This winner of the last “honorary” Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, before the award finally became an official competitive category, is the first of what is known as the Samurai Trilogy. All of them deal with Miyamoto, a 17th century warrior who is greatly admired in Japan. I think of him as a sort of Sir Lancelot, except he was real. The other films are called Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island. I don’t think we will seek them out. This was a good film, but really not my favorite sort of thing. Though I admit I enjoyed Kurosawa’s samurai films.
Though Musashi was a real figure, this film and the others are apparently not much more accurate than your typical Hollywood biopic. Toshiro Mifune is a young man named Takezo, who will later become Musashi. He and his friend Matahachi are all afire with the idea of glorious battle. They end up standing in mud and digging ditches before their side is slaughtered at the Battle of Sekigahara. They survive, but are badly wounded. Many things happen, resulting in Takezo believing that Matahachi has betrayed him, and his being hunted by everyone in the area. But his instinctive swordsmanship keep him alive, even though all he has is a wooden practice sword. He is attacked by dozens of men, and fends them all off. Then he is persuaded to surrender by a priest, who tells him he will not be punished. And the local honcho does not, in fact, punish him. He leaves that up to the priest, who betrays him and has him bound and hoisted up in a huge tree. There he dangles for several days, still shouting defiance at the world.
Later he is imprisoned in Himeji Castle …for three years! There is nothing to do but read all the books in the attic where he is locked up. And it tames his wildness. He emerges ready to go further down the road of enlightenment that it seems is part of being a samurai. Another part of the path of learning apparently is a vow of celibacy, at least for a while, so he abandons the woman who loves him and cut him down from the tree. It’s all very nice to look at, but it never struck an emotional chord with me. I’m sure it does to a Japanese person.