Hiroshi Inagaki’s celebrated third Samurai film, Duel at Ganryu Island, brings to a close his series chronicling the life of historical figure Musashi Miyamoto. The first film, Musashi Miyamoto, followed the young villager Takezo as he sought fame and fortune in battle. The second, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, tells the story of his enlightenment and induction into the world of the samurai. In the third film, Musashi is known throughout Japan and sought after as both a duelling partner and a teacher — but he’s dogged by his past, and by a talented and dangerous competitor.
Eastern Eye have generously provided us here in Oz with a boxed set of the Samurai films, and I had a chance to watch all three back to back. Toshiro Mifune is just as good here as in his work with celebrated director Akira Kurosawa, giving a very measured, low-key performance by the time he’s playing the more introspective Musashi of the third film. He’s also supported by some excellent supporting characters: Koji Tsurata is menacingly charismatic as the talented swordsman who dogs Musashi’s path, seeking to duel with the only man he considers his equal, and Mariko Okada and Kaoru Yachigusa are great as the amoral Akemi and the long-suffering Otsu respectively. Kurosawa fans will also spot Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki in there, too.
Duel at Ganryu Island finds Musashi a more studied man: he’s become weary of fighting duels, and is regretful of the deaths he’s caused over the years. Sasaki, the young samurai who seeks to fight Musashi, is quite different: he’s willing to maim or kill just to make a point, or to attract attention. When their duel is finally scheduled, though, Musashi delays it for a year, retiring from the samurai world to tend vegetables in a remote village and reflect upon his existence.
When the battle finally comes, it’s played out on a beach at Ganryu Island at sunset. Brilliantly photographed and dramatically staged, this scene is probably the high point of the entire series. We’re given the impression that the clash between Musashi and Sasaki is a major event, of importance to everyone from the Shogun down to the most unassuming of villagers. Like the struggles for mastery of the boxers’ world in the Hong Kong’s swordplay/wuxia films, everyone’s got an interest in who wins.
Duel at Ganryu Island is a great film, probably my favourite of the three in the series. It shouldn’t be watched alone, though — grab all three, and follow Musashi’s story from start to finish. And then see if you can pick flies out of the air with chopsticks with the élan with which Mifune does it.