Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Fictional Life of a Real Samurai Master: The Samurai Trilogy

The Samurai Trilogy is a three-part story of Musashi Miyamoto, one of the greatest samurais in history, and author of The Book of Five Rings, a classic book of strategy.  The trilogy certainly presents a heroic figure, staring the John Wayne of Japan, Toshiro Mifune, but it also deals with his failures, his weaknesses and his learning process.  In a sense, it is a class of how to be a samurai, but more significantly than that, it is a number of lessons of how to live an honorable life.

In a sense, the film trilogy presents a Plutarch biography, full of moral lessons we can take home and learn from ourselves.  If this makes it feel like a novel written by William Bennett, I suppose on occasion it feels like that, but overall, it is more complex and less straightforward than a simple morality tale. Certainly a couple of the performances make it a worthwhile and entertaining watch.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
The first part of the Samurai Trilogy, and it feels very much like an introduction.  But it is a snappy introduction, one with character and growth and power.  And, frankly, a couple twists I wasn't expecting.

It is about the making of a samurai.  Even if a person has talent with a sword and in fighting, this doesn't mean that he is a samurai.  There must be discipline.  But if one has no master, how do you learn that discipline?  Where does discipline come from?

It comes from noble character of those around you.  One must have a character of gracious punishment-- not wanting to destroy you, but to build your character into strength.  And one must have a character of merciful love that coaxes you and upholds you and desires your well-being at all time. 

We see these two elements at work in this film, as well as that which destroys our discipline: weakness, betrayal and harsh punishment.  Although this is the story of one specific and fascinating character, it is also the principles of every person of strength.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
The second of the Samurai Trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki.  The powerful swordsman, Musashi Miymoto, continues on his journey to be a great samurai.

I have to say, though, that I'm beginning to think that his standard of being a samurai is pretty high.  I mean, at the beginning of the trilogy, he was an amazing swordsman-- no discipline, no master, but still.  Okay, he wasn't a good samurai then, but by the end of the first film, he's got everything he needs and will make some master proud.  But no, he's got to be better than that, he's not ready to be a real samurai yet.  So he leaves his girl and goes off to learn to be samurai.

This film begins three years later.  His girl is still waiting for him by the same bridge he left her, his faithless friend is still faithless and he still doesn't consider himself to be a good samurai.  Why?  Because he's TOO strong.  Too confident in his own skills.  What?  Really?

Nevertheless, this film has more to do with his failure as a lover.  Women throwing themselves at his feet, and he wants none of it.  As he tells his girl, "I thought much about you.  But I have to choose between my love for you and my love for my sword."  Guess which he chooses?  Wow, what an idiot.  The real question is: Will the love of a woman save him in the end.  I'm not telling.

I would write this one off, but it's Mifune.  Dang, how I love Mifune.  He was good in the first film, but in this film he's a movie star and he knows it.  He's John Wayne and Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood rolled up into one.  I think I've got a little man-crush going on here.  It's a good thing because he's in a lot of these films in my samurai marathon.

Samurai III: The Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
"If you wanna be old school about it - and you know I'm all about old school - then we can wait till dawn, and slice each other up at sunrise, like a couple real-life, honest-to-goodness samurais." -Kill Bill Vol 2

The Samurai Trilogy concludes, and I have to say that I held my breath right up to the end.  Given that it's a 100-minute film, that's no mean feat.

As an epic, the Samurai Trilogy is slow and drawn out.  It really didn't need to be three full-length movies... or it should have incorporated more of the book to flesh it out a bit.  

But as an essay on honor, it does quite well.  I am beginning to understand that the best of samurai movies explores honor, what it really means and how many people can proclaim honor when really they are simply ambitious and full of pride.

Since the Trilogy explores the growth of a single character, and his determination to be a samurai of the highest honor, we see a lot of exploration of this theme in different contexts.  Honor in battle, honor in enmity, honor in promise-keeping, honor with the opposite sex, honor as a samurai, honor as a peasant and even honor as a brigand.   The scope of the subject is massive, and goes much beyond the limitations given in most samurai films-- that of the life of a warrior.

At the same time, I wonder if the whole trilogy explored the concept of honor as deeply as Harakiri did, in a much shorter running time.  Harakiri also upheld the idea that honor is not only a saumrai code, but the code for a father, husband and community.   And while the trilogy explored certain unique concepts-- can honor truly thrive while one remains overwhelmingly strong?-- but Harakiri explores many of the same ideas, but in subtler and more thoughtful ways.

I appreciated the conclusion of the Trilogy, and what it seemed to be saying.  But I wonder if I wouldn't have a more thoughtful presentation of the life and character of Musashi Miyamoto if I had read the novel.  Perhaps I might read the graphic novel The Book of Five Rings, a re-telling of the life of the real Musashi Miyamoto.

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