Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1964)
Directed by Tomu Uchida

Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no ketto
Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (Musashi), Wakaba Irie (Otsu), Ken Takakura (Kojiro), Isao Kimura (Matahachi), Rentaro Mikuni (Takuan), Satomi Oka (Akemi), Michiyo Kogure (Oko), Chieko Naniwa (Osugi), Mitsuru Takeuchi (Jotaro), Shinjiro Ebara (Seijuro Yoshioka), Mikijiro Hira (Denshichiro Yoshioka)
Screenplay by Naoyuki Suzuki and Tomu Uchida

Toei Company, 128 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo
(Part of the Miyamoto Musashi Set of 5 Discs)

Whereas Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple was in my estimation the weakest of his Musashi Miyamoto trilogy, Tomu Uchida's corresponding Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple represents the high point of his series. I consider this the foremost example of how totally different the two adaptations are, and why Uchida's stands as superior.

For the first time in the series, this installment opens with a recap of scenes from the previous movies. It's as if we've reached a point of complexity in the narrative where even the Japanese viewers familiar with the Eiji Yoshikawa novel could use a refresher. Following this overture, it turns out that this episode features a markedly simpler plot structure than any of its predecessors. Namely, Musashi has defeated and shamed the leader of the Yoshioka fencing school, and now their only chance and redeeming their tattered reputation is to kill Musashi. So they move heaven and earth to take revenge.

As the vendetta mounts, Musashi takes up residence with a kind merchant named Honami. Seijuro's brother Denshichiro challenges Musashi to a duel on an evening when Musashi has already agreed (reluctantly) to accompany Honami on a visit to the local pleasure quarters. Rather than skipping on one engagement in favor of the other, Musashi does both. He politely comes along with Honami to attend a performance by the courtesan Yoshino. At the appointed hour, Musashi discreetly slips out the back, takes care of business, then returns to the courtesan parlor to resume his social commitment. The insertion of the violent interlude makes the Yoshino scene far more compelling and wrought with tension than in the Inagaki version.

The duel with Denshichiro is spectacular one, a night match in the gently falling snow that might have helped inspire the O-Ren Ishii duel in Kill Bill Vol. I. Beforehand, Musashi tells Denshichiro that he's about to cut him down for the second time, having already psychologically defeated him the first time they met. His trash-talking proves true, even when Denshichiro tries to cheat by springing two hidden Yoshioka underlings on Musashi.

Back at the pleasure quarters, the desperate Yoshioka students surround the establishment to await Musashi's exit. To keep the peace, he's coerced into spending the night with Yoshino. Inagaki had Yoshino attempt unsuccessfully to seduce Musashi and then accuse him of lacking affection. Uchida makes her encounter less titillating and more overtly judgmental. Without making any passes at him, Yoshino observes that Musashi looks like a man who is about to be killed. Offended, he demands an explanation. She obliges by comparing him to her biwa (stringed instrument), which is carefully constructed to produce a subtle variety of unique tones. But Yoshino only perceives one tone coming from Musashi: his unwavering aggression. It's a spellbinding scene that's much more memorable than we were led to wonder whether they'll have sex or not.

In advance of his inevitable showdown with the Yoshioka, Musashi gets his young student Jotaro out of the way through a happy plot development that I won't reveal. That wraps up Jotaro's involvement in the saga, as he'll be replaced by a new kid sidekick in Musashi Miyamoto 5: The Final Duel. The Yoshioka students attempt to confront Musashi in a public street, but Kojiro intervenes and scolds them that fighting there would be the behavior of ruffians. He mediates their agreement to a proper duel at Ichijoji Temple, where Musashi will face the entire Yoshioka school en masse.

On his way there, Musashi runs into Otsu, and they have their first conversation since parting at Hanada Bridge back at the beginning of Duel at Devil's Mask Pass. In the Inagaki trilogy, the star-crossed couple spend all of 30 minutes of screen time apart before speaking again. Despite a couple of close brushes, Uchida has kept them from having a conversation for nearly five full hours of screen time. And they're not back again at the static location of Hanada Bridge where Otsu has passively waited, but at a rendezvous resulting from Otsu's tireless travels. Plus, in this version, both of them seriously think Musashi may be heading to his death. So naturally the Uchida reunion packs loads more dramatic heft. Rather than telling Otsu he values his sword more than her, Musashi confesses his love. The meeting seems to redouble his determination to survive the 73-against-one battle ahead of him.

For the duration of that grand showdown at Ichijoji, Uchida switches to black and white. This is a brilliant move for all kinds of reasons. It gives the crazy melee the look and flavor of classic chambara slashfests. It evokes the true lighting found just before daybreak, when there's barely sufficient light to make out shapes and objects but not enough to perceive color. Which is utterly more effective than the technically shoddy day-for-night effects Inagaki attempted. But most obviously, the monochromatic shift signals that something dark and malevolent is in the air, a fitting ambience for Musashi to commit an unspeakably cruel act to assure his victory.

The consequences of this great sin will follow Musashi like a heavy shroud throughout the fifth and final episode. For its exclusion of this crucial story element, Inagaki's trilogy has been described as the whitewashed and sanitized version of the life of Musashi. You definitely end up with a different character following Uchida's magnificent Duel at Ichijoji.

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