Tuesday, February 01, 2005

#15: Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1954, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao, from Hideji Hojo's theatrical adaptation of a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. I'm going to see if I can find a third way to describe those writing credits for the third part of the trilogy. Inelegant variation, thy name is Dessem.

So this is the second movie in the trilogy, and exists to set things up for the third installment; as such, I won't have as much to say about it as I would for an all-new movie. Usually, the second movie in a trilogy is my favorite; if there are any big reversals, that's where they happen (like the second act of a script. The best middle movies set you up to believe that the third movie will probably be the greatest thing ever created. Which means you're poised for maximum disappointment when they march out the Ewoks.

In Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Miyamoto Musashi continues his training, this time learning to temper his physical power with introspection and mercy. Which is kind of strange; in the first movie, he got locked in an attic with stacks of books for three years or so; one would think he'd already have mastered the introspecion stuff. And since there aren't any training sequences in either movie, it's not clear who taught him to fight—he wasn't bad with a sword in the first movie, but in this one he's using two katanas like he's been doing it forever. I don't think I could hold two blades like that one handed, much less swing them, much less swing them accurately. So here's to you, Toshirô Mifune!

There are three big fight sequences in this one; my favorite is the first, between Musashi and a guy with a ball & chain. The third one is the Duel at Ichijoji Temple from the title; it's Musashi v. 80 swordsmen from a samurai school that's gone to pot. I think the fight between the Bride and the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill drew a lot from this movie, although Musashi's fight is in a rice paddy (muddy!), not indoors.

In this installment, the female characters really come into their own. And by "come into their own," I mean, get alternately raped, imprisoned, and betrayed. And then they take it out on each other. Akemi gets sold by her mother to a man who rapes her, then locks her up when he finds out she loves Musashi. Otsu, abandoned in the last movie by Matahachi, gets abandoned in this one by Musashi. Both Akemi and Otsu get sort of passed around throughout the movie to a variety of male protectors; the only decisions they make are motivated by their desire for Musashi. And since they have so much in common, they loathe each other; Akemi nearly kills herself but decides not to, in order to make sure that Otsu doesn't end up with Musashi. I'm rereading Martin Amis's Money, and read this paragraph the day I saw this movie:

I've been told that men don't like women, period. Oh yeah? Who does then? Because women don't like women.

Anyway, the point: Japan circa 1605: not a good time and place to be female.

Other things in Samurai II: my roommate Eric asked me if I thought the second movie had a bigger budget than the first one (I'm not sure why this was his first question; he'd seen about thirty seconds of the first movie and less of the second at the time he asked). I didn't know, and still don't, but it did seem to me that the second one had a lot more stuff shot on soundstages, and some really bad matte paintings.I'm not sure if that would cost more than shooting outdoors (I suspect it would cost more if the weather was good, less if it was bad), but it certainly looked worse. I wonder about the production history of these movies; if the second one depended on the success of the first or if they were done as a trilogy to begin with. As I noted before, Inagaki had already made all three movies before in the 40's.

I can say one thing for certain; they weren't all filmed at once, a la The Lord of the Rings. Matahachi is played by a different actor in the second movie. But he's still a pansy; he spends a lot of this movie taking orders from his elderly mother. And he still gets the most ridiculous lines. This time around my favorite was, "Mother wants me to kill you. But I don't want to. Let's elope!" I've filed that away to remember if I ever propose: irresistable!

Kôji Tsuruta, who plays Kojiro Sasaki, has what may be the creepiest smile I've ever seen. It's not a classic villain smile, and it's not crooked or anything. But he looks like he's wearing a Noh mask whenever he smiles. He's a great villain. Duel at Ichijoji Temple sets up a big battle between Sasaki and Musashi for the third installment; I'm looking forward to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The ideal trilogy is a multi-layered work. There should be a single overriding storyline bridging the trilogy, with each segment of the trilogy corresponding to an act in a three-act play. Superimposed on this structure, each segment should ideally tell a self-sustained story. Middle segments seem to be the hardest to pull off. I can’t tell you why that is. I’m no writer. But all too often they seem all middle, with no independent storyline and no resolution. So right off the bat I’ve got to disagree with you: the second installment is usually my least favorite because it is usually poorly executed. I prefer the novelty of beginnings and the catharsis of endings.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple does have an independent storyline. Unfortunately, it’s just a retread of the last half hour or so of Samurai I, which you sort of point out. They even have the same endings shot in almost identical fashion: Musashi abandoning Otsu and walking off alone towards the open horizon. (Otsu pines for Musashi for six or seven years and nearly three hours of film time, only to reject him when he finally pounces. What’s that all about?) The only important new element introduced here is Musashi’s main antagonist, Kojiro.

I didn’t think this looked as good as the first part either. There are good reasons why middle installments are often the darkest in tone, but Inagaki takes this literally. Almost all the action from the beginning of the film through the climactic, titular duel takes place at night. From the time Musashi, finally exhibiting chivalry and mercy, spares Seijuro until the film ends (maybe fifteen minutes), everything takes place in broad daylight. Yeah, I get the symbolism of light and dark, but Inagaki’s day for night work is murky at best, and it was really hard to watch most of this.

And finally, if this is the Japanese Gone With The Wind, then I suppose the courtesan, Lady Yoshino, must be Belle Watling.

My year's going great so far too!