Tuesday, 18 September 2012

THE SAMURAI TRILOGY Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Criterion Collection

Samurai I is a tough act to follow, but Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple delivers a thousand-fold.  When we last left Musachi Miyamoto, he'd become quite a skilled warrior and after some womanly dalliances, he declared his love to one very special lady, but in spite of this pulling at his heart strings, he decided to bugger off in search of his samurai mojo. This instalment features several spectacular duels, more romance, the return of Matahachi, our hero first meeting his ultimate nemesis and, if this isn't enough for you, he squares off against 80 - count 'em - 80 warriors. Will he survive? Well, as this is a trilogy, we certainly do hope so.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) *****

dir. Hiroshi Inagaki

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Koji Tsuruta, Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Okada, Michiyo Kogure, Mitsuko Mito, Akihiko Hirata, Kenjin Iida Eijiro Tono

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Planned feature film trilogies tend to suffer most from sagging middles with sporadic touches so inspired that they still compel viewers to eagerly anticipate the final instalment (if they're good, that is - unlike say, a certain overrated Chriostopher Nolan trilogy). The most recent and salient example of the old faithful narrative sinkhole effect is the theatrical cut of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers from 2002 (though not the extended home video version which proves that "longer" can actually quicken the pace of something).

The first part of Jackson's film trilogy of Tolkien's fantastical tall tale has the bonus of the origin story of the Ring's "Fellowship", whereas narratively, much time is spent in " The Two Towers with a lot of "to and fro" journeying that is only enlivened by a few astounding set-pieces. (And no, The Godfather Part II doesn't count as a middle because it really wasn't planned that way hence the genius of it and the disappointment generated by woeful, unnecessary Godfather III.)

Let us for a moment imagine Samurai I and III as beautiful thick-cut slices of Bagel World Caraway Seeded Rye Bread and Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple as nothing less than mouth-wateringly delectable Goldin's Montreal Smoked Meat - bursting with zesty peppercorn and pickling salt flavour and the scrumptious ooze of generously marbled beef fat (that you can get directly from the Goldin Boys in Toronto or dine exclusively upon at Free Times Cafe). While ace Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki might have never imagined his masterpiece of cinema favourably likened to a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich, I suspect that if he'd ever tasted one, he'd wholeheartedly agree. This movie is a corker of a samurai epic and still has the punch to thrill and delight audiences the world over.

Our tale begins with one of the best samurai duels in screen history (many of the others in this category are sprinkled throughout Inagaki's trilogy) Misashi (Toshiro Mifune) takes on the burly Baiken (Eijiro Tono), who in spite of his girth moves like Baryshnikov and uses a double weapon approach - wielding a deadly ball and chain (the ball, of course has sharp metal spikes) in one hand and a humungous scythe-like weapon in the other. Jitaro (Kenjin Iida), a little orphan boy looking for a mentor is ordered away by Misashi, but he stays to observe the final death thrust of the match, which, as per usual, ends with Misashi's victory.

Alas, this is not enough to vault our hero into the venerable tradition of the samurai. An old monk chastises him for being proficient, but lacking all the inner virtues a samurai needs. Dejectedly, Misashi continues on the road to enlightenment, now accompanied by the unwanted companion, Jitaro.

In Kyoto, the narrative spins itself out like the gorgeously woven web it is. Three- count'em - THREE gorgeous babes are vying for Musashi's love. His old friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) is now a sad-sack drunk married to the conniver he took off with in the first film. The conniver is trying to pimp her Musashi-obsessed daughter to the local samurai Master (who eventually rapes her anyway). Musashi, sets his sights on a duel with Seijuro (Akihiko Hirata) the aforementioned rapist and Master of Kyoto's leading Samurai school.

The school's administrative heads and pupils all act as buffers twixt their Master and Musashi. This is fine. It allows us the fortune of watching more duels. At one point even Seijuro's brother goes up against Musashi and is, of course, defeated.

Now Seijuro is shamed into fighting Musashi and demands no further interventions be made on his behalf. He asks the seemingly loyal, young swordsman Sasaki(Koji Tsuruta) to set the duel up. Sasaki, however, is a genuinely first-rate swordsman and he longs to duel Musashi himself. Even still, when Musashi is yet AGAIN attacked by Seijuro's men, Sasaki intervenes and the two warriors work together as a team to cut down the would-be assassins.

The plot thickens further with more duels, more betrayals and more romantic entanglements than you can shake a stick at - all building to a semi-climactic duel between Musashi and 80 men and eventually with Seijuro himself. Sasaki waits in the wings, studying and admiring Mishashi's skill. He knows they too will fight someday.

That someday awaits us in Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island. If Samurai I is the top slice of Bagel World Caraway Rye, swathed in delicious French's mustard, then Samurai III is the bottom slice of rye - the one that has soaked up all the natural, flavourful juices from the Goldin's Montreal Smoked Meat stuffing the middle of Samurai II.

"Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple" is part two of the glorious Criterion Collection set of Blu-rays and DVDs. The pictures have been digitally restored in eye-popping hi-def and happily, the sound is presented in wonderful uncompressed mono. In addition to the array of essays there's an especially interesting newly produced segment on the real Musashi Miyamoto."