The first of the big "foreign" movies to clue blinkered Western audiences into the idea that there was more to filmmaking than the Warner Brothers and that some of the world's best was going on in a defeated enemy's backyard was Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," which blasted its way to a world audience in 1951.
The second is not nearly so well-remembered, though in many ways it became more of a font for Japanese culture in America than "Rashomon." Among other things, it helped invent John Belushi. That film is Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai," which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1955.
The movie, along with its sequel "Samurai II," both of them starring the great Toshiro Mifune, has been resurrected for a weeklong stay at the Orpheum. The two prints are far from pristine and far from restored, and for some long sequences, the colors have faded to an aged sepia.
But both films retain their extraordinary narrative force and involvement, as well as telling two-thirds of a plot as dense and peopled with fascinating characters as anything Dickens conjured up.
The films are basically a biography of a great warrior and swordsman of the 16th century named Musashi Miyamoto (Mifune), but when first we discover him in the opening moments of "Samurai," he's up a tree -- literally. A peasant boy, he hungers for glory and is about to decamp for the war like all too many a country lad.
His dreams of glory also inflame a companion who goes along. Of course, nothing turns out as it should. Rather than glory, he finds carnage and chicanery, and when he returns to his vanquished village, he's taken for a thief and hunted by the warlord and hundreds of troops.
In some quarters, the film is represented as the "first martial arts film," but the martial art it displays is swordsmanship, not karate or akido, and the swordplay is quick and subtle rather than visually stunning.
Of course, Mifune makes a great samurai, as John Belushi knew when he imitated him in a bunch of "SNL" sketches in the '70s. But this is the real McCoy: grunting, shaggy, dirty, bedraggled, he looks like a grumpy old man in a bathrobe with his hair up in curlers and some floppy old shower sandals on his feet. But get in his face, and the blades come out amid dance like dervishes. Musashi is a human Cuisinart, a lone swordsman wandering a bleak frontier in ways that were influenced by Hollywood westerns and would influence Hollywood westerns -- and Italian ones, too.
The second film is a direct and exact sequel of the first, meaning its first frame takes off from "Samurai's" last. Musashi wanders in search of higher knowledge and ultimately gets in a struggle with a school of swordsmanship, while trying to deny his powerful love for his ex-partner's fiancee, even as that ex-partner and a new young samurai show up.
In the last few minutes, Our Hero finds himself in a rice paddy, surrounded by 80 guys who are moving in to cut him down. He smiles. Boy, are they in trouble.
"Samurai I" (1955)/ "Samurai II" (1956)
Starring Toshiro Mifune
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Released by Toho
*** (for both)