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Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – Review

by Dane Benko

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In Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Musashi Miyamoto challenges the master Seijuro Yoshioka of the Yoshioka school, instead igniting the wrath of the students as they set up a series of elaborate ambushes. Meanwhile, a newcomer named Kojiro Sasaki, a talented fencer attracted to the rumors rumbling about Musashi over the countryside, travels the perimeter of the conflict to get a feel for the greatness he senses in Musashi, a greatness he desires to later challenge.

As Musashi, Kojiro, and the Yoshioka school cross the countryside in a game of cat and mouse, they regularly run into characters from the previous movie, including Otsu, Musashi’s waiting love; Akemi, his scorned suitor; and the increasingly debased Matahachi and his ever-wily mother. These characters all end up influencing each other in their crossed-paths in a narrative much more tightly wound and complex than the opening episode.

When part II starts, Musashi has already begun to acquire some recognition, and a montage of his travels along various areas of the Japanese countryside fluidly transitions the backdrop-heavy setting of part I into a movie that announces the series as an epic. Musashi is no longer entirely ostracized by society but he is still driven by the internal conflict between his strength and humanity. It’s that central conflict that prevents the interwoven paths of the other characters from being contrived. It turns out that the slow start of Samurai I is important for understanding the depth of each character’s decisions, and the effect Musashi’s choices have in the long term development of each of them.

New characters come into play too, some that seem to hint at even more complex developments. A young orphan (so far the third major character in the series introduced as such) named Jotaro, his main piece of property a demon’s mask, is the first person Musashi meets; Jotaro quickly falls in with Priest Yakuan and Otsu. Musashi intrigues the interest of sword polishing master Honami, who alerts Musashi of Kojiro Sasaki’s presence and introduces Musashi to a geisha named Lady Yoshino who confronts Musashi’s brutality from a feminine perspective. Like many other epics, these characters come to represent both a part of Musashi’s life and a description of the society as a whole. Yakuan observes Jotaro as an example of ‘so many stray sheep’ of the years following the civil war. Yoshino deftly sums up Musashi’s character as ‘strong Mr. Weak’.

Outside of those developments, the movie also sticks closer to a typical samurai movie formula than the first one. It leads in with a duel against a master and leads out with the titular duel at Ichijoji Temple, where Seijuro Yoshioka is forced to break free of his own students to defend his honor against Musashi after Musashi is attacked by hordes of them. However, this time the set-up doesn’t feel like pulp because Musashi’s inexperience and doubt lends a real air of danger to his fighting where many samurai movies let the hero cut through armies of minions with relative ease. The opening duel, rather than expanding Musashi’s fame, gives him a stigma of distrust as wise men and rumormongers alike consider the victory to be un-Bushido-like, making it more like a defeat. Also, director Inagaki tends to keep a lot of the fighting in the dark, so that the entertainment value derived from the action sequences are relatively muted.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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