Japan has a rich history and reputation for being one of the most significant, diverse and thought-provoking countries when it comes to cinema. In terms of film-making, the socio-economic climate and political landscape are never far away. The 1950s were undoubtedly the golden era, with the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi up there with some of the best ever made. However, arguably one of the most important and influential bodies of work to emerge from The Rising Sun is Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy.

Set in 17th century Japan, the historical drama focusses on the rise of Miyamoto Musashi (Toshiro Mifune), one of the countries most famous swordsman and rōnin. With a record a winning sixty duels no competitor for the crown ever got close to being his equal. His stories were immortalised by the writings of Eiji Yoshikawa, which Inagaki used as the basis of his trilogy. Whilst the films themselves centre upon adventure, swordplay and intrigue, they are as much of a character study as anything else.

After the Battle of Sekigahara, young soldiers Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) and Matahachi (Rentarō Mikuni) find themselves on the losing side. Fugitives, on the run, Takezo starts his adventures which involve Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), Akemi Mariko Okada and the Buddhist priest (Kuroemon Onoe) who will give him his renowned name. Along the way he faces challenges from Yoshioka Seijūrō (Akihiko Hirata), the master of the Yoshioka School, and the skilful Sasaki Kojiro (Kōji Tsuruta).

The Samurai Trilogy will feel very familiar. It has influenced so much film and TV which has followed it, both in the evolution of the story and its treatment of the main character. It’s beautifully shot and acted, Mifune bringing a sense of gravitas to his characterisation. Inagaki does brilliantly to conjure up a story which works in separate instalments whilst feeling like a rounded whole which never ever overstays its welcome.

The set includes:

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

Special Features:

  • New high-definition digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray editions
  • New interviews with translator and historian William Scott Wilson about the real-life Musashi Miyamoto, the inspiration for the hero of the films
  • Trailers
  • New English subtitle translations
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film historian Stephen Prince and Wilson

The Samurai Trilogy (Criterion Collection) is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Monday.