Wednesday, February 02, 2005

#16: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island. 1956. First, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote the novel. Then Hideji Hojo wrote the play. Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao turned the play into a screenplay, and Hiroshi Inagaki directed it on film. That's the last time I'll have to summarize those credits. As you may have noticed, I'm a stickler for getting the writing credits right, cause I write screenplays. And my general impression is that unless the director wrote it as an original screenplay, auteur theory is kind of bullshit.

This is the last of the Samurai movies, and it's the best by a lot. And I liked the first two. I also think it would be impossible to follow without seeing the first two, so it's not an "If you see one movie in the Samurai series this year, make it Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island" type situation. But seriously: wow.

Duel at Ganryu Island opens with both Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki having parallel duels with men armed with spears. Miyamoto's fight gets broken up by a priest who wants to save the spearman's life; Kojiro's is more interesting. He is dueling as sort of a job interview: he wants to be the fencing instructor for a local noble. Using only a wooden sword (and fighting a guard with a metal-blated spear), Kojiro cripples his opponent for life. He doesn't get the job, because, well, he crippled his opponent in what was meant to be a demonstration match. So Kojiro increases the feudal lord's opinion of him by visiting and apologizing to his fallen opponent. That doesn't get him the job. So he decreases the feudal lord's opinion of his current fencing instructor by killing four of his students without provocation, in the street. And he gets the job. It's not a bad way to approach the hiring process.

Kojiro's real goal, though, is to provoke Musashi into dueling with him; no one else is a match for him, and he's bored. Musashi initially agrees, then doesn't show up, asking to postpone the duel for a year. Heroic! Kojiro agrees (though he doesn't have much choice; Musashi has fled), and in the intervening year, Kojiro works as a fencing instructor and Musashi settles down in a small farming village and tills the soil. It wouldn't be a samurai movie if the farming village weren't terrorized by brigands, and not too surprisingly, Musashi ends up defending the village. After a bloody battle with the attacking brigands, he finally sets off to Ganryu Island to duel Kojiro.

Women still get kind of badly treated by the characters in this installment, but they seem more aware of it. Akemi (who, remember, was sold by her mother to a wealthy man in the second movie) gets warned that if she crosses a particular part of the country alone, she will be raped by brigands. Her reply: "Men have made a plaything of me. I don't mind anything now." She knows what's going on, and she's bitter about it. Still, she directs all her hostility toward Otsu, her rival, rather than the men who have ruined her life; and when she dies, it's in Musashi's arms, content that he is finally holding her. So even if the women are more verbal in Ganryu Island about what's going on, they still pretty much buy into it.

The pacing of this movie is weird; the final battle between Kojiro and Musashi doesn't begin until 6 minutes before the end of the movie. Remember, this fight is the climax not just to this movie, but to three other movies, totalling 300 minutes of screen time. I would have liked a longer final duel. But even at six minutes, this sequence is very satisfying and visually beautiful. The two samurai fight on a sandy beach on Ganryu Island, facing west towards the mainland, at sunset. This must have taken a very long time to film, as the shots are in sequence, with the sun slowly dropping during their fight. (Actually, I just rewatched it, and the sun does go back up a bit in the last shot. But for the most part the continuity is right). They would have had about a ten minute window to shoot every day. For some shots, they would have had seconds: there's a shot where ToshirĂ´ Mifune's head perfectly blocks the sun, then he steps to the side, blinding Kojiro. Good luck getting that right.The light is this incredible soft pink, and as the sun goes under the mainland, it picks out trees on the hills across the ocean; it's fucking great.. The camera is shooting right into the sun most of the time, which I'm not sure how they accomplished; but with the exception of one matte shot, it all seems to really be outdoors. It's hard to fake an ocean.

The other strange thing about the last sequence is that it has lens flares, which I was led to believe everybody avoided like the plague until the late sixties/early seventies. Not that you could avoid them, shooting into the sun; maybe they decided it was worth it. Last thing about this: I haven't seen Kill Bill Vol. II, but I read the script a few years back. Isn't the last fight in that on a beach in Malibu at sunset?

Last thing: you know the scene in The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi catches flies with chopsticks? That's a straight lift from this movie.


Anonymous said...

All in all, I thought The Samurai Trilogy was moderately engaging. These three films are pretty much all about the narrative, interesting enough to hold my attention all the way through, told in a conventional, straightforward manner. Along the way we are treated to some exquisite imagery, well-staged action sequences, and a classic final confrontation between Musashi and Kojiro. But do you have any idea why the fatal blow in so many of these duels takes place off camera? It happens several times throughout, including the climax to the trilogy (although in the final duel this lends a nice element of suspense to the sequence).

Labeling Kojiro a villain is not entirely accurate. “Rival” might be a better term. Musashi and Kojiro both have the same aspirations, but they have chosen different paths. Although Kojiro is certainly ruthless in baiting Musashi, and has no regrets when it comes to killing, if I understand the story being told Kojiro is of his time and Musashi is the exception to the rule. This is one reason why Musashi is remembered. And Kojiro has some redeeming traits: in Samurai III he buys Akemi her freedom from the brothel and he is capable of a loving relationship with Omitsu.

Nudity doesn’t normally catch me off guard, but it was surprising to see a bare boob in a film from 1956. So I’m wondering, did Japan (or any other country for that matter) have anything analogous to Hollywood’s Production Code?

And finally, The Samurai Trilogy is bare-bones Criterion: so-so prints and no extras, unlike anything that precedes it in the catalogue. They market these as a box set now, but all three films could stand some restoration work and some commentaries. And including a copy of The Book of Five Rings in the box set would be a nice touch.

Okay, no avoiding it now…sallying forth to Salo.

Matthew Dessem said...


Good point re: Kojiro and Musashi being in some sense from different times. It's been so long since I've seen these, though, that the narrative has faded a bit in my memory, and as you point out, that's the main thing going on, so forgive me not having anything interesting to say about them right now. Here's some info on EIRIN, the Japanese movie censorship board. It looks like it was undergoing a reorganization about the time this film was released, so maybe it fell through the cracks, or maybe their system allowed nudity.

As far as bare-bone releases go, there are several more ahead of you. One of them, thankfully, is Salò; I don't think I could have stood a commentary track. Good luck with that!