Birth of the Two-Sword Style
As the third chapter of the five-part series, Birth of the Two-Sword Style does a fine job of avoiding the “hammock”; that is, where the pace of the movie sinks down and you hope it picks up again, drags and nothing is resolved. Birth of the Two-Sword Style avoids such a fiasco as plenty happens in this episode which is spread over a clear delineated three-act structure: First, Musashi continues on a mission of learning; next, his arch-rival Sasaki Kojiro is introduced; last but not least, the large cast of characters rendezvouses at a bridge for a fateful finale.
The film begins with Musashi having just slaughtered the vile ronin and vilified the Hozoin Priests for their duplicity and after washing his hands, he and Jotaro try to seek an audience with the Yagyu clan’s Great Lord Sekishushai, the renowned strategist and swordsman. Due to his age, Sekishushai denies all requests for matches making any contact with him difficult if not impossible (that is unless you are a young pretty woman named Otsu). Like in the Eiji Yoshikawa tale, Otsu has in fact ended up working as Sekishushai’s personal helper. It turns out that the friendly samurai Shoda whom Otsu and Jotaro met on the road in Duel at Devil’s Mask Pass belonged to the house of Yagyu, so he got her the job helping the aging Sekishushai.
In an effort to smooth things over with some arrogant heirs of a noble family that were turned away from a lesson pursuant to Yagyu policy, Sekishushai sends pretty and charming Otsu to their room with a letter of apology and a peony cut by the Lord himself. The three samurai read the letter and laugh off the flower Otsu brought as part of the package. When Musashi gets hold of a flower the Great Lord cut, his spider sense recognizes the majesty of the blade work used to cut the stem. Musashi moves on his hunch to get a meeting with four of Sekishushai’s top disciples.
The disciples ask Musashi how he knew that Sekishushai had cut one end of the stem (and Musashi cut the other but the disciples could not tell the difference). Musashi was unable to articulate his feelings which begins to lead the disciples to frustration. But things take a real turn for the worse after Jotaro kills a Yagyu dog that previously attacked him. Mushasi takes responsibility for his student’s deed and the Yagyu prepare to take their revenge. As the confrontation escalates, Musashi is baffled when he recognizes Otsu’s flute coming from the castle. In his shocked state, he draws both his swords in the accidental discovery of what will be his trademark fencing style celebrated in the movie’s title. Musashi escapes the Yagyu and the next day he and Otsu catch a glimpse of each other from a distance. Rather than face her for an intense reunion, Musashi flees as if he were chased by a dragon. Sadly there’s no follow-up on our hero getting to see Sekishushai – you can tell it would have been an illuminating meeting of the minds for those two to get together, but for fate.
Act two—we take a lengthy break from Musashi and catch up with some of the supporting players. As in Inagaki’s Samurai II, our resident slacker Matahachi comes into possession of a swordsmanship certificate that he takes as his own. The name inscribed on the certificate is Sasaki Kojiro. From Matahachi’s discovery we cut to Uchida’s introduction of Musashi’s greatest adversary, which the film has managed to hold until this mid-point of the saga. Unlike Mifune/Inagaki’s Kojiro, who was basically an honorable guy striving to hone his skills to the highest level, this Kojiro is a lot more of a jerk. He’s nasty, arrogant and condescending to all, clearly more devoted to his personal glory than to philosophical ideals. We meet him on board a ship where he taunts and belittles members of the Yoshioka school. Kojiro then goes to seek a duel with Seijuro, whom he has rightly pegged as a weakling and a fraud. But Seijuro is busy sweating over his impending match with Musashi, which Musashi has sent him a message to confirm.
We follow Kojiro for some other business including his comical encounter with Matahachi as the “other” Sasaki Kojiro. It’s a pity Matahachi didn’t get to carry on his charade a little longer. Even though his mother Osugi plays a much bigger role in Uchida’s version, she never gets to see Matahachi playing Kojiro as she did in the Inagaki trilogy. Kojiro retrieves his certificate and casts it into the river, pronouncing it worthless now that he has surpassed the skill of his former teacher and now wants to establish his own school.
After nearly an hour of screen time without showing himself, Musashi finally returns for the momentous third act, reflecting on his regrets. He failed to meet Sekishushai and thinks he’s not living up to the standards Takuan set for him. Now the New Year’s rendezvous at Gojo Bridge that Musashi arranged in Duel at Devil’s Mask Pass is at hand, where he hopes to meet Matahachi and get a response to his Yoshioka challenge. It turns out that Matahachi never got the message, but the familiar faces of Akame, Jotaro and Osugi are all drawn together, with Otsu and Kojiro looking on from opposite sides of the bridge. This is an entirely different first meeting for Musashi and Kojiro than in the Mifune/Samurai trilogy, where Kojiro feverishly anticipated the encounter. Here he just strolls past eyeing Musashi shadily, not impressed in the least.
With their duel confirmed, Musashi and Seijuro come together for their showdown at Rendaji (not at Ichijoji, as in Samurai II). The terrified Seijuro chooses to use wooden swords instead of live steel. In disgust, Musashi takes out Seijuro’s arm in a single blow and leave him disabled. The act is brutal and short. To help Seijuro “save face,” Kojiro offers to cut off his broken arm so they can claim Musashi won by delivering severe injury. After initially congratulating himself on the victory and discrediting the Yoshioka school, Musashi realizes what his feat will really cost and that it is a high price to pay in Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, the greatest installment of the films so far.
IV Duel at Temple
Whereas Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple was in my opinion the weakest of his Musashi Miyamoto trilogy, Tomu Uchida’s corresponding Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple represents the high point of the series so far. The film is clearly the notable example of how totally different the two adaptations are, and why this one is superior.
For the first time in the series, the film opens with a nice recap of the previous movies. As it turns out this episode features a markedly simpler plot structure than any of its predecessors. Musashi has defeated and shamed the leaders of the Yoshioka fencing school, and now their only chance and redeeming their laughable reputation is to kill Musashi. So they will go to any lengths necessary to take revenge.
As the vendetta mounts, Musashi takes up residence with a kind merchant/artist named Honami. Seijuro’s brother Denshichiro challenges Musashi to a duel on an evening when Musashi has already agreed (reluctantly) to accompany Honami on a visit to the local licensed pleasure quarters. Rather than choosing one engagement over the other, Musashi attends both. At the request of Honami’s mother Musashi politely attends a performance by the courtesan Yoshino. At the appointed hour, Musashi discreetly exits and makes quick work of his unworthy opponent, then returns to the licensed courtesan parlor to resume his evening out. The violent interlude makes the Yoshino scene far more compelling and creates a tension that is not in the Inagaki/Mifune version.
The duel with Denshichiro is a remarkable one, a night match in the gently falling snow that I am sure Tarantino lifted for the O-Ren Ishii duel in Kill Bill Vol. I. Beforehand, Musashi tells Denshichiro that he’s about to cut him down for the second time, having already psychologically defeated him the first time they met. Musashi walks the walk even after Denshichiro cheats by springing two hidden flunkies on him.
Back at the licensed pleasure quarters, the anxious Yoshioka students surround the establishment to await Musashi’s exit. To keep the peace, he spends the night with Yoshino. Mifune/Inagaki had Yoshino attempt unsuccessfully to seduce Musashi and then accuse him of lacking affection. Uchida makes her encounter less sexual and more overtly judgmental. Without making any passes at him, Yoshino observes that Musashi looks like a man who is constantly looking over his shoulder for the grim reaper. She goes on to compare him to her biwa (stringed instrument), which is carefully constructed to produce a subtle variety of unique tones. But Yoshino only perceives one tone coming from Musashi: his uncontrollable aggression. It’s a spellbinding scene that’s much more memorable than the earlier versions in which we were led to wonder whether they’ll simply have sex or not.
The Yoshioka students attempt to confront Musashi in public, but Kojiro intervenes and scolds them for behaving like ruffians. He mediates a proper duel at Ichijoji Temple, where Musashi will face the entire Yoshioka school.
On his way there, Musashi runs into Otsu, and they have their first conversation since parting at Hanada Bridge back at the beginning of Duel at Devil’s Mask Pass. In the Mifune/Inagaki trilogy, the star-crossed couple spend all of 30 minutes of screen time apart before speaking again. Despite a couple of close brushes, Uchida (the director) has kept them from having a conversation for nearly five full hours of screen time. And they’re not back again at the static location of Hanada Bridge where Otsu has passively waited, but at a rendezvous resulting from Otsu’s tireless travels. Plus, in this version, they each think Musashi is heading to his death. Rather than telling Otsu he values his sword more than her, Musashi confesses his love. The meeting seems to redouble his determination to survive the 73-against-one battle ahead of him.
For the duration of that grand showdown at Ichijoji, the film switches to black and white. It gives the battle the look and flavor of classic chambara fights. It simulates the true lighting found just before daybreak, when there’s barely enough light to make out shapes and objects but not enough to perceive color. Which is utterly more effective than the technically shoddy day-for-night effects Mifune/Inagaki attempted. But most obviously, the monochromatic shift signals that something dark and malevolent is in the air, a fitting ambience for Musashi to commit an unspeakably cruel act to assure victory. The consequences of this great sin will follow Musashi like a heavy shroud throughout the fifth and final episode. According to the rules of war, in order to truly win a battle, the opposing commander must be killed. The School put up a ten year old as their battle commander putting the child at risk as the target of the opponent (Musashi). Musashi does kill the child. In my opinion, the blame is shared equally by both sides: the school should never have put the kid in danger and Musashi shouldn’t have killed him. For its exclusion of this crucial story element, the Mifune/Inagaki’s trilogy has been described as the whitewashed and sanitized version of the life of Musashi—a description I agree with.
These two films run roughshod over the Mifune version of the story, it is that simple.