Samurai III: Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai III: Duel on Ganryu Island
Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: ketto Ganryujima
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Musashi), Koji Tsuruta (Kojiro), Kaoru Yachigusa (Otsu), Mariko Okada (Akemi), Mitsuko Mito (Oko), Daisuke Kato (Toji), Kuroemon Onoe (Takuan), Kenjin Iida (Jotaro), Takashi Shimura (Sado), Minoru Chiaki (Sasuke), Haruo Tanaka (Kumagoro), Sonosuke Sawamura
Screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao

Toho Company, 105 minutes
Color, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Samurai III focuses on the legendary showdown between Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki, considered the ultimate duel in the history of the samurai. The movie opens with Kojiro practicing his swallow-turn technique and dreaming of facing his rival, with Akemi by his side. Oko and Matahachi have made their final appearances in the previous installment, and now she's primarily hanging out with Kojiro.

We find Musashi in the city of Hana, accompanied by a now-adolescent Jotaro, watching a tournament held by the spear-wielding priests of Hozoin. Musashi reluctantly enters a match with the skilled priest Agon, and chooses to grasp Agon's spear and render him helpless instead of fighting. The scene is witnessed with approval by the priest Nikkan, who berated Musashi for being "too strong" at the beginning of Samurai II. Nikkan commends Musashi for how much he has clearly progressed since then. It's interesting to note that the Agon duel has a very different outcome in Tomu Uchida's Musashi Miyamoto 2: Duel at Devil's Mask Pass, taking place at an earlier point in Musashi's career before he attained such a level of responsible restraint.

In contrast, Kojiro's ambitions and pursuit of glory know no bounds. Kojiro applies for the prestigious position of fencing instructor for the powerful Lord Hosokawa but badly wounds one of the lord's top retainers in a sparring match, making his employment unlikely. Kojiro decides to augment his reputation by killing four students from the Obana dojo and leaving a note with the corpses claiming responsibility. Musashi finds the corpses, impressed to see that each was killed with a single stroke, and he buries them. Kojiro confronts Musashi in the graveyard and wants to duel him there, but Musashi wants to avoid the impression that he is fighting for the Obana school. They set a duel for the next day.

But Musashi takes an abrupt left turn when he sends Kojiro a letter requesting to postpone their match for one year. Apparently Musashi has had his fill of the world of lords and politics and needs to get away from everything. While Kojiro accepts his desired position with Hosokawa and lives a life of luxury, Musashi heads out into the countryside to build a hut and live off the land. He is now accompanied by two disciples: Jotaro and a buffoonish horse thief named Kumagoro. In a sort of mini-Seven Samurai subplot, Musashi helps the local farmers defend themselves against marauding bandits.

The two key women of the Musashi saga, Otsu and Akemi, naturally weave their way back into the story and both end up at Musashi's new farmstead. I lost all my patience for Otsu after the end of Samurai II, so her continued crying and moaning is of no interest to me. The only meaningful thing in her dialogue with Musashi is his talk about how he used to hate farming as a youth, but now he has come to understand the value of being in touch with the earth and the simple things in life. For Akemi's part, she manages to screw everyone over by plotting with the bandits. She spreads the false news that all the bandits are in jail, and when the villagers celebrate and drop their guard, the bandits ride in to annihilate them.

Thus ends Musashi's idyllic interlude so that we can get on with the main event: the final showdown with Kojiro. We just have to put up with one last round of tears and anguish from Otsu before we can head out to Ganryu Island and get ready to rumble. On his boat ride to meet Kojiro, Musashi grabs an oar and whittles on it, telling his puzzled oarsman that it's for the duel. "I like the size," he explains.

And what a spectacular battle it is. Musashi, brandishing a big slab of wood instead of a sword, standing in the surf with the waves lapping about his ankles, and a magnificent sunrise behind him, is in complete control the whole way. He uses the oar's length to counter Kojiro's "clothes rod" sword and uses the sun to impair Kojiro's vision. The duel is the most famous aspect of the Samurai trilogy, and with good reason. Inagaki stages the encounter just perfectly, with imagery and dramatic tension that are seared indelibly into your memory. This showdown is one of the few elements of the Musashi story in which Inagaki decisively trumps Uchida. But if you're one of the many admirers of the Samurai trilogy and you're looking to broaden your experience in jidai-geki, you really owe it to yourself to seek out and enjoy the hard-to-find Zen and Sword version.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
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