September 18 2021
12:15 PM
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The Samurai Trilogy
Kozak rating: 3 stars

Not to sound like a spokesperson who’s getting paid to write this, but apart from Hulu’s premium subscription package Hulu Plus letting you watch your favorite shows on your TV or media player, they also made a deal with any film buff’s gold mine, The Criterion Collection.

Most of the titles in their esteemed collection, which usually showcases pristine digital transfers of masterpieces from some of cinema’s greatest directors, are available for streaming on HD through the subscription service. For any film buff, especially one who loves the classics, roughly eight dollars a month in order to get access to these films is quite a deal.

Now that we got the blatant product placement out of the way, I wanted to pick a couple of Criterion titles I watched recently and bring them to your attention.

This is a trilogy of films simply known as the Samurai Trilogy, starring Toshiro Mifune and his intense scowl, and directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, known mostly for his melodramatic “Chanbara” (Samurai, or sword-fighting) films.

Approaching The Samurai trilogy as one big epic story as opposed to three films that stand on their own make it easier to appreciate it. The films are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel about the legendary samurai master Musashi Miyamoto. Yet you should not approach the trilogy as a historical document by any means. Many, many liberties were taken while translating Miyamoto’s legend to the big screen, making it the samurai equivalent of A Beautiful Mind.

The first film, Musashi Miyamoto, is basically the first act of the overall story and concerns itself with only the origin of the character. Since it doesn’t have much character development until the last ten minutes or so, it’s kind of a slog to sit through.

The second installment, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, picks up the tempo and the action as a typical second act, showing the growth of the hero’s skills by presenting his battles with secondary antagonists. The third and best film, Duel at Ganryu Island, finally pits Miyamoto against his archrival, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) with a gloriously photographed battle on a beach.

In keeping with Japan’s approach to Chanbara and Jidaigeki (Period) films of the 1950s, the films are shamelessly melodramatic. The battle scenes and the overwrought love triangle are both handled with overbearing heft and a complete lack of subtlety. This approach can especially be disorienting for fans of Akira Kurosawa, who was already on his way to reinvent modern action and epic cinema with Seven Samurai, which was released on the same year as the first film in this trilogy.

For fans of Japanese cinema history, such as myself, these films are entertaining historical documents and not much more. However, if you are looking to take your first bite into Jidaigeki classics, please start with Kurosawa’s masterpieces Seven Samurai, Rashomon, or Yojimbo, also available on Hulu Plus.

The Samurai Trilogy is available on Hulu Plus and from The Criterion Collection. Twitter: egekozak