The duels, actions and adventures of Miyamoto
Musashi have been related in masses of books and films over the years. The
first film about him was made in 1928 and perhaps the most famous was the
trilogy directed by Hiroshi Inagaki starring Toshiro Mifune in the 1950s.
Musashi was a real historical figure living from 1584 to 1645 who became
the most famous swordsman in Japanese history and innovated the two sword
style - i.e. a sword in each hand. He fought over sixty duels during his
life and never lost. His first duel was fought at 13 years of age when he
fought a samurai with a stick, knocking him down and then beating him to
death. He was considered a Ronin, a masterless samurai but in truth he was
never really a samurai - more a master swordsman who from time to time entered
into service for a Lord to fight in a battle. He fought at the Battle of
Sekigahara on the losing side, one of the most significant battles in Japanese
history that established the Tokugawa shogunate (and is also the subject
of many films).
Duels were a part of life for samurai back then - from different schools
of swordfighting - and sort of like our old time Westerns, once you had a
reputation you would be challenged by someone who wanted a reputation. And
since Musashi was a Ronin without a school or clan behind him, he was considered
an affront to the samurai code and often after winning a duel supporters
of the dead man would follow up and try to kill him. His most famous duel
was against Sasaki Kojirō on Ganryu Island which was the title of the third
film in the trilogy. Sasaki was a very well regarded swordsman on his own
and well liked. His character has also appeared in many films. The actor
who plays him in this film also played him in other films. And the actor
who portrays Musashi did the same in other films.
This film begins with the duel at Ganryu Island and Musashi (Chiezô
Kataoka) kills Sasaki (Chiyonosuke Azuma) and immediately leaves on a small
boat. This angers the followers of Sasaki as well as Sasaki's fiancée
and for much of the rest of the film they follow Musashi and attempt to kill
him. Musashi is portrayed here as a middle aged man (though in truth in real
life Musashi was only 30 years old) with many duels already behind him and
torn between settling down and marrying his old girlfriend Oko (Yumiko Hasegawa)
and continuing his life-long obsession to lead an ascetic life so that he
can refine his skills to perfection.
This is an old-fashioned samurai film shot in black and white with dollops
of drama, aborted romance and action. The action is blood free but we still
see the seeds of the more violent samurai films of the 1960s - primarily
quick slashing sword fights but also ending in a large scale fight of one
against many. Actor Chiezô Kataoka was quite well known at the time
for being in period and samurai films with his rugged but not handsome face.
As Musashi he plays him honorably with no desire to get into pointless challenges
but when the time comes he doesn't hesitate.