The Samurai Trilogy
The Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, was one of Japan’s most successful exports of the 1950s, a rousing, emotionally gripping tale of combat and self-discovery. Based on a novel that’s often called Japan’s Gone with the Wind, this sweeping saga fictionalizes the life of the legendary seventeenth-century swordsman (and writer and artist) Musashi Miyamoto, following him on his path from unruly youth to enlightened warrior. With these three films—1954’s Oscar-winning Musashi Miyamoto, 1955’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and 1956’s Duel at Ganryu Island—Inagaki created a passionate epic that’s equal parts tender love story and bloody action.
Hiroshi Inagaki's The Samurai Trilogy gets a much needed upgrade from Criterion. All three films receive new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfers and are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1. The three films are spread over two Blu-ray discs: Musashi Miyamoto and Duel at Ichijoji Temple are both found on the first dual-layer disc, while Duel at Ganryu Island is found on the second single-layer disc.
The original DVDs, released over 13 years ago, were atrocities, and frighteningly the transfers got worse as you made your way through each film. They were in need of updates and while it was certainly a long time coming the wait was definitely worth it.
Musashi Miyamoto comes out looking absolutely stunning. The improvements over the previous DVD edition are enormous. We first get a far sharper image with better rendering of the finer details, like the blades of grass in numerous scenes (you can make out individual strands easily.) Colours look far better as well, retaining the Eastmancolor look far better than the DVD, which always seems to have a heavy yellow tint to it. Blacks crush a bit but again also look better than the DVD's blacks.
Some minor damage remains but it's been cleaned up beautifully'far better than what the DVD had'film grain remains and looks natural, and I didn't detect any significant artifacts. Some minor pulsating remains and it appears there are frames missing in places but none of it is distracting or of any major concern.
Duel at Ichijoji Temple starts off a little rough: colours look a little more washed than I had expected after the first film, the frame jitters about a bit and damage is more apparent, but after the titles the film settles in and we get the Eastmancolor look again. The opening duel was near impossible to see on the DVD, all details almost obliterated to the point where you could barely make out the action. I actually assumed originally it could have been just a badly done day-for-night shot. Now on this Blu-ray I can make out everything far better and can also see what is obviously a set, not an exterior day-for-night shot like I had originally figured. It was just so wonderful finally being able to clearly see what was going on. Same goes for the final showdown in the film, which was also a dark, yellow mess on the DVD.
Like the first film's new transfer details here come off much sharper. Though there are a few fuzzy moments, detail levels are high; on a stony beach you can make out tiny pebbles as clear as day. Colours again look much better, with some striking reds and blues, and blacks also look excellent despite some minor crushing. There's some minor damage remaining but it looks far clearer than the old DVD, and there is some pulsating but it's not heavy or overly distracting. Film grain is again rendered well and never looks like noise. There was some shimmering in some tighter patterns onscreen, an issue I didn't notice with the first film, but it's also rare.
Duel at Ganryu Island is a brighter, warmer looking film in comparison to the others, but thankfully it's a little more under control here in comparison to the old DVD, which washed away everything. Colours look far better with smooth rendering and no bleeding, and black levels also come off far better despite some crushing in places. The improvements in colour and in the blacks make the final duel's photography far more beautiful than what the DVD could show. Sharpness and detail are also greatly improved here and the film remains sharp throughout its running time.
The print presents a few minor flaws but is generally clean, far better than the DVD's presentation and film grain is yet again rendered beautifully. I couldn't detect any adverse artifacts in the transfer. Like all of the other films in this release it looks stunning and offers an exceptional improvement over the previous DVD.
On the whole all three films are vastly superior to the previous DVD editions Criterion released, but on their own they're still very impressive.
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954): 8/10 Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955): 7/10 Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956): 8/10
All three films present lossless linear PCM mono tracks and like the video it is significantly better than what was found on the previous DVD. Age is still a limiting factor and there's nothing much in the way of fidelity in all three films, but they sound clean and don't seem to present any audible damage or noise. Dialogue and music both sound decent enough, but again fidelity and range is limited in both cases.
Criterion has released The Samurai Trilogy as one single release, spreading the films over two discs on Blu-ray (three on DVD) and have divided supplements between them. We actually don't get much here, but since the DVDs only presented trailers this release can still be considered an upgrade. Each film gets its own sub-menu and their respective supplements are found under them.
All three films receive interviews from translator and historian William Scott Wilson, who talks about the real Musashi Miyamoto. Here Wilson talks about the popularity of the historical figure, who has appeared in many stories and films. He talks about the actual Musashi and makes comparisons between the film, the novel on which it is based, and the actual man, with the book and film both took their share of liberties. He also talks about other people in Musashi's life who appear in the film, like the priest Takuan, and also points out many of the characters in the film that are pure fiction. I'm not sure if he's annoyed or amused by the inaccuracies, but he offers a decent primer on the actual Musashi Miyamoto. This first interview runs over 8-minutes.
For the second film Wilson talks primarily about Musashi's, well, profession I guess you could say, that of a swordsman who traveled the land getting into duels in hopes of perfecting his technique. He also talks about how he differed from other swordsman in that he was never looking to be hired or to find the security of a Dojo, it was just always about his art and improving it. He also talks about many of the events that occur in the film and how the film actually gets timelines wrong and takes yet more liberties. Like the other interviews found in the set it's probably too short but it does offers some great background information about the real Musashi Miyamoto. This interview runs about 7-minutes.
The interview for the third film, which is the longest running at 10-minutes, Wilson talks primarily about the actual duel that concludes the film. He offers what little he knows about the challenger, Kojiro Sasaki, which is limited to his clever sword technique and his flashy fashion sense, and then talks about how the actual duel played out, which is not exactly like how it's presented in the film. He then goes into Musashi's life after he duel and also talks a bit about his book The Book of the Five Rings. I wish there was more material like this to be found on the set, and maybe more on the book (which gets some coverage in the included booklet) but it's nice we at least get some historical context here at the very least.
Each film then features its respective theatrical trailer, which all appear to be the same ones found on the original DVD releases, just cleaned up a little better.
The booklet included covers all three films, first with an essay about the trilogy by Stephen Prince, Inagaki, and the actual Musashi. Wilson then provides a short essay on Musashi's Book of the Five Rings and his philosophies found within. Bruce Eder's essays from the original DVD releases are missing.
In I'm sort of stunned we don't receive much else and I was hoping Criterion would go all out with this but at least the supplements add some context for those of us unfamiliar with the real Musashi Miyamoto.
Overall I'm still a bit disappointed the special features are so light, but then compared to the old barebone DVDs this still offers a decent upgrade. At least the transfers provide an enormous improvement, and for that reason this release comes with a high recommendation.