The final part of the Samurai Trilogy, Duel at Ganryu Island outlines the transition of Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) from an undefeated and famous samurai with 60 odd matches of victory under his belt, to a semi-retirement lifestyle where he chooses to live a life of a humble farmer, before being tossed back into the game by envious enemy in waiting, Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta). This installment contrasts the two different leading men in greater detail, where one gives up the meaningless pursuit of fame and glory, while the other in his chase of the same, knows he must rid his road block in order for a genuine claim to fame.
I thought it was interesting as it was also a contrast between real life experience and the real deal, versus one who learns from books. Takezo’s fame and fortune comes from the countless of duels he had overcome, and each dispatching of an opponent builds upon his reputation. For Kojiro’s case, here’s one lesser known samurai, no doubt skilled as we learn from Part 2 in his attainment of a certificate from a top school, but knows no fame like Takezo’s. While he is competent, many such as the Shogun still seeks out the tried and tested for his troops’ training, preferring very much someone who has shown mettle from his battle scars, versus a textbook warrior. Hence Kojiro’s envy just grows to a level of a glory seeker where he takes a step forward, and issues a duel challenge. Kojiro’s evilness becomes more pronounced here, in the way he kills just to lure our hero out.
We continue to see the mellowing changes to Takezo, in a very restraint introduction in a fight sequence no less, and quite unlike his younger, brash self, there’s a very different, almost Zen approach to various situations, though still no pushover if the situation calls for his drawing of the sword. His skills have grown considerably, and in a key scene we see him gaining admiration without physical violence, and earns a disciple in the process. In this installment, an episode with the Lord Shogun’s teacher puts him off totally, where he learns of there being no glory in dead men, that he turns toward a higher calling, to help poor villages in need of protection against bandits, in a sort of Seven Samurai way. Hence his turning back to a dream of being a farmer, and with his estranged lover Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa) joining him in an attempt for reconciliation, Takezo has his hands full with their brand of restrained emotional love getting a little more airtime, though at least it results in closure from the open-endedness in the second film.
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 to pepper the trilogy with yet another weak woman character (though of course, quite in line with the times), and 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 could have played a larger role in the lead up to the finale. But he’s relegated to a support character, undeserving of a proper sending off.
The most startling development belonged to Akemi (Mariko Okada), the tragic character whose unrequited love gives her new found strength to do something quite despicable in the series. As the adage goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and although the character becomes somewhat negative in her outlook, with vengeance and jealous rage clouding her mind, it’s a far cry from the helpless, innocent lass that she started out as, no thanks to a shameful episode from the past that pushed her somewhat over the edge of desperation, especially when her dreams and hopes get dashed, being a character cornered.
While some would like to argue that the best fights are to be found in the second film of the series, I thought the ultimate one, happened to be here (saving the best for last of course), where 2 top pugilist arrange to meet in a death match, each understood that the other stands in their way to claim top honours. And the steady progression made by Takezo can be demonstrated none other than his carefully crafted weapon while en route to the fabled Ganryu island, where he takes a wooden oar and shapes it into his final weapon of choice.
I thought this had plenty of significance in pugilistic stories of the East. Famed swordsman usually has precious swords in their possession, and one of the best in Chinese author Louis Cha’s folklore is - whose name I literally translate - “Lonely, Seeking Defeat”, a top pugilist who nickname spells out his frustration at being alone at the top, and without an opponent of his equal to spar with. Amongst the weapons that he has at the time of death include a humongous iron sword, and a humble wooden one. I suppose the latter will be one’s weapon of choice just because one has no need of weapons that could maim or kill. Only a confident exponent would choose to utilize a weapon from that material against an opponent with a conventional weapon, and Takezo through this simple aspect, has shown supreme assuredness over Kojiro Sasaki’s long katana “Clothes Rod”, and his famed move, the “Swallow’s Tail”.
Then again this final battle may irk some awaiting a big showdown. The two exponents spend more time running up and down the beachhead, and posing opposite each other. A battle of the minds, if you will, rather than seeking out to carelessly hack and slash. There’s a very measured response in the way they thrust and parry, and when it gets repeated, it did look like a chess game, where moves are made after long consideration, as if the battle got played out in the minds, before execution toward the end culminated in a whiplash frenzy of moves to determine the victor. It takes a little patience, but it most certainly pays off.
So what’s my verdict of the Samurai Trilogy? It’s a lot better than expected despite the transfer showing the age of the film. It moves at snail's pace no doubt, but has a couple of highly intense, though at times short, fight sequences that are still capable of wowing a modern audience. At its core, a solid story about a legend's life from zero to hero, and a transformation within himself in order to pursue a higher calling.
The Region Free DVD by Criterion is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with monoaural sound in Japanese and English subtitles. Visual transfer, like the other films', is not pristine unfortunately, and comes with the usual noise. Scene selection is available over 38 chapters and there are no extras other than a 3:21 theatrical trailer.