By Jeffrey Hill and Wagstaff
Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan and Anakin are dueling on Mustafar, the volcano planet. The two have been trading saber blows for several minutes while balanced on some debris floating down a lava river. Obi-Wan springs onto the steep sandy bank and turns to Anakin, still on the debris just below:
OBI-WAN: It's over, Anakin. I have the high ground.
ANAKIN: You underestimate my power!
Anakin leaps toward his master and is de-limbed faster than a processed chicken. The high ground did prove an advantage for Obi-Wan, but who could have blamed Darth Anni for thinking otherwise?
Throughout countless saber duels in the preceding five movies the high ground counted for nothing at all. In the Phantom Menace, for instance, Obi Wan leapt over Darth Maul, then reached for a saber and still managed to slice the dermatologically challenged Sith Lord in twain. A fat lot of good the high ground did Maul! Even Vader, with his animatronic limbs as reminders of Mustafar, still disregarded the high-ground axiom with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi—with nary a thought as to the consequences, as if the laws of fencing no longer applied to him. How does Vader manage to underestimate his own son, who he must have realized was the true Chosen One, without getting his head lopped off?
The point is that there may be talk of tactics in Star Wars, but little evidence of it in the fighting sequences. The choreography is supposed to entertain the audience, not rationalize the victor—and to that end it succeeds. But in another trilogy, long ago and far far away, the fight choreography is much more in tune with the spirit of the story. That epic, of course, is the story of Musashi Miyamoto. In the second installment of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, The Duel at Ichijoji Temple, the master director shows that he is unmatched at filming a sword fight—not just in a clean technical sense, but in conveying the emotions and thinking of the fighters.
The Duel at Ichijoji Temple opens at dusk on an exquisitely designed set, the wind howling tempestuously through the string section of the orchestra, the tufts of grass swaying. Musashi arrives to answer a challenge to duel Baiken, Iga prefecture's master of the kusari-gama, a nasty looking sickle-blade and weighted chain affair that is exotic and menacing. When the two face off, Baiken draws his sickle and spins the weight, which whistles with ominous timing. Musashi draws his katana while his foot shifts nervously, trying to maintain the optimum fighting position as he keeps a careful distance between himself and his skilled opponent. Baiken hurls the chain but misses as Musashi falls back and grabs his short sword, a subtle nod to the two-sword method that Musashi was known for and that he discussed in his fighting treatise, The Book of 5 Rings. The way he employs his second sword in this sequence suggests that it was this duel in particular where he came up with the two-sword concept. But more than that, it suggests that Musashi forged his fighting techniques through combat, adapting to an immediate expediency. It is worth noting that the real Musashi advocated the mastery of a variety of weapons over the perfection of a single weapon, something that the Inagaki films express not just in this opening fight sequence, but throughout the trilogy. Musashi alternates between various positions, first crossing his two swords in a defensive manner, then holding one sword in front and the other aloft, his face aflutter with sweaty glitches. He is a samurai that is constantly thinking, adapting and strategizing...living in the moment. There is nothing graceful about this duel. Baiken hurls the chain a second time and wraps it around Musashi's katana and arm, turning the battle into a tug of war that seemingly lasts for minutes, though actually just for a few seconds. Musashi curses and throws his short sword towards Baiken to disrupt his balance (another technique that Musashi was known for). Baiken backs up just off screen, the thrown sword in the foreground, and Musashi follows with the tip of his katana. The audience doesn't see it, but the fatal blow was struck. From a curious angle Baiken emerges back on screen, still in a fighting stance, only to fall slowly forward, his grip on the sickle firmly intact.
Watching the duel, an old priest (Priest Nikkan) offers an unfavorable assessment of Musashi's performance, much to Musashi's surprise:
Musashi: You mean I'm a poor fencer?
Priest Nikkan: Definitely
Musashi: But I won the duel.
Priest Nikkan: Of course...You are really strong, but you're not mentally relaxed. That means you may win in a match, but you are not yet a true samurai. You'll always remain just a tough man. Understand Musashi, swordsmanship means chivalry. Remember: a man cannot forever remain physically strong. You're strong. Decidedly too strong.
In this second film Musashi is not far removed from the same beast he was in the first one: passionate and powerful, but lacking humanity. His quest is not only to improve his fighting skill, but to learn restraint, humility and compassion. The one redeeming quality of Musashi, something that contrasts him to Kojiro Sasaki, his arch nemesis that he is destined to face in the third film (and who is first introduced in the second film), is that he trades arrogance as a self-proclaimed master for the humbleness of a student, intent on learning those human qualities that elude his nature. Both characters seek to hone their skills, but for very different reasons. Duel at Ichijoji Temple is often thought of as having more swordplay and less character development than the other two films in the trilogy, but that is only half true: there is more swordplay. However, Duel at Ichijoji Temple shows the very apex of Musashi's character arch. The Samurai Trilogy, if anything, is evenly spaced in this regard. Musashi's transformation into a true samurai is a long process, certainly incomplete midway through the story.
Yet Musashi is learning. Take, for example, his visit to a soul polisher in Kyoto. The polisher examines his sword, recognizing it as a product of the Hinzen school and remarks that it is a fine specimen. Noticing the nicks on the blade, he asks Musashi if they were from a kusari-gama. Musashi confirms that and through their brief discussion, the polisher realizes that Musashi killed Baiken in a duel. He places the sword in front of Musashi, crosses his arms in defiance and, looking away, says he will not polish the weapon, claiming: "I refuse to bother with killers disguised as swordsmen!" Musashi, feeling slighted, grabs his sword and storms off powerfully down the middle of the street, eventually slowing down as sober thoughts replace his raging emotions. He stops and returns to the polisher, laying his sword humbly before him, and urges the artisan to reconsider. The polisher sees this gesture as a mark of excellence and completely changes his tune. He still refuses to polish Musashi's soul, but this time it is out of his own humility. He directs Musashi to his master, who he says is the only soul polisher in the area that is worthy enough to do the job.
Duel at Ichijo is filled with short episodes such as that, showing Musashi breaking away from the inner beast. He listens to criticism. He observes other "ways". His time in the Kyoto pleasure district is brief in the film when compared to the novel, but still effectively reveals a man learning everything he can. Inagaki shows Musashi taking in a performance from Lady Hoshino, a famous floating world sensation of the era. Later, Inagaki shows Musashi trying his hand at painting and calligraphy. With Hollywood efficiency Inagaki expresses an important theme: Musashi's greatness is waxing.
Meanwhile, the Yoshioka fencing school is waning. Seijuro, the young headmaster of the school, is mediocre in every sense of the word and, as a result, the quality and discipline of the school has receded since the days when Seijuro's father was headmaster. Seijuro has a sense of honor, but is not strong enough to take decisive action or keep his sexual desires in check (evidenced by his unmet advances and eventual rape of Akemi). In a way, it is less a sense of honor than a sense of guilt. He is not adequate enough to lead his school and he knows it. As a result, he almost always maintains a sour and dour puss. Because of his inadequacies, he is surrounded by corrupt and usurping advisers that care less for the honor of the Yoshioka school than its perpetuation. More than anybody else, they are responsible for the bloodbath that lies just beyond the horizon.
On the melodramatic front, Seijuro seeks the affections of Akemi, who, along with her mother, Oko, and Matahachi, relocated to Kyoto peddling Akemi's young charms. Akemi pines for Musashi and has little intention of losing her virginity to Seijuro, even though Seijuro's disciple, Toji Gion (Daisuke Katô) has made arrangements with Oko for just that. While Akemi rebuffs the advances of Seijuro, Musashi is at Seijuro's dojo, whipping his pupils at a rate of two or three a minute. After a series of bouts, each new pupil trying to avenge that last, the camera cuts to an adjacent room where the wounded pupils lay groaning. One lifts his head: "Don't send him away alive! It's our disgrace!" I would think it'd be a bigger disgrace for Musashi to single-handedly lick the entire school, but then again, I wasn't raised on a bushido diet. Regardless, Musashi finally calls a halt to the madness and respectfully demands a duel with the head master.
But where is the young master?
Seijuro arrives late after a night of sake and numerous failed attempts to seduce Akemi. He clearly feels obligated to answer Musashi's call with honor when his disciples bring the visit to his attention, but he lacks the fortitude to prevent his disciples from trying to ambush the "backcountry fencer." As it happens, Musashi is no longer waiting in the chamber when they barge in with swords and declarations. Instead, they find a note expressing Musashi's regret that Seijuro was not available to accept his challenge and that he (Musashi) would be happy to duel at a time and place of Seijuro's choosing.
Through a series of plots and schemes, the Yoshioka disciples manage to detain Seijuro from actually meeting with Musashi, all the while devising ambushes that fail for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Musashi is simply a superior fencer. The school's credibility is just about gone when Denshichiro (Yu Fujiki), Seijuro's more able brother, who did not assume control of the school for vague reasons not addressed in the movie, returns from his travels to avenge the disgrace brought upon the Yoshioka name. Without the consent of Seijuro (who is, typically, powerless to stop his brother), Denshichiro challenges Musashi. After Denshichiro's death, Seijuro agonizes between survival and honor. As Sasaki Kojiro remarks to Seijuro: "It's a shame that your school should be marked by him."
Seijuro finally resolves to fight Musashi. Only, his disciples plot again: this time the entire school (about 80 men) conspire to ambush Musashi near Ichijoji temple. What follows is one of the greatest sword fights in cinematic history.
The legend of Musashi's battle with the Yoshioka school is well known to the Japanese, and it does appear to be based on some fact...enough, at least, that a monument (pictured above) was erected near the spot of the famous battle. Details vary greatly. Inagaki, following Yoshikawa's version, saw it unfolding this way:
Musashi bathes at the temple (some distance from the scene of the duel), purifying himself before game-time, still partially under the assumption that Seijuro will face him honorably. He starts to offer a prayer to the gods, but stops, proclaiming in his thoughts that while he respects the gods, he does not rely upon them. Through a series of developments not enumerated here, there are several peripheral characters present about the woods where the duel is set to take place: Takuan and Otsu, Jotaru, Matahatchi and Okemi, and Akemi. Believe it or not, Inagaki manages to weave many of these story threads in a manner that is less contrived than in the novel. Still, the important thing is that everybody is present to witness or to partially witness the upcoming feat. And it is a good thing they showed up, too, because Akemi knows that the school's usurping disciples have detained Seijuro in order to ambush Musashi. She finds Musashi at the temple, confesses her love, tells him about the plot to kill him and begs him to runaway with her. He, of course, rejects her plea, but is grateful that she has warned him of the ambush.
Instead of approaching the scene along the road, he diverts to an alternate route through a thicket of reeds and rice paddies, spotting the swarm of men waiting for him. He glances to the top of a nearby hill and sees a musketeer. He presses forward from the position of his choosing before approaching them in the open.
"I came as promised!" he shouts angrily as he confronts the men. After a short exchange and some drawn swords, the muskets, carefully kept out of range along with archers, fire and miss. Musashi kills a few men before fleeing the swarm. It is common in so many samurai or kung fu films to see a crowd of men inexplicably attack a surrounded hero one at a time, but Inagaki is always careful to show Musashi maintaining an advantageous position, rarely stopping to let his enemies catch up and gain position with their overwhelming force. Although the swordsmen may hesitate before attacking, they do attack in groups of twos and threes, only to be cut down in quick order. Musashi hacks and runs, hacks and runs....all the while thinking tactically, which leads him to draw his enemy into the nearby rice paddies, newly flooded in anticipation of planting (as with other things, even the rice cycle is accurately calibrated with the timeline of the story). He maintains the high ground, a small dry ridge between two flooded paddies. Only a couple of his pursuers can approach him on the dry ground while the rest are stuck in the flooded paddies, reduced to moving at a snail's pace. Killing the men that get too close, Musashi leads the rest midway into the paddies before he flees into the woods where he can confront them in even smaller groups. Inagaki shows Musashi cutting several men down and then condenses the action via a long tracking shot over a still and peaceful bog reflecting the serene forest canopy above, while the screams and calls of the men echo about to indicate that the hunt for Musashi continues.
Eventually, the camera cuts to a clearing in the forest, where a tired Musashi chances upon Seijuro. Musashi's ragged clothing and heavy panting indicate that the fight has gone on for some time and that he has whittled down the Yoshioka ranks considerably. By the time the two men finally meet, Seijuro looks clean and pressed, fresh for the fight.
"I am Seijuro. My men stopped me. Sorry for my delay."
"Is that right?" Musashi huffs.
"I am Yoshioka. I am not a coward."
"I am glad. I've been longing to meet you. I will defeat you!" Musashi declares angrily, his inner beast bubbling to the surface.
What follows is a standard samurai duel, more cat-like with anticipation than it is littered with the needless sword clanking that is so common in European fencing matches. The Japanese style of dueling is all about quick decisive action, more in tune with western gunfighters than swashbucklers, and this particular fight is no different. After several tense moments of staring at each other and establishing position, the two exchange blows. In a flash, the fight is over and Seijuro lies wounded on ground. Musashi moves in for the kill and the screen closes upon Mifune's face, turning violently red with his murderous sword raised high. Then the voices of his training echo in his conscious: "You are too strong"... "It's brutal force." ... "Swordsmanship is chivalry"...."You lack affection." He lowers his sword and leaves Seijuro to live in shame.
With startling efficiency, and with a commanding and convincing performance by Toshiro Mifune, Inagaki manages to express the very pith and spirit of Musashi's fighting philosophy as well as portray the considerable advancement of his character through his episode with the Yoshioka school.
The novel depicted Musashi's defeat of the Yoshioka school as not just a testament to his power as a warrior, but also something considered scandalous in various circles, being seen more as a barbaric slaughter than a magnificent victory. Inagaki wisely drops that element in his film to emphasize Musashi's progress on his personal quest. From the beginning duel with Baiken to the final duel with Seijuro, The Duel at Ichijo shows us a hero that is struggling to control his nature and who, when he lowers his sword against the defeated Seijuro, finally finds that control. His journey is not complete, but his progress is such that by the third installment, Musashi is ready to meet his destiny.
Jeffrey Hill is the art director for The House Next Door and the publisher of Liverputty. Wagstaff is a contributor to The House Next Door, Liverputty and Edward Copeland on Film. For more posts about samurai films visit Liverputty.