Toshiro Mifune stars in ‘The Samurai Trilogy’ on HBO Max and Criterion Channel

The Samurai Trilogy (Japan, 1954-1956), Hiroshi Inagake’s three-film adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel, debuted the same year as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and was one of the most popular cinematic exports of its era. Musashi Miyamoto was a real life swordsman elevated to the stature of almost mythic historical hero and this series embraces the mythic dimensions with a removed, distant style that elevates the character to tragic hero.

Toshiro Mifune enters Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) as a brash and ambitious peasant who desires fame and power as a swordsman. His dreams of glory in war sour when his army is routed and he becomes hunted by the authorities, but with the “tough love” attentions of a kindly but severe monk helps him develop from a hot-tempered outlaw to thoughtful swordsman.

Inagake’s somber color epic is very different from the energetic action of Kurosawa’s films. The sword fights and battles are more theatrical, staged in long takes that emphasize form and movement over action, and Mifune brings a sad, almost tragic quality to the samurai warrior Miyamoto, whose dedication proscribes him to a lonely life on the road. While Samurai I can stand on its own, it is more properly the first act of an epic story and it takes on greater stature in in light of the rest of Inagaki’s stately, contemplative epic.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) takes up where it leaves off, with samurai-in-training Miyamoto is now a wandering swordsman who defeats a succession of students from a local school of martial arts and becomes marked for death by the school elders and attacked in a series of cowardly ambushes. Meanwhile he earns himself an arch-enemy, an ambitious young swordsman named Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), and faces an internal struggle with his conflicted love for the virginal Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa).

Inagaki manages the rather complicated plot with unexpected ease while he charts Musashi’s education in compassion and humility. The direction is still as distant and unostentatious as the first film while the color and settings becomes richer and more pronounced: studio bound locations take on the quality and delicacy of paintings. The dramatic centerpiece of the films, an epic pre-dawn battle where 40 swordsman ambush Musashi, uses the dark and the landscape to great dramatic effect as figures seep in and out of the picture.

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) offers Miyamoto as the mature samurai master and Mifune is the very model of confidence and humility. The legendary swordsman takes on a quest is to save an isolated village from rampaging brigands but remains haunted by the memory of Otsu, while the ruthless and increasingly jealous Kojiro Sasaki plots his final showdown with Miyamoto.

Inagaki weaves the web of subplots into a series of grand confrontations, among them the most exciting battles of the trilogy: Musashi’s skirmish with the army of cutthroats while the village erupts in a fiery inferno around him, and the sunset duel between Musashi and Kojiro on an isolated beach, the two warriors taking on mythic dimensions silhouetted against the sun setting over the surf. Inagaki’s delicate use of color throughout the series becomes most pronounced in this final sequence, where the glow of orange and red adds dramatic flourish to the twilit battle.

Inagaki’s reserved, restrained style and Mifune’s melancholy performance, his granite face and stocky stance the very essence of somber wisdom and sad assurance, bring a gravity and seriousness to the drama that ultimately illuminates the personal cost of Musashi’s supreme skill.

Samurai I won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1956.

All three film in Japanese samurai I with English subtitles.

For more, read Stephen Prince’s essay here.

Add to My List on HBO Max or on Criterion Channel:
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (HBO Max / Criterion Channel)
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
(HBO Max / Criterion Channel)
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
(HBO Max / Criterion Channel)

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video (Samurai I, Samurai II, Samurai III), iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Samurai Trilogy (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Samurai Trilogy (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto [DVD]
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple [DVD]
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island [DVD]

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The three films are presented on the Criterion Collection on two discs on Blu-ray and three discs DVD, with new video interviews with translator and historian William Scott Wilson about the real-life Musashi Miyamoto, the inspiration for the hero of the films, and a booklet with essays by film historian Stephen Prince and translator William Scott Wilson. They were previously released individually on DVD by Home Vision, which are long out of print but available in used editions.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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