“Step by step walk the thousand mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings
We are going to start our series where it probably should start—at the beginning. All Musashi movies are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s famous biographical novel Musashi, often considered as the Gone with the Wind of Japan. It is an excellent work and I encourage everyone to read it.
We will follow all three works one segment at a time, the Original 1954 Mifune film Miyamoto Musashi (or the Original 1954 version); Zen & Sword (1961); followed by Showdown at Hannyazakaz also known as Dual at Devil’s Mask Pass (1962) (it took both Zen & Sword and Showdown at Hannyazakaz to reach the same stopping point as the Original 1954 version) and the first several episodes of the 2003 NHK series Musashi (we’ll call that series NHK), until roughly the same chronological stopping point in Musashi’s tale.
Toshiro Mifune stars as the foolish young man, Takezo (the town’s wild, orphan kid) who leaves his village when the battle of Sekigahara looms and convinces his friend, Matahachi to join him despite some initial reluctance. Instead of glory, they barely escape with their lives and Matahachi suffers a significant leg wound. While evading enemy forces that are bent on killing all survivors, the pair find shelter with two women–an incredibly self-serving sociopathic mother and her daughter who is not yet as jaded and selfish as mom. Mifune resists temptation and runs from them, while his friend succumbs to their pleas to stay–and in essence throws away his life, fiancée Otsu and his honor.
Matahachi and his two female companions go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to their village to provide Matahachi’s family with news on his condition. Matahachi’s family rejects Takezo’s report and has him arrested for treason. A monk, Takuan, rescues him from death and uses his influence with the regional lord to sentence him to study of the samurai code found in hundreds of great philosophical books. Takezo’s cell? A windowless attic where he spends the next three years of his life “becoming a human again.” Otsu and Takezo have also fallen in love and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant. In fact Otsu waits the three years, but is ditched by Miyamoto Musashi f/k/a Takezo when she finally meets him again. Though Musashi does carve the characters “Forgive Me” into the bridge before he left.
This is a classic movie let’s make no mistake about it, despite having Mifune in the lead, this is not an Akira Kurasawa film (i.e. Yojimbo) and some may be disappointed that it is a little more stodgy than one of his other films. Naturally, when one thinks of who should play a Japanese legend – and Miyamoto is known as Kinsei, or “Sword Saint” in Japan – only Mifune comes to mind. The assumption cuts both ways in that the film focuses on Mifune and ignores many of the other important sub-plots that follow Musashi’s story. We only get a glimpse of what is happening to Matahachi or the posse that Matahachi’ s mother forms to kill Miyamoto as “revenge” for spoiling her son. Be that as it may, we will get a better idea of the differences in the next posting when we can compare the interpretation of the Musashi story as it appears through the films.
The beauty of Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto lies in the spiritual journey Takezo undergoes as a wild man. He will not be tamed by the lusty ways of women or by nature itself, but Takuan the monk does succeed when he forces the warrior to look inward as Takezo learns that power and strength are not sufficient. The movie also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but Americans would have to wait almost ten years to see part 2.