Criterion Sunday 16: Miyamoto Musashi Kanketsuhen: Ketto Ganryujima (Samurai Trilogy III: Duel at Ganryu Island, 1956)

The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.

Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014

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Criterion Sunday 15: Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no Ketto (Samurai Trilogy II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955)

Like many second films in trilogies, this second instalment of Inagaki’s story of 17th century swordfighter and cultural hero Musashi Miyamoto seems to lack a focus, although unlike the first film it heads towards something of a cliffhanger. Musashi travels to Kyoto to pick a fight against a samurai school that is home to his former friend Matahachi, calling out the school’s sensei, though the men there are at first dismissive of Musashi’s talents, drawing him into a massed battle scene once again reminiscent of the denouement of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film also introduces a challenger to his position of swordfighting dominance with Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta), a matinee idol of a man who intitially just follows Musashi warily, intent only on observing him. However, despite the increased number of battle scenes, the heart of the film remains his relationship with the women, primarily Otsu (Kaoru Yuchigusa), who continues to follow him, as well as the younger Akemi, who had tried to tempt him (unsuccessfully) in the first film. Finally, the style changes a little, and though the colours are still vibrant, there seems to be a rather darker tone, not to mention a studio-set feel to proceedings, slightly more stylised than had been the case in the first film. Still it keeps Musashi’s education moving forward, and sets up the third and final instalment nicely.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014

Criterion Sunday 14: Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai Trilogy I: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954)

One of the things that becomes clear from watching the Criterion Collection releases is that someone there really likes samurai films (known as chanbara in Japanese, a subset of jidaigeki or ‘period films’). And when I say likes them, I mean really REALLY likes them. There’s a 25-film boxset of Zatoichi films coming up (quite a lot) further down the line, as well as many others in between, but here, an early release, is this trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Such was the popularity of its titular hero (Musashi Miyamoto, referred to as Takezo in this film, as he does not receive his samurai name until the end) that this wasn’t even Inagaki’s first trilogy of films about Musashi. He was a legendary swordsman, not to mention author and artist, who came to prominence at the very start of the 17th century in Japan, and Inagaki sets out to depict his journey. To see these films now, it hardly seems surprising to see the great Toshiro Mifune in the title role — after all, in this very same year, he also starred in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — though the two roles are quite different. In Kurosawa’s film, he’s a bit of a fool, but here he commands respect — or at least comes to do so by the end, for this first film is dedicated to Musashi’s earliest exploits. A lot of these revolve around the women who fall in love with him, though it’s Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), the jilted fiancée of his friend Matahachi, who has the most lasting relationship with the wandering ronin. The narrative arc of the film is towards Musashi’s maturation (he is even locked in an attic with a stack of books for three years at one point), rather than any big conflict or battle, and the route towards this is via a series of incidents, through which familiar characters start to thread. This all works rather nicely, no little thanks to the richly colourful cinematography, and fine ensemble performances. It would be for subsequent films in the trilogy to develop his fighting skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kaoru Yachigusa | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014