Sunday, July 12, 2009

[DVD] Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijôji no kettô) (1955)

Being the middle film of a trilogy, Duel at Ichijoji Temple thankfully came with a lot more battle sequences than the first film, and had more finesse in its swordplay since our legendary heroic character Takezo (Toshiro Mifune) is now a skilled swordsman, but yet to put into practice many aspects of Bushido, and often criticized in the manner in which he finishes off his opponents because of his innate brute strength and force.

But I guess when you're top dog, criticism comes part and parcel, and in his warrior pilgrimage in discovery of skill and self, we see how he further develops, though at time I felt that the story utilized a cheat sheet just like the first film, where priest Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) locked him in a castle with plenty of books. Here, while Takezo is in hiding, he spends plenty of time indoors under the patronage of Lady Yoshino (Michiyo Kogure), a courtesan who would inculcate some compassion into the gruff man's life - while he looks refined on the outside, his ambition and reputation continue to earn him no favours, especially since he had issued a challenge to the Yoshioka School.

As a middle film, it expanded the mythology, and further developed the characters who made teasing appearances in the first one. For instance, the young man who was smitten by Akemi (Mariko Okada) turns out to be none other than the leader of the Yoshioka School, Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihiro Hirata), who in a fit of envy began to violate Akemi, taking his ineptness onto a helpless girl. Such are incidents that make the character a little revolting, and the members of his school showcased to be nothing more than mere bullies to the townsfolk, as well as constantly sucking up to Seijuro by shielding his incompetence from the real world.

The villains in this installment turn out to be more formidable than the thugs and brigands that Takezo had to deal with earlier. In fact, the first duel was a battle with an opponent using a chain-and-sickle, in compensation for the lack of a swordfight as a climax in the first film. Unfortunately I found this to be mildly exciting, as the full screen presentation only allowed for that fatal blow to be delivered off screen. The middle duel with Denshichiro Yoshioka was also somewhat of a let down given the buildup, because it only allowed a brief clashing of the weapons, before director Hiroshi Inagaki decided to cut away to a song! It felt like a little short-change, though the result of the match was made known indirectly later.

And the expansion of the characters here only made the story richer. Familiar faces like Takezo's lover Otsu (Kaoru Tachigusa) returns to pine a lot more for him after 3 years of waiting, while her ex-fiance Matahachi (Sachio Sakai) degenerates worse in character, into a good for nothing liar and a cheat, married to Akemi's scheming mom Oko (Mitsuko Mito). We also get introduced to sword polisher Hanomi (Ko Mihashi) who's supposed to play an influential role in swaying Takezo's mindset, though the narrative here didn't allow too much of that on screen, deflecting it towards Lady Yoshino, for yet another romantic entanglement, where the female characters are all weak in their knees in Takezo's manly presence.

But the most important character introduced in the film would be Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), the eventual nemesis of Takezo's, but you've got to wait until the next film to see them do battle. Here, Kojiro's like the predator, slowly studying and stalking his prey. We know little of his background, apart from his certification of swordsmanship, and his cool, collected demeanour as opposed to Takezo's brash emotions, so that already sets him up to be mile apart as a strong adversary in time to come. So far he has played things in quite a gentlemanly way, refusing to take cheap shortcuts, patiently and probably egoistically waiting for Takezo to attain more skills, before bringing down a powerful opponent.

Again the technical aspects of this DVD presentation left much to be desired, especially in the night or dawn battle scenes. It's not digitally remastered, so these scenes become really dark and marred the enjoyment of many outdoor fights, especially the titular one where Takezo goes up against 80 opponents, and learns for a start that evading battle may not be so bad an option, especially when one is severely outnumbered due to a sickening, dishonourable scheme to turn tables. I would have wished for a better presentation so that it would not detract your attention to pops and cackles, or unintentional hues to come and stain the picture quality.

Duel at Ichijoji Temple ended just like how it began, with Takezo continuing his journey to seek bushido-enlightenment. It wrapped up some of the life journeys and lessons learnt by the protagonist in this episode, and sets it all up for the climax to be in the last installment of the trilogy.

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 first film's, is not pristine and comes with the usual noise. Scene selection is available over 34 chapters, and there are no extras other than a 3:45 theatrical trailer.

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