Three years later, he emerges learned. As the second installment, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, opens, Takezo (now dubbed Mushashi Miyamoto, from the town he was raised) is sound and determined, aware that his sword, like himself, has a spirit. In the first scene, he announces to a young boy there will be a duel. This sets the tone for both Duel at Ichijoji Temple and the finale, Duel at Granyu Island, which culminates in a battle with his longtime nemesis, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), the “Demon of the Western Provinces.”
It’s inevitable to rank the films, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki between 1954 and 1956. First on my personal order would be Musashi Miyamoto (1954), which is the only of the three that works as a standalone film (and was also the last of its kind to be recognized with an Honorary Oscar before the Best Foreign Language Film category was officially introduced). Second would be Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), which has the most action and offers a stunning close. Third would be Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), which itself has much action is a strong middle installment that nicely ties the bookends together.
But The Samurai Trilogy should be seen as a whole in marathon form, whether it’s a first-time viewing or you’ve been revisiting them for 50+ years. The Samurai Trilogy, which clocks at an even five hours, doesn’t run as a complete telling of Japanese legend Musashi Miyamoto’s life, but it ends where it should (in 1612, over 30 years before his death). The ideas and principles are explained and explored enough up to that point so we can at least presume his fate.
The complete evolution is in great part due to Toshiro Mifune, best known for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, even though he worked with Inagaki on more films. In a way, Mifune is even more compelling here than in some of his better Kurosawa-directed performances (High and Low, Stray Dog).
Inagaki also shows a steady craftsmanship in all three films, capturing both the duels and the more serene moments with a skilled balance. Kurosawa is more renowned and celebrated, but Inagaki was also a master of the samurai film. Seven Samurai may be the quintessential entry, but The Samurai Trilogy is also a timeless work of the genre.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 24-page booklet featuring two essays: “Musashi Mifune” by film historian Stephen Prince and “The Book of Five Rings” by Wilson.