Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) *****
dir. Hiroshi Inagaki
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Koji Tsuruta
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Honour and chivalry of the highest order permeate this stunning final chapter in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. It is the weight of these noble characteristics that make this the most emotional, romantic and profoundly moving film in the entire series.
It is ultimately a tale of how one extraordinary individual (Musashi Miyamoto, of course) achieves and maintains inner peace in a profession that calls for him to kill.
It's not as nutty as it sounds.
In William Saroyan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life from 1939, the great Armenian-American writer opens his groundbreaking work with a prayer-like manifesto which insists, mantra-like that all of us in our lives must strive to find goodness everywhere, to place more value in the spiritual than the material, to encourage virtue in every heart, to ignore the obvious, to be the inferior of no other and yet, to also be the superior of no other. And though Saroyan ultimately asks us to not add to the world's misery and sorrow, but to rejoice in its infinite wonder and mystery, he includes the following words of wisdom:
"Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret."These words were written on the precipice of World War II - when the world shuddered at the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the madness sweeping Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. Saroyan, like many writers before and after him, realized that war and violent conflict are a natural element of human existence and that if it was necessary to take a life in the preservation of goodness, then so be it. "Necessary" is a key word here and though there is a great degree of sadness attributable to the taking of a life, Samurai III is a film insists that if a life must be taken, it should never come easily, never BE easy and should NEVER be forgotten.
We, the audience, must not forget the fact that the Samurai Trilogy, though set in the seventeenth century and as true to the period as any cinematic rendering could be, is a film born out of the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in an occupied country that was decimated by a force WITHOUT honour. The post-war period of Japan rendered these three great films set in an earlier century and yet, are films that speak so loudly and profoundly on notions of war, peace and honour in ways that are universal.
The sentiments attached to the gravity of taking a life will, by the end of this extraordinary film and trilogy, infuse you with waves of emotion and leave you with considerable thought on matters of life, love and war. Like all great works, its virtues are not ephemeral, but eternal. So many of Japan's historians, playwrights, poets, novelists and filmmakers looked to the heroic exploits of Musashi Miyamoto and saw in him the same struggle that has plagued mankind from its beginnings and does so to this day.
The narrative flow of Samurai III is devoted to the pursuit of peace, but a peace that can only be attained when one has mastered the art of killing and, in so doing, has experienced what it is to personally snuff out a life - to REALLY know and understand the gravity of such an action. In order for Musashi to achieve and understand this pure state of harmonic conciliation is to find love, which he does. However, he must ACCEPT this love - which he also does. For him to know love and to bring it so deeply into his heart is what informs his need to maintain peace, but also informs his deep understanding of what it means to kill.
Once he accepts the love of Otsu, the good woman spurned in the first film by her betrothed and throughout the trilogy by Musashi himself, he is able to settle down and live a peaceful agrarian life - not just with Otsu, but with the young orphan boy who looks to him as both mentor and father.
Musashi has numerous opportunities to kill, but instead, he turns the other cheek and offers forgiveness, but when a group of helpless villagers are besieged by a ruthless gangster warlord - the time comes in the time of Musashi's life to kill and have no regret.
Saddest of all is that Sasaki is the one young man who is Musashi's equal on so many levels, a young man who could have been his son or his best friend or his brother. They both know and respect the fact that they are inextricably linked to fight to the death so that they may do each other the greatest honour. The duel is inevitable. Sasaki might be the only swordsman skilled enough to take down the incomparable Musashi Miyamoto and if he does, he will have taken down a true Samurai of the highest order. And when the final death blow comes, its aftermath is genuinely one of the most profoundly moving sequences in all of cinema.
Samurai III is a great film within a great trilogy. Astoundingly, Inagaki created a hugely popular work, but what's especially magnificent is just how each part of the trilogy can stand separately and yet how together they form an even more enriching whole.
Inagaki is a great classical director. His eye is always on nailing the salient dramatic beats, but doing so with grace and an almost John-Ford-like painterly artistry. The choreography of the duels and battle scenes are balanced perfectly with the superb work Inagaki does with the dramatic aspects of the tale. His elegant eye sits back with incomparably sumptuous compositions and the fights take place with a balletic quality. Some have suggested that the lack of sound when metal connects with flesh is attributable mostly to the techniques and fashions of sound design when the film was made. I think this is nonsense. One of the aspects of every violent death in the film is that when a death blow finally comes, it is not only deadly, but silent.
It's chilling and ultimately far more powerful that hearing the rending of flesh.
It's utterly silent.
Just like a Samurai's heart when it ceases to beat.
"Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island" is part three of the glorious Criterion Collection set of "Samurai Trilogy" 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."