An epic trilogy, obviously conceived as a single story – it would be foolish to watch just one. It might, in fact, be foolish to watch all three. A weighty, picturesque drama with restrained emotions, occasional action, and side characters I kept losing track of, adding up to a decent story about a great fighter learning to be a great person.

1600 AD: Toshiro Mifune (in his follow-up to Seven Samurai) is violent, spontaneous Takezo, whose weak-willed friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni, lead of the first segment in Kwaidan, son in chains of Profound Desire of the Gods) joins him in going to war, leaving behind Matahachi’s mom and his fiancee Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa, who starred in Madame Butterfly between sequels). Their side is wiped out, and the two misfit warriors wash up with a mother and daughter, where they recover from battle wounds amidst sexual tension cued by rape attempts.

wide-eyed Matahachi and grim Takezo at war:

Takezo up a tree:

Mother and daughter survive by stripping dead samurai and selling their equipment – just like in Onibaba. Takezo flees after defeating the bandit that torments the women, then shrugging off the mom when she throws herself at him. She changes the story: “He attempted to assault me. He’s a savage.” Matahachi marries the mom, while his ex, Otsu, joins the search for Takezo, who is repeatedly captured by a smiling priest, who finally locks T. up in an attic full of books. T. emerges years later, calmer and wiser, renamed Musashi Miyamoto, tells Otsu to wait, and wanders off.

Akemi, Matahachi and Oko:

Otsu left behind:

Part two opens with a duel, MM telling a young kid called Jotaro to leave the arena. But of course he doesn’t, and tags along behind our hero after he kills the chainfighting Old Baiken. Akemi (Mariko Okada, married to director Yoshishige Yoshida, also star of some Ozu films), the girl whose mom married Matahachi is now darkly obsessed with MM, also pops up to torment Otsu, seems to be everywhere. Most of the movie concerns MM challenging the master of a fighting school, who will not fight him honorably so MM kicks the asses of some hundred students instead. By the end, the teacher mans up and meets MM, who does not kill him, after remembering how pissed everyone was when he killed the chainfighter.

MM vs. the chainfighter:

MM controlling his rage at the second duel:

Meanwhile some dickish birdslaying swordsman, supposed to remind us of young MM, wants to duel MM. And Otsu keeps pining after MM, who insists that he needs to keep training. I like the brief moments of animation (a lightning strike, cartoon birds flying across a painted sky) and the catchy theme music.

Akemi:

Part 3: predictably, Akemi has met the birdslayer. MM is still an undefeatable warrior, but now believes it’s best to avoid conflict. He postpones the birdslayer’s duel challenge and lives in a farming town with the kid and ever-suffering Otsu. The town is under siege by bandits (what peaceful small town in ancient Japan was not under siege by bandits?), and Akemi makes a deal with them. The siege goes wrong – MM kills many bandits and they kill Akemi shortly after she fights Otsu with an axe.

Bird guy:

MM and his little follower:

MM finally decides to give up his sword and marry Otsu, but first has to kill the birdslayer, which he does with a wooden sword, keeping the sun behind himself so the other man won’t notice.