Saturday, October 16, 2010

REVIEW: Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

続宮本武蔵 一乗寺決闘 (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijōji no kettō)

Released: 1955

Hiroshi Inagaki

Toshiro Mifune
Koji Tsuruta
Mariko Okada
Kaoru Yachigusa
Michiyo Kogure

Running time: 104 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

In 1954, "Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto," Hiroshi Inagaki’s first entry in the trilogy of films based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel "Musashi," was released. Filmgoers didn’t have to wait long to see the follow-up: just one year later, "Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple" arrived in theatres. It dutifully picks up from where the story ended in the previous film, with the opening titles placed overtop the journey of samurai-in-training Musashi Miyamoto (once more played by Toshiro Mifune), formerly the brash, defeated soldier Takezo. He is confronted by Baiken (Eijiro Tono), a formidable warrior armed with a chain and sickle. After defeating this adversary, Musashi makes his way to the Yoshioka School to challenge its master, Seijuro (Akihiko Hirata), only to be beset by ambushes and delays. A cunning, mysterious figure named Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) watches him from afar and plans to confront him. Meanwhile, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), who in "Samurai I" was betrothed to Musashi’s comrade Matahachi only to fall in love with Musashi himself, continues to wait for her beloved. Yet she soon meets Akemi (Mariko Okada), a young woman who previously encountered Musashi and, since then, has developed feelings for him. Both the appearance of this unexpected rival and the clouds of danger gathering around Musashi test Otsu’s commitment to him.

While "Samurai I" followed Takezo’s transformation from feral man on the run into the more disciplined and enlightened Musashi, "Samurai II" focuses on his struggle to understand the true nature of being a samurai. Multiple times, he is told that he is too preoccupied with strength and combat while the subtler qualities of compassion and mental tranquility elude him. Though Mifune is noticeably more subdued here than in the previous film, his character is still very much aware of the progress he needs to make before becoming a fully-fledged samurai (as indicated when he corrects those who don’t initially realize that his training is still in progress). Thus, the film is very much about one man’s personal growth as he draws ever closer towards the legendary reputation that he is associated with today.

Being the second part of a trilogy, "Samurai II" raises the stakes within Musashi’s story considerably by introducing intriguing new subplots and characters. Both Seijuro and his hotheaded brother Denshichiro (Yu Fujiki) respond to the threat posed by the traveling swordsman by arranging various duels and traps. Kojiro is an especially intriguing character who clashes with Seijuro’s men while sneakily assisting them with their efforts to defeat Musashi. Ultimately, though, he is just as much of a lone wolf as his quarry, and perhaps sees parts of himself in the man he longs to face in a personal match.

Not all of Musashi’s troubles stem from violence: no fewer than three women vie for his affection throughout the film. In an especially compelling scene, the loyal, long-suffering Otsu finally meets Akemi, who fiercely claims Musashi as her own, pushing the former to seek comfort from priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe, reprising his role from the first film) and contemplate becoming a Buddhist nun. The fourth corner of the love quadrangle is Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), a courtesan who tempts and falls for Musashi during his stay at a renowned club in Kyoto. Further complicating matters is the reappearance of Musashi’s old friend Matahachi (Sachio Sakai, replacing Rentaro Mikuni from "Samurai I"), who tries to pass himself off as Kojiro, is unexpectedly reunited with his revenge-craving parents and confronts Otsu, his former betrothed.

With "Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple," Hiroshi Inagaki smoothly continues the tale of Musashi’s progress towards maturity and wisdom while introducing a whole new juggling act of challenges, conflicts and complications. Besides just serving its purpose as an installment (and the middle one, at that) in an ongoing story, the film is highly entertaining, providing enough action sequences, period piece grandeur and compelling character interactions to sate one’s appetite for classic, big-screen adventure.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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