Miyamoto Musashi is the most famous swordsman in Japanese history. He was born in the 16th century and died a sexagenary in the 17th century. He fought and won more than 60 duels. He created his own school of swordsmanship, “Niten Ichi Ryu” (“two heavens as one”). There are hundreds of books and movies and plays and graphic novels about him, but the ones that did the most to establish and solidify his fictional persona around the world are Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi (originally published in serialized form, from 1935 to 1939, on the pages of the prestigious Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun) and its best adaptation for the screen, the Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.
The movies are called Miyamoto Musashi (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no ketto, 1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: ketto Ganryujima, 1956), and the first one won an Academy Award for Foreign Language Film Winners.
Musashi is fiercely played in the three movies by Toshiro Mifune, one of the biggest stars of Japanese cinema. He was also one of the most prolific and well known for movies about swordsmen, including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and The Hidden Fortress, just to mention a few he made with director Akira Kurosawa.
The trilogy starts with aftermath of the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which marks the beginning of the Tokugawa era in Japan. Among the survivors on the losing side was the teenager Takezo, who would later become known as Musashi. But at that point he was just a defeated and impoverished soldier who, carrying his injured his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), seeks shelter with a widow, Oko (Mitsuko Mito), and her daughter, Akemi (Mariko Okada), who live near the battlefield. Takezu eventually returns to his village, where is is antagonized by Matahachi’s mother (Eiko Miyoshi), who blames him for the disappearance of her son. Tensions escalate and Takezu ends up being hunted by half the village, under orders from the local lord. He is finally captured by the local priest, Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), but escapes with some help from Matahachi’s former fiancee, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). All these characters will reappear in the next movies, as their paths cross and recross with Takezu’s. At the end of the first movie, Takezu is recaptured by Takuan and imprisoned in a castle for three years. He spends this period in training and reflection, and emerges as a changed man, adopting the name of Miyamoto Musashi and starting on his travels in search of enlightenment.
The second and third movies show Musashi establishing his fame as the best swordsman in the country, as he goes around challenging and being challenged to duels with a variety of opponents. Not only his skill continues to grow but also his self-control, and while in his young years Musashi was quick to jump into a fight now even when provoked he is able to choose not to fight. In one amusing moment at an inn, a horse-dealer and his friends try to pick a fight but Musashi just looks at them and continues eating his noodles. Then he uses his chopsticks to catch a few flies in mid-flight, and the troublemakers dash away realizing they are no match for someone with such abilities. Almost thirty years later, The Karate Kid would include an homage to this scene, with Miyagi stating that “man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything”.
Another important character in the last part of the story is Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), a real historic figure who at the time was also considered a a great swordsman. In the movies, he is a very confident young fighter who wants to test his skills against Musashi. One of his famous moves was called the swallow cut, demonstrated at the beginning of the third movie when Sasaki cuts a flying bird in half with one swift blow of his sword. The legendary fight between Musashi and Sasaki, on the beach at sunrise, closes the trilogy. The real duel happened on April 13, 1612 on Ganryujima (Ganryu Island), where today a statue shows both warriors in combat.
If you like long novels I heartily recommend the Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel. The translation I read came in two brick-shaped volumes and a total of 1,808 pages. It’s basically the same story from the movies, but with contextual information and many more details about Musashi’s life, from how his ideas on sword fighting were developed to personal quirks like his aversion to taking baths.
This Miyamoto Musashi trilogy is a great introduction to the chanbara genre, with an intense performance by the great Toshiro Mifune and skillful direction by Hiroshi Inagaki (who a couple of years later would win the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for Rickshaw Man, also with Mifune in the main role). You should watch it when you can. In the meantime, grab some chopsticks and try to catch a few flies.