It’s criminal that Hiroshi Inagaki is not better known in the West. He directed some of the best, and best known, Japanese films in the world and even won an Academy Award. He’s commanded samurai and ninja, shown fantasy and history. Yet he’s almost completely forgotten in conversation about great Japanese directors. Today I’d like to take a look at his Oscar winning film, Musashi Miyamoto.

The title is one of the things I like the best about Inagaki’s film. It’s called Musashi Miyamoto, but the main character does not become Musashi Miyamoto until the very end of the picture. This makes it the Batman Begins of the Musashi story. Musashi is a very famous character in Japan, a real warrior from the 17th century who has been embellished repeatedly over the past three hundred years. Going by legend, which is always more interesting, Musashi was a wild teen trained to hone his strength and anger into becoming Japan’s greatest swordsman, an unbeatable genius who killed everyone that challenged him.

I’ve long had a fascination with Musashi. Part of it is the dichotomy he presents for Japanese society. No one will argue that Musashi is the greatest Japanese swordsman who ever lived, or that he is Japanese. Yet he was a mountain man, who hated Japanese society, was unkempt and didn’t respect any samurai code. He was the pinnacle of samurai success, an untouchable swordsman only scarred a few times in his life, but he rejected the very basics of Japanese swordsmanship, fighting in an unpredictable, unconventional style. He was the Bruce Lee of swordsmen.

I love to see how Japan deals with a man like this. They have trouble with outsiders, but are proud of Musashi. They respect him for his accomplishments (he killed hundreds and died of old age) but recognise that he was an outsider. They frown on dissident people, but Musashi could not have been a hero if he were not a dissident. And what makes him a hero? He murdered everyone he came across. Musashi’s most famous faux pas / strength is that he used two swords at the same time. The smaller blade in a samurai’s obi is not to be used for brutal fighting, at least not on screen. But Musashi is well known for using both blades at the same time, blocking with one sword and stabbing with the other.

If you watch Yojimbo or Sanjuro, Mifune will use both blades quite dishonourably. For instance, you should never throw the smaller sword. But Sanjuro does, and uses it as a weapon in it’s own right. To Japanese audiences, this is the same as Dirty Harry eating a hotdog while he points a gun at a perp. It shows that he’s a different kind of character. Ronin had been shown in pictures before, but this kind of thing, along with him being unshaven, made him especially edgy. But their greatest hero did the same thing, using both swords! It seems incredible that no one else thought of this all those years to be successful enough in the technique, but hey, that’s Japan.

There are many versions of the Musashi story. Inagaki filmed some of them. I’m not one for comics but Takehiko Inoue filmed perhaps the most exciting version of the story in his comic Vagabond. Of course, his version is written, not filmed, but they are storyboards for the most amazing version ever put to pictures. I was sceptical when I first saw Inoue’s work but they are brilliant on a level that unfortunately cinema may never film. And this story has been filmed many times, including a recent TV version a few years ago that was especially underwhelming.

Hiroshi Inagaki’s film version came at a strange time. Japanese cinema was popular abroad, and Gates of Hell had just won the Academy Award before him. At the same time Best Foreign Film, was just being set up. That silly category, which still exists today, was almost certainly bumped up in prestige by two people. One was Fellini, who would follow Inagaki with La Strada, and the other was Kurosawa, who had preceded Inagaki, in time and tone. In 1950, Hollywood thought All About Eve was better than The Third Man. In 51, they’d seen Rashomon, and pictures changed for the next forty years.

Most modern tales of Musashi are based on the book by Eiji Yoshikawa, an adventure book that’s a bit dry in translation. The transition to film places a strain on an actor who ought to act Musashi from start to finish, but there can be nobody better for the job than Toshiro Mifune. To date, Japan has not produced an actor on a level with Toshiro Mifune. He is the most energetic, the funniest and the most dynamic actor Japan has ever let loose. And he’s a dead ringer for Musashi.

In the movie, Musashi is not yet a hero. It follows him from an early point, back when he is merely Takezo, and joins the Battle of Sekigahara, as the real Musashi did. Basically the first film shows his incredible transformation, from local thug to samurai hero. Takezo is expelled from the village, becomes as wild as he can be, and is conquered by a simple monk. His rehabilitation, hanging from a tree, takes up much of the picture. Finally, in the closing moments, he is given his samurai name, Musashi Miyamoto, and sets off. We never really see him fight, he never does anything impressive in the whole film, but it’s a workable drama.

So workable that it won the Academy Award. I can’t help but imagine though that the prize was really for Jun Yasumoto. The cinematographer turned a dull origin story into an Oscar winning epic, thanks to his expansive shots. This is a samurai film shot by John Ford, if you ever wanted to see one. You will never see Technicolor vistas like you see in these pictures. They are much better than what Kurosawa managed in Ran, for their mud and dirt. Unfortunately, Yasumoto never finished the trilogy. He shot the second picture, which is also excellent, and wisely skipped number three.

Inagaki’s Oscar must be for Yasumoto’s work, because unless you are familiar with the story (and Western 50’s audiences were not) then the rest falls flat. This is the origin of a hero who does nothing heroic in the first part. Yes, Toshiro Mifune acts the hell out of the part, and is the best choice for an older Miyamoto. Yes, the action scenes are rather clunky, though even this mess is occassionally well choreographed, when Mifune catches a spear on cue for example. The most amazing thing is, this is a successful picture without anything great happening. I cannot image an origin story today that finishes as this one does, with a brief message scrawled on a post, and all his greatest adventures ahead of him. But Musashi does it, and does it so beautifully, it’s hard to fault it.

By the way, this film is often called Samurai I. This is another one of those titles I hate, and is certainly not the original title, but if you are looking for the movie, keep in mind that you might be more likely to find it as Samurai I, indicating it’s part in the trilogy. When it comes to putting Empire Strikes Back on DVD they should just have called it Star Wars II I suppose, and sent the fanboys into a tizzy.