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Japan, 1954 (MIFF 1958, Programme 4)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

The great seventeenth-century warrior, Miyamoto Mushashi, whose prowess with the Samurai sword is legend in Japan, has been the subject of a number of film biographies. Samurai is the most extravagant of the lot and it is also the best.

Riveting die eye with its swift alternations of animal ferocity and morning calm, Samurai, like Gate of Hell, begins with a disordered 17th century battle piece: a flood of lance-waving horsemen surge across a meadow; agile warriors skip and pirouette with a whirl of two-handed blades; the defeated topple with blood bursting between their clenched teeth. The struggle ends in far-off shouting as mists steal down from the mountains to draw a pale blanket over the slain.

Two wounded survivors, using each other as crutches, hobble away from the stricken field to find sanctuary in an isolated farmhouse. One of the men longs to go back home but the other, a snarling ruffian, dreams of avenging the lost battle by becoming a great Samurai. But a headstrong man is of no use to his nation unless he is tamed by virtue . . . trapped by a priest, he must learn wisdom from the ancient books of Japan before he can dedicate himself to pilgrimage and the aesthetic wisdom of a warrior priest.

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