Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no ketto
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Musashi), Koji Tsuruta (Kojiro), Kaoru Yachigusa (Otsu), Mariko Okada (Akemi), Akihiko Hirata (Seijuro), Sachio Sakai (Matahachi), Mitsuko Mito (Oko), Daisuke Kato (Toji), Kuroemon Onoe (Takuan), Eiko Miyoshi (Osugi), Kenjin Iida (Jotaro)
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao

Toho Company, 104 minutes
Color, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

I'll go ahead and confess that I'm no big fan of Inagaki's Samurai trilogy, and I find Samurai II to be the weakest of the series, especially in comparison to the outstanding adaptation Tomu Uchida made from the same story material. So if you're a huge Inagaki fan, maybe you should just move on to something more positive, like my gushing praise for Whirlwind.

After all the long training and scholarship Tokezo went through in the first installment to become Musashi Miyamoto, Samurai II jumps right into the action. Three years have passed, and we find a more mature Musashi showing up for scheduled duel at dusk. In fact, every one of Musashi's formal duels in this movie takes place at night, or at least in very late or early hours. It comes across as heavy-handed symbolism to show how Musashi is still struggling to find his way "in the dark" before reaching true enlightenment. But mainly it really makes your eyes get tired following all these indistinct fight scenes, including a lot of shoddy day-for-night camera work where Inagaki inserts a jittery filter across the top of the frame to cloak a daytime sky.

This first duel has Musashi going up against a warrior named Baiken who wields an unusual chain-and-sickle weapon called a kusarigama, In this one sequence, Ingaki consolidates several key pieces of Musahsi lore that are revealed at a more lesiurely pace in other versions of the story, such as Tomu Uchida's five-part adaptation. When Musashi gets his sword tangled up in Baiken's chain, he has to draw his other sword and invent his famous two-sword style (an innovation that formed the basis for Uchida's Musashi Miyamoto 3: Birth of the Two-Sword Style) Also at the scene of the duel, Musashi meets a young admirer named Jotaro who becomes his student and sidekick, although the kid doesn't play much of a significant role in the Inagaki story until Samurai III.

The other major plot development is the sudden appearance of a mysterious priest named Nikkan, who sternly criticizes Musashi's performance. Even though Musashi defeated Baiken, Nikkan tells Musashi he lost as a samurai. "You are too strong," Nikkan explains. Musahsi is mystified by the accusation, though he can feel the truth in in. Nikkan then vanishes to later re-emerge in Samurai III, but his words will linger in Musashi's thoughts.

The driving plot thread in Samurai II is Musashi's thwarted efforts to have a duel with Seijuro Yoshioka, the young head teacher of the Yoshioka fencing school. Seijuro lacks the skills of his father who previously led the school, and its reputation is in decline. Musashi comes along to challenge the Yoshioka dojo and its master, beating the crap out of the students and even killing a couple. Even though he's incompetent and certain to fail, Seijuro is willing to face Musashi and defend the school's honor. But Seijuro's toadies don't want that to happen, fearing that the Yoshioka name and their livelihoods will be ruined if Musashi defeats their young master. So they resort to whatever unsavory measures are necessary to block Musashi from having his requested match.

It also happens that Akemi, Oko and Matahachi are hanging out at the Yoshioka house, which serves to bring the cast of supporting characters from Samurai I back into the fold. Matahachi has become a lazy, good-for-nothing drunk who sponges off Akemi and Oko's earnings as personal entertainers for Seijuro. Akemi runs into Otsu, who is still waiting faithfully for Musashi at the Hanada Bridge. They briefly chat about how each of them misses a man she loves, unaware that they are both talking about Musashi. Soon Akemi, Oko and Matahachi get word of the wild troublemaker who wants to duel Seijuro, and they piece together that Miyamoto Musashi is Takezo.

After an incident with a sword polisher teaches Musashi a lesson about a sword being a samurai's soul, not merely an instrument for killing, Musashi learns about a skillful young swordsman named Kojiro Sasaki. Musashi misses his chance to meet him because he has an appointed meeting with the Yoshioka group to see if Seijuro accepts his duel. On his way there, Musashi runs into Otsu and they are reunited to a dramatic swell of Hollywood music. Though Musashi is pleased to see her, he bluntly confesses that he has to choose between her and his sword, and at this point he prefers his sword. Otsu says she knows that, but she wants to be with him anyway. Later Akemi manages to discourage Otsu by falsely claiming that Musashi loves her instead and intends to marry her. At this, Otsu runs off to Takuan the priest and wants to become a nun.

Musashi's Yoshioka meeting turns out to be an ambush, with about 20 or 30 men attacking him. This turn of events ruins the Yoshioka name, and Seijuro's brother goes after Musashi and fails. Finally, the Yoshioka men agree to a real one-on-one duel between Seijuro and Musashi, with the agreement brokered by Kojiro, who steps in to introduce himself and mediate. After obsessing about Musashi from afar, Kojiro is overcome with delight to meet his future rival at last. He is destined to be Musashi's greatest adversary, though Samurai II presents him as a decent and honorable man rather than a villain.

The long-awaited showdown at Ichijoji Temple draws the scattered supporting cast all together. Matahachi has a silly subplot in which he comes into possession of Kojiro's certificate of swordsmanship, and uses it to tell his mother and others that he is now a great samurai like Tokezo, and he too changed his name. That is, until he meets up with the real Kojiro. Young Jotaro brings Otsu news of the duel right at the last minute before Takuan cuts off her hair for the priesthood, and she changes her mind about being a nun to rush to the scene. Akemi catches Musashi just before the duel and shares her insider knowledge that the Yoshioka are planning to ambush him – yeah, big surprise, right? – this time with 80 men!

Since there's a Samurai III, I think it's no spoiler to say that Musahsi takes care of the 80 dudes in an epic 5:00 a.m. battle. As day is breaking, he finally faces Seijuro himself. Just as he is about to deliver Seijuro's death blow, Musashi pauses to remember the lessons he's learned about the true meaning of being a samurai, and he spares Seijuro to live in the shame of his own making.

The problem with Samurai II is that Musashi is a blank stone wall. He's supposed to be growing and developing into history's greatest samurai, but Inagaki dwells more on the soap opera meanderings of Otsu and Akemi, and the cowardly fabrications of the Yoshioka school, than on the critical issues of what's going on inside Musashi's head. He's an emotionless and inscrutable robot. We get to understand more about Kojiro's inner workings in his short screen time than we do about the star. There's a scene where someone asks what he thought of a courtesan's musical performance, and Musashi replies, "It was flawless. I find no chink to attack." Please. Musashi is supposed to be a great artist and poet as well as a warrior, and even though he's not fully matured yet, it's cartoony for him to view the whole of the world in terms of fencing strategy devoid of artistic appreciation.

The most infuriating part comes at the very end, when Musashi finally does make an act of human emotion. In a moment of passion, he clutches Otsu, and she resists him. What the heck is that about? This is the woman who has spent years pining for him, begging and crying to be by his side, and now that she's finally got him and Musashi goes to make a move, she freaks out like he's committed some shameful crime? I just want to slap her. A caption superimposed over Musashi at the end reads, "I have renounced the love of women." Who could blame the poor guy?

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