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Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island – Review

by Dane Benko

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The epic comes full circle, returning again to landscapes, music, and tropes right out of a cowboy Western, while Musashi’s character has finally come into his own as a hero and leader, well advanced from his debased origins.

Duel at Ganryu Island starts off essentially where the last left off, but with enough time in between events for Musashi’s fame to be already solidified. He himself no longer strikes out at the world around him; an egotistical monk challenging all to a duel does not attract his attention, and he expounds upon Jotaro the lessons he had to learn himself. Kojiro is ready to challenge Musashi as promised at the end of the previous movie, and instigates by slicing down four students of teacher who trains the Shogun at Edo. All seems set to end cleanly until Musashi observes Kojiro’s skill for the first time and decides to head abroad yet again for more training.

This diversion creates the only real complication in a much simpler third act than the previous two films had. Many characters at this point have dropped off the map, and if it were not for Musashi’s choice to travel again and settle amongst a bandit-infested province, we wouldn’t even get as far as to rendezvous with Akemi and Otsu inevitably making an appearance. With those two women the story is much the same as before, even boorishly so: Akemi throws herself at Musashi’s arms even though Musashi is not attracted to her, and Otsu throws herself at Musashi’s feet even though Musashi wants forgiveness from her. Somewhere in there, technically, is Musashi’s need for love and acceptance in order to gain the spiritual power necessary to take on this final duel, but at this point it gets pretty tiresome watching Akemi constantly destroying people’s lives and Otsu constantly destroying her own. This time around Akemi does double-duty with the bandits and Otsu has traded off her ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ character development with becoming a prostitute.

Such is the style of melodrama that most of the series follows, which the second one managed to contain a bit by providing a nicely complex, interwoven narrative. The third movie has no recourse to that, however, so it’s a mostly plodding and tangential narrative until we finally get to the eponymous duel.

To the movie’s credit, the final duel is worth it. In a long line of samurai movies and as a series with particularly little action, the duel on Ganryu island is thrilling and tense and beautiful all at once.  It’s played off like a dance of light and though the actions are choreographed, still feels more real than a lot of other stylized duels from the genre.

One of the greater pleasures of watching the Samurai Trilogy is Toshiro Mifune’s very gradual transition for beastly and base to humanistic and honorable. Mifune is most famous for his collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, who would use Mifune’s easy transitions between physicality and composure to great effect, and he stretches both to his limits here.

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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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