him to handle.
Miyamoto Musashi V: Duel at Ganryu
Island: The results of his
battle with the members of
the Yoshioka Dojo come back to haunt Musahi in the final chapter of
multi-film saga. A bit dispirited,
Musashi starts to travel again and meets a young boy whose father has
died. Helping the lad bury the dead man,
the samurai decides to settle down and live the simple life of a
working the boy's land with him. While
bandits are raiding the village after the harvest, Mushashi comes to
and afterwards decides that he needs to keep moving.
Together with his young ward they travel to a
larger town, where Musahi is recognized and the braggart Kojiro, now
swordsman for a lord, decides that there can only be one greatest
swordsman. He challenges Musashi to a
duel to settle the matter of who is best once and for all.
There's actually a lot more going on in this series than the
overview suggests. There are several
that are expertly woven through the series.
These include Musashi's feelings for Otsu, Obaba's quest for revenge
Musashi, and the life that Matahachi ends up living.
These various plots keep the film series
lively and interesting while but director Tomu manages to his story
sinking into melodrama or turning it into a glorified soap opera, which
and not that easy to accomplish.
The films also resist turning Musashi into a superhero
(thought they come close a couple of times.)
He's a great warrior, but they show him worrying about the
upcoming battles and feeling regret for some of his victims. This is especially true one man who he wounds
seriously, though non-fatally, who was significantly below his ability. His inner conflict is shown when he announces
in a soliloquy that he shouldn't have battled such a weak opponent, but
end exclaiming proudly that he won!
There are several other times when Musashi questions what
he's done and if he's on the right path, and it all builds up to the
conclusion he reaches at the end of the last film.
The samurai also is forced to make some hard
choices and sacrifices much over the course of the movies.
He has to not only eschew comfort, stability,
and security, but also love and to a large extent friends too.
In the hands of a lesser director this film series could
have turned into a melodrama, mindless action flicks, or turned out
ponderous. Uchida Tomu, who is described
in the commentary as being criminally neglected in the west, a view I
whole-heartedly agree with after seeing his work, does a magnificent
job. Not only is the pacing and tone
through the series, but it's an absolutely beautiful film to watch. Some of the exterior scenes are breath taking
but even when they move to a sound stage the compositions are wonderful. The way Tomu pays attention to framing and
using the scenery as almost another character in these films reminds me
of the best work of John Ford, which is a high compliment.
These five films arrive on five DVDs each in its own
slimpack case which in turn are housed in a nice slipcase.
The films come with the original Japanese mono soundtrack
and optional English subtitles. The
audio is clean and clear and though the dynamic range is limited to the
technology of the time (these were made in the mid 60's) the background
and other effects sound fine. As they've done with
their anime product for years, Animeigo gives these films wonderful
subtitles. First off they outline the words in black so that if
the background color matches that of the subtitle, even in just one
small area, it's still easy to read them. They also color code
the titles so if three people are talking it's easy to tell just who is
saying what. It's a very effective way of presenting subtitles
and I'm surprised that it isn't the norm by now. It really adds a
lot to the presentation.
I was very impressed with the 2.35:1 anamorphic image.
The colors were significantly brighter than I
was expecting and the level of detail was excellent.
There is some natural film grain present,
which Animeigo wisely decided to leave in rather than try to
remove it, but digital defects are very uncommon. There
are a few print flaws, a couple of
spots here and there, but they're never distracting and much less
than I was expecting.
Each film comes with a series of translation notes, a
theatrical trailer, and an image gallery.
In addition DVDTalk reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV provides an
commentary to the first film. It's no
secret that my favorite commentary tracks are those that are recorded
knowledgeable film historians, and Stuart's is right up there with the
them. Filled with information that
ranges from trivial but interesting (where Toei's logo, waves washing
some giant rocks, was filmed) to fairly important (the historical
the film, history on the actors, and just why this version of the story
well known in the west than Hiroshi Inagaki's films based on the same
story). He even has a chance to throw in
an interview and some other surprises. It's
an engaging commentary and well worth listening to, and my only regret
it only accompanies the first film.
This is an excellent, excellent series of films. Though
I haven't seen Hiroshi Inagaki's three
movie Samurai series (which is based
on the same novel) in years, I have to admit that I like this version
better, something I never thought would happen before I screened these
films. Expertly directed and wonderfully
acted the series is a treasure. Add to
that a very nice transfer and a great commentary (not to mention the
wonderful subtitles) and you've got a must-buy