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Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.

In 1956, Hiroshi Inagaki’s ambitious “Samurai” trilogy, based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel “Musashi,” came to a close with “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.” Toshiro Mifune first stepped into the role of the impulsive villager Takezo who would steadily transform himself into the master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto two years before. The series’ final film focuses on the remaining gaps Musashi needed to fill in his life which relate to his ascension as a warrior and a lover.

We continue to see the mellowing changes to Takezo, in a very restraint introduction in a fight sequence no less with the Hozion priests where Musashi has a Zen like approach to various situations remaining a formidable force should the situation calls for unsheathing of a sword.  His skills have grown considerably and earns a disciple in the process.  In this installment Musashi turns toward a higher calling by helping poor villages in need of protection against bandits, just like in Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai.

There are still a number of shortcomings of course, and it stemmed from the introduction of characters in the final arc of the story, such as Kojiro’s lover Omitsu (Michiko Saga), who serves little purpose than for her and her family to serve some pride in having Kojiro as a relative-to-be after his appointment by the Shogun. Little is seen beyond the demonstration of class, and for conversational pieces with Kojiro to highlight his inner desire and turmoil. Takezo’s childhood friend Matahachi (Sachio Sakai) also gets conveniently forgotten here, despite my feeling that he should have played a larger role in the lead up to the finale. Instead he’s relegated to a support character without any sort of sendoff.

So what’s my verdict of the Samurai Trilogy? It’s a lot better than I expected.  While it moves at snail’s pace, it does have a couple of short, highly intense, fight sequences that are still able to interest the modern film audience.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Now To NHK’s Musashi Part 2.

“‘There are many enemies’ applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both sword and companion sword and assume a wide-stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions. Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords.  Waiting is bad. Always quickly re-assume your attitudes to both sides, cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together, as if tying a line of fishes, and when they are seen to be piled up, cut them down strongly without giving them room to move.”  Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Book of Water

We are now halfway through our look at the greatest samurai of all-time Miyamoto Musashi.  Today we are going to take a look at NHK’s 2003 series following the life of Miyamoto Musashi as far as the other two films series have taken us.  As you can see from the past two posts, my opinion of all three epics is starting to gel.  To date, it should be pretty obvious that I don’t think much of the original Mifune/Inagaki trilogy but I am significantly more impressed with the five part series directed by Uchida as recently posted.  Now with 49 episodes, NHK goes even deeper into the trail Musashi chooses both physically and spiritually as he wanders throughout Japan.

In each of our past posts, we stopped at Musashi’s finest moment to date, when he takes on the entire Yoshioka Kyoto fencing school and not only survives this battle, but actually wins it.  Although winning comes with a heavy price, killing the 10-year-old “commander” of his opponents, Musashi is willing to pay this price to win and survive.  You would not know of this historic battle if you only watch the original Mifune/Inagaki films which have drawn criticism as “sanitizing” Musashi’s story.  Since we left off at the battle of Ichijoji in both of our previous posts, we will do the same here when studying the NHK series.

Remember the origins of the battle at Ichijoji are rooted in the Musashi’s killing both of the teaching brothers from the Yoshioka school with relative ease that set events in motion which culminate in the legendary clash.

Here is how the History Channel remembers the Battle at Ichijoii.   

Characters are one of the strengths of the NHK series, which takes the time to explore each personality in depth. Let’s take a moment and briefly summarize who our main characters are and where we’re at in the NHK series.  “Matahachi” is the childhood friend of Musashi who fought at the battle of Sekigahara with him—he has gone downhill becoming shiftless and lazy.  “Ostu” is the flute-wielding romantic lover of Musashi who is wandering Japan looking for him.  “Sasaki Kojiro” is the master of the Ganryu style of swordplay and is Musashi’s greatest opponent.  “Yagyu Munenori” is the son of the enlightened sword master Yagyu Sekishusai.  He is a highly skilled and famous samurai who is on a par with both Musashi and Kojiro.  Unlike Musashi, who lives his life for the moment, Munenori is involved heavily with politics and power.  “Jotaro” is a young follower of Musashi who treats him like a son and “Hon’iden Osugi” is the mother of Matahachi and bitter enemy of Musashi.

“Takuan” is an enlightened Zen monk. He often gives spiritual insights to help Musashi overcome personal obstacles. Not only is Takuan spiritually wise, he also is a humble and down to earth individual which makes him very well-liked. There is no bigger influence in Musashi’s spiritual life than Takuan. However, there are lesser influences, such as the sword sharpener who refuses to sharpen Musashi’s sword because it will be used for killing and not for beauty. Looking as though he has just entered the Twilight Zone, Musashi responds, “A sword, sir, is meant for fighting.” Later, the sword-sharpener’s wife exhorts Musashi to live so that he can learn to appreciate beauty – foreshadowing Musashi’s becoming an artist later in life.  

Meanwhile Otsu has doggedly been pursuing Musashi and passes out due to exhaustion.  She is brought to a rooming house where she is being cared for by strangers.  Low and behold who is there to “help” Otsu?  None other than Osugi a/k/a “Granny” who, for labor and menial tasks, still considers Otsu her daughter-in-law (the equivalent of indentured servitude) while contemporaneously casting her as a mortal enemy because of her relationship with Musashi.  Osugi tells Otsu that Musashi was killed in a duel.  Otsu is grief stricken but word comes around that a ronin has defeated both teachers of the Yoshioka schools and that a third winner take all battle is pending.  Otsu knows that could only be Musashi so she leaves the pleasant company of Osugi and heads out to find Muashi—Osugi now becomes furious both with Musashi for surviving and Otsu for leaving.   

While Matahachi’s mother is cursing Otsu and Musashi, he delves into the semi criminal world meeting a strange sorcerer who pays him to spy on some rich lords (or else be killed) and then he finds Kojiro’s diploma and a bag of money and begins to pass himself off as the great swordsman as well as getting conned out of his new found wealth.

Before we get to the great battle, Musashi meets his greatest rival Kojiro–and even gets a bit of advice from him.  Otsu finally catches up with Musashi, scaring him senseless, while no one really knows where Matahachi’s less than virtuous lifestyle has led him.  And unlike in the five part series, Jotaro sticks around as Musashi’s disciple throughout the entire journey.  We are also treated to a little more exposure to Osugi a/k/a “Granny,” Matahachi’s very cranky mother who continues to blame Musashi for all of her son’s problems.

As you ponder these clips, notice the theme that is being developed – Musashi’s spiritual quest. What makes Musashi stand out so dramatically from other swordsmen of his era, NHK seems to be arguing, is his singleminded focus and refusal to be distracted by such mundane issues as earning a living or starting a family. As often happens to people on a spiritual path, teachers appear to advise Musashi when he needs it – and as also often happens to people on such paths, Musashi develops a motley collection of supporters and people who care deeply what happens to him. NHK also takes time to include small segments showing us the modern locations of Musashi’s journeys – almost as if the series was developed partly in order to be shown in school.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Musashi-NHK’s 2003 49 Episode Series Part 1.

NHK (Japan’s National Broadcasting Co.) 2003 Series on Musashi—This could be my favorite.

“You must cultivate your wisdom and spirit. Polish your wisdom: learn public justice, distinguish between good and evil, study the Ways of different arts one by one. When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realized the wisdom of strategy.”  Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, The Book of Water.

As we know from previous posts, Musashi is often regarded as the greatest samurai of all time. He was undefeated in over 60 duels and has attained the legendary status of Sword Saint (“kensei”). Aside from being an undefeated swordsman, Musashi was also a painter and calligrapher. It seems like he applied his Way of the Sword to all walks of life.

The 42nd NHK Taiga Drama “Musashi” (Taiga Drama is the name NHK gives to the annual, year-long historical-fiction television series it broadcasts in Japan) is based on the famous biography written by Yoshikawa Eiji, “Musashi,” often considered the “Gone with the Wind of Japan.” Yoshikawa’s novel is one of my favorite novels of all time and I’ve read quite a few novels.  So if you get a chance or have some time read it you will not regret it.  Anyways, back to the show.

Like the two other series, Musashi’s story begins just after the great Battle of Sekigahara.  Musashi joined the battle because he always dreamed of becoming a strong samurai. In this series we learn that his father Shinmen Munisai had abused him when he was a child, constantly berating him as a useless weakling.  Such treatment instilled a tough will to become strong and powerful to surpass his father to prove he was no weakling.  The NHK series takes several episodes to show that Takezo was fueled by rage, leading a life filled with bloodshed and carnage. However, as the series progresses, at the end of each episode Musashi learns one valuable lesson after another that life is not a matter of brute strength, but also a spiritual path that involves the perfection of his sword techniques contemporaneously with the mind.

The initial episodes follow Musashi as he travels across the country challenging many fighters and their unique styles of fighting as he undergoes the rigorous training to become one with his sword.  After each episode the show retraces Musashi’s path through modern day Japan showing the viewer historical markers and other remnants of Musashi’s life.  Even better, we start to see Musashi’s unconventional tactics employed to give him an edge in his duels—like showing up two hours late to fights  wwhich infuriated his opponents thereby distracting them from the task at hand and more.

Joining Musashi in his travels are his childhood friend Matahachi, his starry-eyed lover Otsu, his disciple/adopted son Jotaro and the sagacious Zen monk Takuan.  Here NHK takes some interesting turns from both series we have previously watched; that is, it portrays Matahachi more as a comical character bumbling his way through life.  For instance, Matahachi is seen as an inept swordsman, but in the book this is not the case—he is in fact quite competent having fought and survived at Sekigahara. He, like anyone else, just looks bad when standing next to Musashi.  It reminded me of reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories describing Dr. Watson as an intelligent man—a physician. However, Watson is usually portrayed as a bumbling fool in most movies and TV episodes.

The first several NHK episodes also begin to raise the political aspect of the story, namely the struggle of power between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans.  If you have seen the TV miniseries “Shogun” or read James Clavell’s novel, you have heard of Tokugawa Ieyasu.  He was the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan and ruled after winning the Battle of Sekigahara creating a dynasty that lasted many many years.  One issue persistently raised  throughout the series is the samurai way of life v.s. the political life.  The inevitable tension between the paths are represented by Musashi and Yagyu Munenori (another famous samurai). Musashi chooses the spiritual reclusive life free of politics to follow his Way of the Sword and true spiritual strength. Yagyu Munenori, on the other hand, leads a Machiavellian political and worldly life serving the shogun to gain power, rank and respect.  We will see how these two lifestyles play out during the series.

As the episodes progress, numerous themes and issues emerge but I have no intention of revealing them all in this post.  Here we are only going to go as far as our other two movies.

Be that as it may, I really enjoy the NHK series (and in fact have enjoyed every one I have seen).  Because NHK has fifty hours to work with instead of six-ten like the films, they can (and do) take their time to try and tell the tale of such an extraordinary life.

Next, we delve into the appropriate film sequels setting the second stage of Musashi’s journey through Japan.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Installment 1 Musashi the Early Years

“Step by step walk the thousand mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

We are going to start our series where it probably should start—at the beginning.  All Musashi movies are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s famous biographical novel Musashi, often considered as the Gone with the Wind of Japan.  It is an excellent work and I encourage everyone to read it.

We will follow all three works one segment at a time, the Original 1954 Mifune film Miyamoto Musashi (or the Original 1954 version); Zen & Sword (1961); followed by Showdown at Hannyazakaz also known as Dual at Devil’s Mask Pass (1962) (it took both Zen & Sword and Showdown at Hannyazakaz to reach the same stopping point as the Original 1954 version) and the first several episodes of the 2003 NHK series Musashi (we’ll call that series NHK), until roughly the same chronological stopping point in Musashi’s tale.

The Original:

 

Toshiro Mifune stars as the foolish young man, Takezo (the town’s wild, orphan kid) who leaves his village when the battle of Sekigahara looms and convinces his friend, Matahachi to join him despite some initial reluctance.  Instead of glory, they barely escape with their lives and Matahachi suffers a significant leg wound.  While evading enemy forces that are bent on killing all survivors, the pair find shelter with two women–an incredibly self-serving sociopathic mother and her daughter who is not yet as jaded and selfish as mom.  Mifune resists temptation and runs from them, while his friend succumbs to their pleas to stay–and in essence throws away his life, fiancée Otsu and his honor.  

Matahachi and his two female companions go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to their village to provide Matahachi’s family with news on his condition.  Matahachi’s family rejects Takezo’s report and has him arrested for treason.  A monk, Takuan, rescues him from death and uses his influence with the regional lord to sentence him to study of the samurai code found in hundreds of great philosophical books.  Takezo’s cell?  A windowless attic where he spends the next three years of his life “becoming a human again.”  Otsu and Takezo have also fallen in love and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant.  In fact Otsu waits the three years, but is ditched by Miyamoto Musashi f/k/a Takezo when she finally meets him again.  Though Musashi does carve the characters “Forgive Me” into the bridge before he left. 

This is a classic movie let’s make no mistake about it, despite  having Mifune in the lead, this is not an Akira Kurasawa film (i.e. Yojimbo) and some may be disappointed that it is a little more stodgy than one of his other films.  Naturally, when one thinks of who should play a Japanese legend – and Miyamoto is known as Kinsei, or “Sword Saint” in Japan – only Mifune comes to mind.  The assumption cuts both ways in that the film focuses on Mifune and ignores many of the other important sub-plots that follow Musashi’s story.  We only get a glimpse of what is happening to Matahachi or the posse that Matahachi’ s mother forms to kill Miyamoto as “revenge” for spoiling her son.  Be that as it may, we will get a better idea of the differences in the next posting when we can compare the interpretation of the Musashi story as it appears through the films. 

The beauty of Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto lies in the spiritual journey Takezo undergoes as a wild man.  He will not be tamed by the lusty ways of women or by nature itself, but Takuan the monk does succeed when he forces the warrior to look inward as Takezo learns that power and strength are not sufficient.  The movie also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but Americans would have to wait almost ten years to see part 2. 

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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