Despite its title, Samurai II, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, is not really an action film. It has more than its share of action and violence, to be sure—the duel between Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and the chain-and-sickle master that opens the movie is not only one of the more violent single-combat sequences in Inagaki’s Trilogy, but displays the two-sword fighting technique that the real Musashi mastered. And the attempted ambush of Musashi by eighty followers of Seijuro Yoshioka is surely a record imbalance of forces in a combat scene. But the movie mainly deals with Musashi’s quest for spiritual enlightenment; the amount of swordplay involved assures the film’s appeal to audiences with no knowledge of Japanese history.
The body count in Samurai II is far higher than that of Samurai I, and, of necessity, the carnage is more engrossing. Most of the victims in Samurai I are brigands and ruffians who pretend to be nothing more—their deaths are justified and depicted in a brisk, utterly unreflective fashion. Samurai II, by contrast, is filled with baseless acts of maiming and slaughter committed upon members of the warrior class, and upon innocent women unfortunate enough to fall prey to the machinations of those around them. The violence is merely a manifestation of the disgraceful behavior that Musashi finds in people who should know better—it necessarily demands greater attention and is treated as such by the director.
Where Samurai I dealt with Musashi’s finding faith in something larger than himself (and a higher purpose to his life and the strength with which he is endowed), Samurai II deals with Musashi’s progress from warrior to samurai, and the failure of his fellow samurai—the entire Yoshioka school, in fact—to adhere to the principles and beliefs that are supposed to guide them. While Musashi moves toward a gentler, more thoughtful use of his sword, his rivals deteriorate into undisciplined thugs, and the Yoshioka school is transformed into rabble. Musashi learns from his challenges and combat, while his rivals are destroyed by those challenges.
The reason for the seeming conflict between Samurai II’s violent visual content and the deeply spiritual quest at its center is fairly obvious: Musashi can only reach his problems of spirit through a gauntlet of threats. He is a pilgrim—a Japanese version of Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight—in a world filled with temptations and distractions: Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), waiting patiently by the bridge for two years while Musashi is away; Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure) at the house of pleasure, a celebrated courtesan who comes to respect Musashi in a manner almost equal to that of the priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe); the tragic Akemi (Mariko Okada), also longing for Musashi, and her resulting rape by Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihiko Hirata); Musashi’s once loyal friend Matahachi (Sachio Sakai), now a cowardly opportunist, who inadvertently finds himself caught in the conflict between Musashi and his enemies; and the mysterious Kojiro (Koji Tsurata), who orchestrates the violence surrounding Musashi while waiting for the time when he can challenge him directly.
As the middle installment of a trilogy, Samurai II is devoid of major resolutions, compensating for their absence with fierce battle scenes and spellbinding dueling sequences—the temple ambush is a classic of the genre. The actors carry much of the rest, with Mifune’s convincing stoicism balanced by the vivid emotion presented by Yachigusa, Okada, and Kogure as the women around him; Sakai’s painful weaseling as Matahachi, the agonized soul-searching by Akihiko Hirata (best known to western audiences as the doomed, one-eyed doctor in Godzilla), and Tsurata’s understated portrayal of the sinister Kojiro. It does everything that the center of a trilogy should, setting up the elements for the final section of the story—Musashi’s potential for nobility, the cunning and power of his nemesis Kojiro, and the pain and peril besetting Otsu and Akemi, as the two women caught in the midst of their death struggle.