Samurai III, Duel at Ganryu Island, is the last and best part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Trilogy. In contrast to the earlier, more action-oriented Samurai I and II, this final section shows its hero Musashi (Toshiro Mifune) struggling with questions as much as proponents, the most important of which is: what makes a warrior worthy of renown—strength, and the number of victories, or something more?
A victor in sixty duels, Musashi has become known throughout Japan. His only rival is the ambitious young samurai Kojiro (Koji Tsurata). The two men are in constant struggle, parrying and thrusting at each other throughout Samurai III, although they don’t meet in combat until the film’s final minutes. The differences between these two antagonists are reflected in their methods—having proved himself in combat, Musashi seeks a means of coping with the regret that he feels over the deaths he has caused, while Kojiro slays and maims without compunction, baiting Musashi by slaughtering four hapless samurai. Musashi turns his back on the world in disillusionment, intending to become a farmer in a remote village and reflect on the inadequacies of a warrior’s life, while Kojiro goes into the service of the Shogun. Musashi drives off a band of murderous brigands, but at a terrible cost, and, in the process, achieves a peculiarly humble form of grandeur (in a manner similar to that of the heroes of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). Meanwhile, Kojiro has become famous using his sword on behalf of the Shogun. Their long-delayed duel is finally set and fought on a small island.
If Samurai III lacks the sheer kinetic energy of Samurai I, or the spectacular combat depicted in Samurai II, it makes up for these deficiencies with excellent performances and a superb script, which not only ties up both of the earlier films’ loose ends but features some engaging grace notes. The best (and funniest) of these is the scene in which Musashi, interrupted from his meal by a ruffian, shocks the man into silence by showing off his skill—not with his sword, but by plucking flies out of the air in mid-flight with a pair of chopsticks. Toshiro Mifune’s handling of the scene is so low-keyed as to make it even funnier. Other moments worth savoring include the duel between lance and wooden staff, and Musashi’s first meeting with the brigands, in which he manages to kill one and drive off two more, though he is unarmed at the time.
The Trilogy concluded by Samurai III is a vibrant reconciliation of a legendary historical figure with modern sensibilities. The real Musashi was a man of many parts, by turns cruel and brutal, even by the standards of his own time, but also articulate and reflective, a gifted writer and painter. He did, indeed, have a vendetta against the Yoshioka school, in the course of which he injured and humbled its leader Seijuro (both depicted in Samurai II), and killed Seijuro’s two brothers; and he defeated Kojiro Sasaki on a small island in the year 1612, as shown in Samurai III, where Inagaki’s source, Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi Miyamoto, leaves off. Musashi later participated in the 1614 siege of Osaka castle against the surviving elements of the Ashikaga regime, on whose side he had previously fought, and a quarter century after that was a participant in the destruction of the Christian community on the island of Kyushu. And yet Musashi fought many of his duels with a wooden sword, and after the duel on Ganryu island, it was his only weapon. During the final two years of his life, he withdrew to an existence of monklike hardship and self-denial, and wrote Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), as a legacy to those who would follow him. It remains in print in both Japan and America some 350 years later, a standard text for both martial arts and business students.
Hiroshi Inagaki and Toshiro Mifune succeed admirably in capturing the different facets of this man, and presenting them in a context accessible to modern viewers. The embellishments to history derived from the novel and screenplay are merely a variation on a maxim put forth by Inagaki’s western colleague John Ford: “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”
Bruce Eder, who has written for the All-Music Guide and Current Biography, has also produced and narrated several Criterion Collection laserdiscs and DVDs.