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First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection, The

Crash Cinema // Unrated // May 18, 2004
List Price: $19.59 [Buy now and save at Hkflix]

Review by Carl Davis | posted July 13, 2004 | E-mail the Author

Crash Cinema has really pulled off a coup, getting the distribution rights to Hiroshi Inagaki's acclaimed Samurai Trilogy, which until now had only been available to those willing to pay for the more exorbitantly priced Criterion Editions and releasing it at a reduced price as The First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection. Based on Eiji Yoshikawa's novel, Musashi, considered by many to be Japan's Gone with the Wind, this epic tale of the 17th-century samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, takes place during the time of Japan's own civil war. Through the course of the The First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection we see Musashi's growth from a headstrong youth to "The Sword Saint", a name by which he is commonly known in Japan.

In 1584, Shinmen Takezo was born in the town of Miyamoto, Japan. He claims to have defeated his first opponent in single combat at the tender age of 13, after which he changed his name to Musashi Miyamoto to honor the place of his birth. In 1600, Musashi famously battled the Yoshioka Sword School, emerging as the victor. He engaged in sixty duels over the course of his life, without suffering a single defeat. In 1612, he dueled with another famed swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro. Following Sasaki's defeat, he focused his energies the perfection of his swordsmanship, often traveling and meditating. In 1640, Musashi began writing his book, Gorin No Sho, known here as The Book of Five Rings. He finished this very influential work in 1645, the same year that he died.

The First Samurai Vol. 1: Musashi Miyamoto (1954). In the 1600's, a civil war raged in Japan, leading many to leave their families and risk everything for glory. Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant who leaves his village in search of fame and fortune. His idea of the world changes as when his army is destroyed and he becomes a fugitive. He benefits greatly from the attention of a domineering monk who helps him develop into a samurai.

Toshiro Mifune was Japan's answer to Marlon Brando, an emotionally charged and powerful figure who often seemed, not just to act, but to live his roles. His performance has a tragic quality to it and is the centerpiece upon which the rest of the film is framed. The sword fights portrayed in the film are often staged in long takes that often appear disorganized and are most certainly devoid of the choreography we're used to in cinema today.

The First Samurai Vol. 1: Musashi Miyamoto is an epic masterpiece and is a very different film from the action of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, which was released that same year. Its cinematography was used to great effect to paint the picture of a feudal Japan in a time of transition. This installment of the trilogy won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The First Samurai Vol. 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955). Having left his life as Takezo behind, Musashi (Mifune) embarks on his goal to become a true samurai. He duels with a chain and sickle master and eventually with the eighty samurai disciples of Seijuro (Akihiko Hirata), the headmaster of a sword school who hunts him down for embarrassing their clan. Even with more action scenes than the first episode, Musashi also reaches a higher level of spirituality and understanding.

As much as The First Samurai Vol. 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple focuses on action, it also shows the internal struggles that Musashi goes through. He is a tragic hero in the classic sense that he is morally weak and has to continue to fight to rise above his flaws. He learns the ways of chivalry and we start to witness his transformation from a brooding loner into a more compassionate person.

Hiroshi Inagaki once again shows his talent as a director, with an amazing depiction of life in Seventeenth Century Japan. The cinematography is beautiful, from rich, brightly colored settings to barely lit nighttime battles filled with dread and death. He has crafted a great second chapter, compelling enough to stand on it's own, but also truly powerful when viewed in the context of the series.

The First Samurai Vol. 3: Duel on Ganryu Island (1956). The tragic finale to the series is also filled with a strong sense of hope. Musashi searches through the suffering of civil war to find his place among the samurai. He protects a village from bandits and duels in the climax with his nemesis, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta). As his journey comes to an end, he realizes that there is a more to being a samurai than winning.

Once again, the acting is remarkable from the entire cast, especially Mifune and Tsuruta. As the obsessive Sasaki, Tsuruta holds his own against Mifune. It's fascinating to see these two characters working towards the same goal, but becoming polar opposites of one another. While it may lack some of the action of the previous films, the finale leaves an emotional impact that is sure to last.

The First Samurai Vol. 3: Duel on Ganryu Island Hiroshi Inagaki directs this final installment with just as deft a hand as the first two, with maybe a bit more experimentation aesthetically and with the overall composition. The whole thing has more of a somber appearance, with some intense tinting effects. The films that make up The First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection have certainly stood the test of time and when viewed as a whole, can be considered one of the greatest samurai epics of all time.

The DVD:

Picture: All films in this collection are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. They all also suffer from scratching and film grain issues, but nothing that reduces the overall enjoyment of the movies. The subtitles are burned-in to the picture and cannot be removed. A lot of people will want to know how they stand-up when compared to the Criterion versions of this Trilogy. Having only Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto to compare with, I can say that The First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection stands up well. The films colors often seem brighter on the Crash Cinema version, but the nighttime scenes also appear darker than normal. Both versions have a fair amount of wear and tear on them, so the bottom line really is that you get what you pay for.

Sound: All films in this collection are in Dolby Digital Mono 2.0. These films are in Japanese, but the dialogue sounds very clear. The music score did suffer a little but that is due to the general upkeep of the films themselves.

Extras: The only extra included in this three-disc set is a short B&W documentary on how a Samurai sword (Katana) is made.

Conclusion: Wow, it's not often that a bargain priced title can match up with a Criterion release and win, but I feel that The First Samurai: Book of Five Rings Collection is definitely one to get. Many Criterion cultists will probably disagree with my recommendation, but they will have the Samurai Trilogy in their collections already. For those that have been on the fence about these titles, this is the perfect opportunity to pick them up in a cost effective manner. The movies could have benefited from some minor restoration like the Criterion Collection has done, but at least they're in their original aspect ratios and provide a lot of entertainment value for the money.







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