Saturday, January 29, 2011

REVIEW: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

宮本武蔵完結編 決闘巌流島 (Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: kettō Ganryūjima)

Released: 1956

Hiroshi Inagaki

Toshiro Mifune
Koji Tsuruta
Kaoru Yachigusa
Michiko Saga

Running time: 104 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

In 1956, Hiroshi Inagaki’s ambitious "Samurai" trilogy, based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel "Musashi," came to a close with "Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island." Two years previous, Toshiro Mifune first stepped into the role of the impulsive villager Takezo who would steadily transform himself into the master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. The series’ final film focuses on the remaining gaps he needs to fill in his life – specifically those pertaining to his personal growth as a warrior and a lover.

At the start of "Samurai III," Musashi still travels through feudal Japan honing his skills, accompanied by his young friend and attendant Jotaro (Kenjin Iida). Elsewhere, two women continue to yearn for him: the innocent Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), who repelled his aggressive advances in the previous film, and Akemi (Mariko Okada), who has known a difficult life as a courtesan. Musashi continually turns away from both a prestigious position as a lord’s swordsmanship instructor and his long-awaited duel with the formidable masterless samurai Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta) to better himself through hard work and travel. Yet Kojiro persistently seeks to face Musashi, leading to the inevitable match of the film’s title.

Like the previous "Samurai" films ("Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto" and "Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple"), this one tells its story on a suitably large canvas – which is most fitting for a series based on a book that has been called the "Gone With the Wind" of Japan. With beautiful costumes, large period sets and a dramatic score by Ikuma Dan, Inagaki keeps the magnitude of both Musashi and his world very much intact. Certain plot points feel as though they would fit within a Kurosawa epic – specifically the one-on-one matches that occur with peasant onlookers present and a "Seven Samurai"-esque situation involving a village threatened by brigands. However, the large assortment of characters and intersecting storylines carried over from the previous films prevent "Samurai III" from being as sleek or crowd-pleasing as one of Kurosawa’s own period pieces, making it instead feel more formal and hefty. But that’s not to say the film isn’t without its own sense of energy or fun, as shown in the numerous duel scenes. Also great is the humorous relationship between a ruffian who joins Musashi’s small group and Jotaro, who cheekily orders the older man to treat him as his superior. Plus, there’s the scene in which Musashi scares off a group of thugs merely by catching several flies with his chopsticks – could it have inspired the similar, more famous sequence in "The Karate Kid"?

As the concluding chapter of a series, "Samurai III" ably tends to the duty of resolving its major storylines. In the case of the ongoing love triangle between Musashi, Otsu and Akemi, the two women both set out to find him, each intent on claiming him for herself. Yet the most fascinating component of the film is the ongoing rivalry between Musashi and Kojiro. Their duel is teasingly subjected to false starts and postponements all throughout the film, making the suspense that was first planted in "Samurai II" almost unbearable. But the showdown does inevitably arrive in possibly the single finest scene in the whole trilogy. Against a fiery orange sunrise, the two masters meet on a beach and face one another. Long shots, silhouettes and strategic editing give the scene the intensity and significance it deserves, heightening the emotions wordlessly exchanged between the poised samurai.

The sequence could be interpreted as a testament of sorts to Inagaki’s success with the entire Musashi Miyamoto trilogy. With the dramatic weight of all the events that came before resting on Musashi’s shoulders, the duel solidly asserts his legendary status once and for all and brings his story to an end on just the right note.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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