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Based on the novel called Japan's Gone With the Wind, The Samurai Trilogy gets a long-awaited high-definition Criterion upgrade. But where are the bonuses....?
Criterion / 302 Minutes / 1954-1956 / Unrated / Street Date: June 26, 2012
The three films included in this Samurai Trilogy box set are enormous, but thanks to their pristine new upgrades to high-definition, they feel even bigger. Part of the reason I fell so head-first into them when I rewatched them this week is because I had had one of those arguments home theater nerds have with their neighbors all the time a few days before: "Why would you pay seventy bucks for a new set of movies that still come with black bars on the sides of them?" I of course understand the desire to milk as much real estate as possible out of folks' HDTVs, but I felt my blood boiling even just thinking about Toshiro Mifune smushed and distorted unnecessarily.
For these Hiroshi Inagaki epics are quite lovingly presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios here, and as long as you preserve this shape on your set - for the love of God! - there's a charming retro thrill to it. The novels this trilogy was based upon have been commonly called the Gone With the Wind of Japan, and while the subject matter of the movies might be a shade different, each manifests a beautifully rapturous yet non-Scope visual design. The photography in these Samurai movies is phenomenal, yet even though it could be consider panoramic, it isn't all that wide.
The three pictures here - Mushashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel on Ganryu Island - follow Miyamoto (Mifune), unquestionably the greatest samurai in the history of the land. The first installment finds Miyamoto galloping off to battle and leaving behind his one true love, the second chronicles Miyamoto's evolution as a truly learned samurai, and the final movie offers up one of the great match-ups in movie history, where Miyamoto (who has tried to give up the samurai life and live like a normal man) has one final showdown with his arch-nemesis Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta).
Calling The Samurai Trilogy the best samurai movies ever is, going back to the point, like calling Gone With the Wind the best civil war drama made in Hollywood. There's truth to it from a certain scholarly standpoint, but just because these films were so grandiose and wildly popular doesn't mean they're exactly the pinnacles of their respective genres. But Criterion has always had a soft spot for Inagaki's most finessed accomplishments, and while the lack of bonuses on this set is sinful (more on that later), there's no denying that it's a treat to have this trilogy rejoin the Criterion pantheon with extraordinarily updated visual and audio sheen.