Appreciation: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

What Hiroshi Inagaki manages to pull off with the third episode in the samurai trilogy is nothing short of remarkable.

Appreciation: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Photo: Janus Films

Generally speaking, the third installment of a trilogy is problematic. Often, as in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there is a tendency towards what might be called geographic and storyline inbreeding. Consider the return to Tattoine in Return of the Jedi, as well as the return to a second Death Star along with the dwindling blood lines between the principle characters in that story. Or consider the return to the desert in the Last Crusade, as well as the lame rehashing of the formerly supporting characters of Sallah and Marcus Brody.

The inbreeding inclination can actually be attributed to a more fundamental tendency in the final film to celebrate the trilogy’s concepts and characters under the assumption that the audience has come to know and accept them. Why did the audience have to learn how Indiana got his scar on his chin, or how he came to use a whip or why he developed ophiophobia? These things were cleverly explained in a matter of seconds, but such revelations had the adverse effect of diminishing the exotic aura of Indiana’s world. Inagaki chose not to bog himself down in such trifles. Duel at Ganryu Island provides an expansive and riveting conclusion to the samurai trilogy by providing fresh scenery, resolving most of the subplots without fixating on them and building up the dramatic dichotomy between the two central characters, both powerfully and brilliantly portrayed, that are destined to clash in the trilogy’s climax.

To create an expansive sense for the trilogy’s world, each film offers a varied and non-repeating progression of settings. In Musashi Miyamoto, there are a lot of on location shots showing the hills around Miyamoto village, the village itself, the battleground of Sekigahara, the nearby hill country where Oko and Akemi lived and Himeji castle. Duel at Ichijoji Temple employs more sets showing Iga prefecture and Kyoto and the surrounding areas, including the Ichijoji temple grounds. Ganryu Island does not revisit any of those places, but instead introduces us to the ancient capital city of Nara, the new bustling capital of Edo, Hoten Field in Shimosa on the Kanto plain and, of course, Ganryu Island. The distinction of the Kanto plain is particularly striking as that area contrasts greatly to the forests and hills shown in the previous films. In short, Duel at Ganryu Island comes across as a fresh new movie concluding the trilogy instead of a revisiting the same locales in the previous films to tie it all up.

The storylines, too, are ably resolved in a way that does not deter the film from reaching its primary climax (something the novel fares less well at doing partly because it juggled dozens of characters over a serialized format). Remnants of the previous films are shucked away when needed: there is no mention of Miyamoto village or the folks that remained there; no characters from the Yoshioka school are brought back, with the exception of Toji Gion; Takuan is not shown at all and neither is Matahachi. In essence, those subplots and storylines were adequately concluded in Duel at Ichijoji Temple. There is a slightly convoluted sequence towards the end of the first film to set up the subplots for the second film, which comes across as a little confusing for a western audience, though, no doubt the Japanese audience, familiar with the story, followed it with considerable ease. At one point in the third film, Inagaki clever inserts a story within a story, which echoes that of the Seven Samurai. Call it the Single Samurai. This interior story nicely wraps up the fate of one stray Yoshioka character (Toji Gion) while progressing the character development of Musashi at the same time.

Duel at Ganryu Island, though, is principally about the intersection of two extraordinary fencers: Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki. Everything in the story builds up to their inevitable duel. Inagaki impresses the greatness of these two men right out of the gate during the credits where his camera slowly and tightly climbs up the details of a statue of Basara, one of the Twelve Heavenly Generals guarding Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha of medicine). The implication is that this film is about god-like men that are towering figures in Japanese history. Inagaki’s director credit is shown over the fiery intense face of Basara.

The story opens at the majestic Shiraito Falls. Kojiro stands alone, bemoaning the injustice facing his sword, Clothes Rod—a deceptively long nodachi-styled blade that is about 20cm longer than the average katana (something he uses to his great advantage).

“Clothes Rod, my poor sword,” his thoughts go, “your owner, such a fencer, is still unrecognized despite his great skill. His dream remains unattained!”

“Blind fools!” he shouts, drawing his sword and spins around in a slicing fashion.

The camera pans up from a swallow cut in half, dead on the river rocks, to show Akemi, some short distance away, staring in horror at the bloody carcass. She stands up and approaches the dead creature—her bells ringing in alarm.

“Poor swallow!” she laments.

“Not just anyone can do that,” Kojiro says smugly and confidently, putting Clothes Rod back in its sheath. “Swallow Turn Swing….I’ll kill Musashi with it.”

Kojiro’s overwhelming vanity has made him into an extremely cold and unnerving individual.

“Why must you kill him? You’re a devil,” Akemi protests and then, in an effort to preserve Musashi’s life (such is her unrequited devotion to Musashi, as well as the assumption that Kojiro will kill him) she promises Kojiro she will never mention Musashi’s name again if he will simply forget about him.

“Conceited girl! I’m not after him because of you. He’s good. He’s my only match in this country today…My dream is to fight him. He must dream it too.” Kojiro’s face is staring dreamily into space. His coldness sends Akemi running away in panic, but not before Kojiro, knowing that she is running off in search of Musashi, bids her to tell him not to wantonly trifle with his life before he and Kojiro can face each other.

Like Musashi, Kojiro seeks perfection. Only, he is seeking a different type of perfection, one that is almost entirely void of humanity. In the second film he receives a certificate from a prominent fencing school indicating that Kojiro is a man of considerable skill and fighting prowess. His credentials tend to be founded on official letterhead, unlike Musashi who spends the first film as an outlaw and the latter films roaming the country training himself. In his own arrogant way, Kojiro is a rebel, but one that stays in aristocratic circles. He’s fashionable to the point of giving off an effeminate air and he always wears a crisp stylish kimono. He is semi-engaged to Chief Retainer ___’s daughter, Omitsu, yet he is somehow still an outsider.

It is through Chief Retainer ___ that Kojiro finds an audience with Lord Hosokawa, applying for the prestigious job as the Lord’s fencing instructor. He is challenging one of Hosokawa’s retainers, Okaya. For the match, Kojiro is using a wooden katana, and Okaya is using a lance with a protective covering over the spear head. Kojiro insists that Okaya remove the cover, but refuses to switch to his real sword. Okaya protests, but Lord Hosokawa, intrigued by the courage of this man brought in by Chief Retainer ___, tells Okaya to do as Kojiro insists. However, during the match, Kojiro uses a little too much force and permanently cripples Okaya, whose lance pierces the Hosokawa crest printed on a banner.

“He overdid it!,” Chief Retainer ___ complains later after returning home after the match, “I was embarrassed.”

In an adjacent room, Omitsu asks Kojiro how the match went.

“Not too well,” he explained and related the events to her. “No Lord will hire a man that cripples one of his vassals…..I do not think I did anything wrong, but others will see it differently.”

Thus we see that Kojiro is realistic, yet sees his skill as something that should trump every other consideration. When he visits Okaya, we do not know if he is doing so out of genuine compassion (his curious sense of honor, pride-based as it is, somehow still allows for this possibility), or whether it is simply a show for Lord Hosokawa. Regardless, Hosokawa is impressed when he hears the news that Kojiro has paid the vassal a visit and decides to hire him.

Unbeknownst to Kojiro during this whole affair is that another of Hosokawa’s Chief Retainers, Sado (Takashi Shimura) has been recommending that Musashi fill the position of fencing instructor. But Sado has never met Musashi and only knows the man by his reputation as a peerless swordsman. In contrast to Kojiro, who sought the position, Musashi sought to avoid it.

When we first see Musashi in Duel at Ganryu Island, he is in Nara, at the Horyuji Temple, where he and Jotaro are among many bystanders watching a martial arts contest put forth by the Hozoin Temple Priest. A stocky priest, Agon, has been whipping challenger after challenger with his lance, until running out of contestants. He asks the crowd for more challengers, but nobody comes forward. Musashi is content to simply watch. After awhile, Agon proclaims himself the victor and the crowd, including Musashi, begins to disperse. Then suddenly, Jotaro shouts at Agon, who quickly turns and approaches the young boy.

“I admire your spirit. You insulted me audaciously!” he says, “you challenged, now fight!”

Jotaro is frightened and does not want to fight. Musashi steps in and pleads humbly to Agon to forgive the boy, but Agon refuses. Musashi gets down on his knees and apologizes for the boy. But Agon, still angered, thrusts his lance several times, just missing Musashi. After exhausting all efforts of diplomacy, Musashi grabs the lance and defensively battles Agon to a standstill. While the two men match strength, Priest Nikkan (the same priest at the beginning of Duel at Ichijoji Temple) intervenes. He tries to convince Agon to stop, but Agon refuses, even after he realizes that he is fighting Musashi. Agon mounts one final attempt to gain control of the lance but is forced to the ground by Musashi, who then places his hand on his sword, unsure where the fight might be headed. Agon, stays on the ground. Priest Nikkan explains that this is no match and proclaims Agon as the victor for the day’s contest. Musashi easily accepts it.

Musashi has matured. His character in the previous films would not have watched the contest idly and certainly would not have attempted to apologize for Jotaro. Nor would he have accepted Prince Nikkan’s confirmation of Agon as the victor. But that was then. If there is any question to Musashi’s flowering into greatness, then Prince Nikkan answers it that night while having tea with Musashi:

“I marvel at your perfection!” he says, “Power alone won’t make an accomplished samurai. He must be strong. At the same time he must be just.”

Musashi, accepting the sage words offers: “I want to be able to fight without regrets. My past encounters were full of them.”

“Errantry has its points,” the priest says. “Your suffering will polish your soul.”

Priest Nikkan then tells Musashi that his fencing feats have caught the eye of Lord Yagyu, who, along with Hosokawa, is a close adviser to the Shogun. He encourages Musashi to go to Edo and visit with him. It should be noted that while the film never shows Yagyu or follows up on his interest with Musashi, the Lord Hosokawa does have an interest in acquiring the service of Musashi at the same time he is considering Kojiro.

So Musashi heads to Edo. Inagaki is extremely efficient at showing Edo as a bustling new city. Whereas the opening shots of Kyoto (in the second film) and Nara show temples and pagodas, noting their cultural significance, Edo shows a busy street swarming with commerce. This is the new capital of Japan under Tokugawa rule and recently its most crowded city. When Musashi reaches Edo, he seems reluctant to petition the Yagyu clan regarding a position. Instead, he stays in a seedy inn (a far cry from the carefully landscaped serene housing that Kojiro inhabits) carving boddhivesta figures. One night, while he and Jotaro are eating dinner amidst the flies in their room, a swarm of rogues and rascals are noisily gambling in an adjacent room. Musashi and Jotaro are clearly frustrated. Jotaro opens the sliding door and tells the men to be quiet. Aghast at the ballsy demand issued from the little kid, the group is silenced. Jotaro returns to his meal.

“They became quiet,” Musashi observes, “You are persuasive.” Just then, the leader of the rogues, a horse thief, slides open the shoji.

“Samurai, stop eating,” he says. “Confess you are scared. Don’t pretend that you’re calm at heart.”

But Musashi does not stop eating, nor does he take much notice of the horse thief. He, instead, begins to pick the flies off of his noodles and garments with his chopsticks. After catching half a dozen flies, he hands his chopsticks to Jotaro and tells him to wash them. The horse thief and the crowd behind him are awestruck. Knowing that this is no ordinary samurai, they flee. The horse thief turns up the next morning, no longer a rogue but a student of Musashi. Thus does Musashi find ways around violence to resolve matters.

Kojiro and Musashi first cross paths after Kojiro kills several men in a duel. The fight occurs on the street just below the room where Musashi is staying. The noisy crowd arouses Musashi from carving his bodhisattva figures. He goes out to check on the commotion, but Kojiro is gone by the time he reaches the scene. He left behind four dead fencers and a note:

“The four are students of Obana Strategic School. He who is responsible for this is Kojiro Sasaki of Isarago”

Musashi is intrigued by the apparent skill of Kojiro. One stroke each, and they all lay dead.

He takes the bodies to the Obana school, but the master refuses to accept that they are his men. Musashi is taken aback at the man’s foolish pride, but offers his apology for bringing the corpses in error. As he carts the dead bodies away, the younger Obana disciples follow and beg him to turn the bodies over to them.

“I will not!” Musashi says, “the dead men will not like it. Fortunately, I know several sutras. I’ll bury them.”

And so he does. While reading the sutras, Kojiro waits nearby, ready for the moment that he can finally confront Musashi. However, Musashi, aware that he will be seen as defending the Obana school, suggests that they meet at a later time, at a different spot, where he can fight freely. Kojiro agrees to meet him the next evening.

During that time, another retainer for Lord Hosokawa, Chief Retainer Sado (Takashi Shimura) who had been recommending Musashi for the same post that Kojiro eventually received, finally finds Musashi in the hotel. Through their conversation, Sado learns that Musashi will be dueling Hosokawas new man. Sada pleads with Musashi that, if he should win, he should accept the offer to become Hosokawa’s vassal. This presents a delemna for Musashi, who still feels unready to serve under a master.
Kojiro waits at the spot of the duel only to receive a message from Musashi:

“I have decided to leave on a journey. Let me please postpone the promised match for a year. When we meet again, I will be quite ready.”

How the men spend that year further draws the contrast between them. Kojiro, employed with Hosokawa, enjoys the fruits of the upper class (though still remaining a serious and dedicated fencer). Musashi travels to the Kanto plain, builds a modest hut with Jotaro and the old horse thief, and takes up farming near a settlement plagued by brigands. This period in the film is the story within a story segment that echoes a little from the Seven Samurai. Through Musashi’s aid, the other farmers are able to rid the yoke of the brigands. When the story plays out, it has been one year and the time has come for the rivals to finally meet in what is to be one of the most famous duels of all time.

Again, the method of travel taken by each speaks to their differing ways. Kojiro travels in a royal procession, while Musashi travels alone. He sends a message to Kojiro and Lord Hosokawa that he will arrive on time at Ganryu Island in his own boat.

During the boat trip to Ganryu Island, Musashi takes a large wooden oar and trims it down with his sword.

“What’s that for, Sir?” asks his boatswain.

“For the duel.”

“Fight with a wooden one?”

“I like the size” replies Musashi. “Listen, if I lose and fall… take my body back to Otsu.”

Musashi times his arrival with the tide and the coming sunrise. He disembarks and wades through the waters to confront his foe. Kojiro is on the beach waiting. They lock stares; an atmosphere of inevitability hangs in the air. Kojiro takes the higher ground. Musashi remains at the water’s edge, the surf washing around his feet. Three times they attack. “Clothes Rod” clacks against the wooden oar without a definitive result. They maneuver back and forth along the shore in parallel tracks. Musashi brilliantly positions himself in front of the rising sun. As he moves, it peeks out from around his head in glaring flashes that blind Kojiro. The time has come. The two warriors move in for one final clash. When they leap back, Musashi has a bloody gash on his forehead. But you should see the other guy. He stands erect, the life flowing out of his body. It was Musashi’s sword that dealt the death blow. Kojiro teeters and then collapses, a smile of satisfaction on his dead lips.“He was the best fencer I will ever encounter” Musashi tells Lord Hosokawa’s men before turning and walking out to his boat. “I’m so glad. I’m so glad” rejoices our hero’s ferryman as their boat journeys out to sea, on a return voyage to Otsu we can only hope. The duel between the cold skill of Kojiro and the organic nature of Musashi is over. Musashi Miyamoto can only weep.In Japanese history, the island was named Ganryu, after Kojiro Sasaki (he was also known as Kojiro Ganryu) as it was the place of his death. Thus, the Japanese audience was well aware of the ending beforehand. From the beginning shots of episode one, to the final duel of episode three, twelve years elapse. And in the time, Musasashi makes the transformation from a wild hot-headed beast to Japan’s greatest samurai.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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