director Hiroshi Inagaki
Part two of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Duel at Ichijoji Temple expands the narrative of the first film, giving direction to where the story will culminate in the film’s final segment, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). Musashi Miyamoto (Toshirō Mifune) seeks to further his learnings and abilities as a great samurai, discovering more and more that the greatness of a samurai is not just in his skills and success in duels but in his own peace of mind. Meanwhile, he develops a rival in Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta), who sees Miyamoto as the one samurai that he must defeat, while the character of Matahachi (from the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1955)) fades away as a profligate drunk and fool.
Miyamoto continues to gain female adoration, of his own love Otsu, the courtesan Akemi, and even another very experienced courtesan. He also picks himself up a follower, a boy who wants to train alongside him. Miyamoto furthers his nobility and experience, his fan club, and more.
Typical of trilogies, the middle part bears the problem of neither beginning nor end as far as the larger narrative goes. It’s not such a problem for this film, really, other than the story keeps getting more and more complicated. It would probably be best to watch all three of these films in sequence together. I did follow up Samurai II with Samurai III so that helped.
As I noted about Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, the films are beautifully executed, and they seem like big budget studio productions at the height of a classic style. Inagaki uses both sets and locations for the film, varying back and forth with good cohesion. What is really striking about his outdoor shooting is his commitment to natural light. The culminating battle in Samurai II takes place at dusk, and as Miyamoto is ambushed by a craven group of samurai, he backs himself into a rice paddy as the light begins to fail. This technique of shooting in that “magic time” of dusk is further realized in the finale in the battle on the beach between the two heroes.
It’s great stuff, not quite as good as the first film, but great especially within the context of the whole.