director Hiroshi Inagaki
The final segment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, is the culmination of a masterful epic. I had watched the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) a couple weeks before and then watched Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) following up with the finale the very next day. It’s actually one of those film series that really works best if seen all together, in one sitting, or within direct proximity to one another. it’s a single story, a fairly complicated one, whose cohesion relies upon the others.
It follows the path of Musashi Miyamoto from poor rebel to enlightenment and mastery. For this finale, the story focuses on how Miyamoto (Toshirô Mifune) learns to go back to the earth. He stops looking for fights and moves to a small village and takes up farming. He fights against brigands when they come, but continues to eschew females (who all fall for him). Ultimately, his nemesis, Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta) (who should be his good friend except samurais, like gunslingers it seems, have to fight each other to prove their worth), sets up the ultimate battle.
The battle takes place on a beach at sunset, the most masterful sequence using natural light in the series. Inagaki employs natural settings and natural light throughout the film when he can, achieving some amazing moments, while occasionally sometimes darkened scenes. When it works, it’s brilliant. The finale is brilliant in its simplicity and setting.
I’ve been (rightly or wrongly) thinking of this series as sort of the “height” of the traditional samurai film. The production was doubtlessly expensive, starring the classic Mifune, featuring the traditional values of the genre: nobility, spirituality, honor. I need to do some more reading to see if this is really true or not. Judging from the samurai films of the 1960’s and 1970’s that I’ve seen, it appears, like the Western, to have become a genre ripe for social commentary, inverting classic tropes, contrasting well-established tradition.
One of those factors is the role of women in these films. It’s either the “whore” or the “virgin”, both pathetic and limited in their way, in their parts they play, in their range of experience. Certainly, these roles in the Edo period for women were probably greatly limited, controlled, and subjugated, but the film never looks to comment on this, rather it seems to perpetuate or at least not to evaluate it on its terms. Again, probably something of equal in your traditional Western, too, in the 1950’s.
A great epic. See it all together if you can.