This Week: Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi: Souken ni Haseru Yume)
Much of history can be debated and interpreted in different lenses, though I do hope it is fair to think Miyamoto Musashi would at least be happy at the prospect there are people still trying to learn what he had to teach.
I am unable to recall what my first piece of animated media was way back when I was a child, though there is a relatively high probably that it could have been some variety of edutainment bit.
Education and animation are by no means strangers to one another. The forces have met in everything from government funded videos for various purposes (the opening to 1951’s Duck and Cover short about what to do in the event of nuclear attack, for instance, remains a popular touchstone for such explorations) to whole mass market network television programs. Even fast and loose animated quasi-documentaries meant more for laughing than dryly informing about some niche topic are nothing new, as when one even restricts themselves to anime specific entries they would slam into things like Otaku no Video or Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters.
Musashi is, I have found it reading more about it after watching, something of a contentious film for many.
Formatted like a lecture with the occasional cut to a more dramatic battle scene, it aims to present some information in an attempt to back up an argument regarding legendary seventeenth century swordsman, author, and all around renaissance man Miyamoto Musashi. More specifically, the film is of the disposition Musashi had a great ambition have a magnificent clash of armies and have leadership recognition on the level of famed warlords for his battlefield prowess.
A sizable chunk of the film deals in matters of the importance of the development and impact of cavalry forces from both western and eastern traditions and any influence it could have had on Musashi in developing his two sword technique and preparing for some great future war which never came in his lifetime.
Now, those who may have have read a fair amount of work relating to Musashi’s life and achievements may find such a thing curious, and that would not be unfounded.
The film largely neglects most of his work outside of duels, fighting, or the development thereof (and some of its claims can be considered to be grasping at straws, either to fill out the running time or to try to mention anything it can to back up a point it already decided on). I would find it difficult to call it a “documentary,” though I have seen that label attached to it a fair amount. Outside of the occasional pulling of a line from Musashi’s own The Book of Five Rings, the movie never declares references for things like other academic work, books, films, historical figures looking back on Musashi years later after his death, or the like to support itself. I do feel then the “lecture” term does fit it better, as intentionally or not one needs to treat it more like the film like it was giving a presentation it clearly studied for but seems to also be more of an editorialized piece.
I feel recalibrating ones lens for that expectation, rather than something closer to a Frontline special or the like which would mention more sources, does help steady the film at least a bit.
Things then shift to a matter of who is giving said lecture, and what are their credentials.
The Producer and Screenwriter roles for Musashi, but interesting not the Director position, were handled by longtime ambitious anime and live action film creator Mamoru Oshii.
This is more than a little unsurprising, as he has tried his hand with pseudo-documentaries before (he wrote the Minipato specials for Patlabor XIII, for instance, as well as created the aforementioned Tachigui). The focus more on things like technological hardware almost to the complete exclusion of other facets like Musashi’s personal life becomes better contextualized given who is effectively providing the talk. I not not think this fully excuses the film for seeming to dodge providing too many sources, mind you. But, if the director of things like the first two Mobile Police Patlabor films, the Ghost in the Shell movies, The Sky Crawlers feature length adaptation, and so on choosing to focus more on Musashi’s hardware and application does at least somewhat seem more logical in context, strained in places though it may be.
I get the feeling though, lurching as the film does from tanks in World War I to Chinese crossbow and cavalry tactics, Oshii’s thoughts on Musashi would be better suited to a real life talk and concluding Q&A session where he would need to tighten up his responses and better clarify himself.
As the talk of the film is given by Inukai Kiichi, a reformatted version of the ethnographer from Oshii’s more fictionally hued Tachigui, it also colors things regarding how much the script may be intentionally stretching its claims out of either sake for historical argument (and hoping nobody would notice or mind) or what may be creative moves taken for a more fictional story goal. Which are not really the kinds of questions one wants to be contending with in the back of their head during a film like this, which could easily be going one way, the other, or trying to have both at the same time.
The director of the work, a task in the hands of Mizuho Nishikubo (his most recent film, Giovanni’s Island, currently in the midst of its Academy Awards nomination push), add more potential layers to this potential questioning and the confusion I have seen in the perspectives of other viewers. Prior to working with Oshii for several films as one of his go to Animation, Unit, and Sequence Directors, the work Nishikubo helm himself was works like California Crisis: Gun Salvo (an OVA which attempted to mimic the shading sensibilities of vintage American comics) and Purple Eyes in the Dark (a thirty minute video of limited animation inspired by and panels from a manga of the same name).
As Musashi uses expanded experimental animation mixing techniques from Tachigui, it would not surprise me if a fellow like Nishikubo (background in both some really oddball projects and later trusted colleague of Oshii ) directing the project rather than Oshii himself was a situation which allowed it to secure its production situation.
I am reminded of the Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade affair, where while Oshii had written the film he was not allowed to direct it given the relative financial failure of his previous theatrical works of his Kerberos Saga series. Oshii seems far more involved in the process of Musashi than he was with Jin-Roh if one places the screenwriting aside though, which makes Nishikubo’s involvement all the more strange. We are in essence watching something of a lecture filtered through a mix of cartoony slapstick characters and more dramatic fight scenes which are themselves directed by someone separate from the mind of the writer.
Given the tone of researched academic argument over the work, it is a more jarring disconnect here than in other, regular film instances where the writer and director are not the same person.
The experience of Musashi for me was is a mixed, frustrating movie.
I feel the production wants or could be aiming to be many things, but I am never sure how seriously it wants me to be taking its historical arguments or chalking them up as extrapolated liberties taken for the sake of a scene. All things being equal, I can even support the goal of the constantly changing visual style. It swings from super-deformed cartoony polygon whimsy to more serious action marks expected of films like Sword of the Stranger, but I can see a value in that in trying to compartmentalize the raw spectacle of the duels with trying to make the more “educational” parts fun or engaging. Which again goes back to the matter of if I am expected be taking its lecture as a potential academic source or not, if it does want me to learn more than a thing or two.
I feel there are good reasons to see the work. It is loaded with animation gimmicks and changes its presentation style constantly, and while gimmicks can be fleeting they can be a pleasant novelty at the time. One can be justified in seeing it just to witness how on Earth someone like Mamoru Oshii tries to write something closer to a (debateably) real history after years of working on his own alternative history universe in addition to multiple science fiction works. Musashi can be picked up if one wished to see more of Mizuho Nishikubo’s filmography if they were swept up by the Giovanni’s Island push, as most of his directed movies and OVA’s are highly obscure and difficult to find. Many will not even be found on the most comprehensive sites specializing in the distribution of such materials.
One could watch Musashi merely for the idea of supporting potentially more things like it down the road.
I would not watch it as a history lesson though.
Which does feel like a tragic detriment, a film which is selling itself on some sort of academic level as being about one of the most notable and enduring figures in the Japanese cultural canon.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.