Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple [続宮本武蔵 一乗寺の決闘] (1955)

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Koji Tsuruta, Mariko Okada, Kaoru Yachigusa, Michiyo Kogure, Mitsuko Mito, Akihiko Hirata, Daisuke Kato, Kuroemon Onoe, Sachio Sakai, Yu Fujiki, Machiko Kitagawa, Ko Mihashi, Kokuten Kodo, Eiko Miyoshi, Eijiro Tono, Kenjin Iida

Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Expectations: High. I thought it was OK when I saw it a number of years ago, but after rewatching the first, I’m stoked.

Like Samurai I, I had seen this film many years ago, but re-watching it confirmed to me that I had never really seen it. I had watched its battles and I had taken in its sounds, but its power was lost on me, an action-hungry teen looking for the next Asian thrill. I remember expecting that by including “duel” in the title, it would be the action film I had wanted the first to be. I also remember being disappointed with it, so much so that I never watched the third film at all. But those thoughts of days long gone have been wiped away, as I have seen Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple with new, more careful eyes.

Picking up the threads of Samurai I, Duel at Ichijoji Temple tells not just Musashi’s story, but that of his old companion Matahachi and the mother/daughter that sheltered them in the first film, his love Otsu, and a small selection of brand new characters. The film isn’t all that long, so focusing on telling everyone’s concurrent stories makes the focus drift a bit from Musashi. This is a definite flaw of Samurai II, but it creates a rich tapestry surrounding him that eventually grows into an integral part of the tale. Looking back on the film, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective a story without the supporting characters, but actually watching some of their storylines made me lose interest in the moment.

Immediately the most apparent difference between this and the first film are the locations. While Samurai I was all shot on location, Samurai II is mostly backlot sets and fabrications. It still looks great, but it just doesn’t have the same fantastic look and feel of the original. There are places where real locations were used, and they look every bit as stunning as the first film, but they are a rare treat instead of an entire feast. This aspect reminded me a lot of the Shaw Brothers approach to filmmaking so I didn’t mind it much, but the shift from the original is visually jarring.

Action-wise it’s very much like the original with small bursts of action amidst a sea of melodramatic women swooning at Toshiro Mifune (seriously, every woman he meets falls deeply in love with him). But these small bursts are much more operatic and feel like the set-pieces you might expect from a samurai film. Here I think it’s interesting to note that Inagaki is credited as being one of the creators and shapers of the samurai genre. His first films in the genre go all the way back to the late 1920s, and this Samurai trilogy (itself a color remake of Inagaki’s 1940s Musashi trilogy) is regarded as cementing in place some of the genre’s traditions (as well as being the genre’s first big success in the West). So with this in mind, it’s easy to see why this series feels a little different from the crop of films I’m used to via the samurai cinema of the ’60s and ’70s.

Anyway, before I got sidetracked I was talking about the action. Not only does the film open with a stunning duel and contain many moments of action along the way, the title duel is not just any one-on-one duel. It’s actually Musashi vs. 80 dudes, but before your blood gets pumping too much, remember that this is the 1950s. So you won’t find any gore or blood, and even the 80-man duel is a bit of an exaggeration given the way things play out. But I don’t want to rob the scene of its power, because it is incredibly entertaining and exciting. The battle plays out without background music, and is scored only by the sounds of 80 scared men going up against one fearless one. As the camera pulls far overhead, Musashi backs his way down a small strip of land separating rice paddies. The horde of men slowly trudge towards him in the mud, and the reckless fools who get too close receive a flash of cold steel and die with a quick splash in shallow water.

So as Samurai I was all about the calming of Takezo’s spirit, Samurai II is about the honing of that spirit. Now he’s a reserved, thoughtful swordsman, but he’s still ruled by his strength. Musashi has much soul-searching and training ahead of him, and in this film we see him expand his mind through painting, conversation, and, to some degree, love. The ending brings together the impromptu teachings of all the people Musashi has met during the film, showing once again that the movie is not about thrills, but about personal enrichment. He may have learned to channel his reckless energy into something useful (an unmatched skill with the sword), but here he learns that unparalleled energy and strength do not mean he has arrived at the end of his training. Musashi needs the yang to go with his yin; he needs to hone both sides of his circular spirit to achieve all that he can be. The film entertains, but it also reminds us of the power of personal enrichment, and the peace it can bring to life.

Samurai II is also just as tragic as the first film, if not more so. Matahachi is given a particularly sad string of events, and is a reminder of how a promising young person can easily stray from the path of righteousness. He is a perfect opposite to Musashi’s character, and it’s fascinating to see the men these two characters grow into as the series progresses. The ending is also crushingly tragic, made even more hard-hitting by the fact that just a few minutes earlier it seemed as if a fairly happy ending was in store for our hero. I look forward to finally seeing Samurai III for the first time, but I will also be sad to see this trilogy, and the story of these characters, end. I just might have to hunt down Tomu Uchida’s 1960s, five-film take on the tale sometime soon.