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May 07, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi V: Duel at Ganryu Island

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Miyamoto Musashi: Ganryu-jima no ketto
Tomu Uchida - 1965
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Tomu Uchida films a sword fight in a way I have not seen done by any other filmmaker. The swordsman, Kojiro, played by Ken Takakura, is asked to demonstrate his abilities for a local lord. One of the lord's vassals is asked to be the opponent, using a spear. In most films, duels are traditionally composed of full shots of the two duelists alternating with medium or close up shots of each person. Uchida, has instead filmed a significant part of the duel as a long take of nothing but the legs of Kojiro's opponent, followed by a full shot of the opponent. It's a very unusual way to film a duel, and essentially forces the viewer to imagine not only the action, but also the expressions of the actors.

The film begins with a more traditional recapping of the previous four films, and ends with the reunion of the main characters as well. Musashi, taking a break from proving his prowess with the sword, comes across a young boy who's father had just died. Helping the boy bury his father, Musashi sticks around to help with the small farm where the boy lives. The sequence reminds me of Shane, where the gunfighter puts down his weapon for a more pastoral life. The country life comes to an end when Musashi fights off bandits that have come to steal the villagers' rice from a storage house.

There is also a revisiting of the theme of artistic expression from the fourth film. Turned down for an official position by the shogunate, Musashi is asked to create artwork on behalf of the lord of the fief. The spare painting is describes as a tiger lost in the wilderness, a metaphor for Musashi's own spirit.

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Even though he is the title character, Musashi is presented throughout Uchida's series as continually conflicted about the meaning of many of his actions. Uchida could be said to undermine the romantic notions regarding the philosophical underpinnings of Bushido and what it means to be a samurai, with most of the characters ultimately rationalizing their self-interests. The final shot in this film leaves Musashi as a tiny figure on a boat, visually suggesting that Musashi is "lost at sea", or at the very least is insignificant against the flow of nature. The ending is disquieting, and does not provide the expected kind of closure. According to the site Wildgrounds, Uchida was working on a sixth Miyomoto Musashi film at the time of his death.

I should mention that AnimEigo has much higher standards than anyone else when it comes to presenting Japanese movies on DVD for westerners. In addition to the easy to read subtitles, and titles that concurrently explain some of the historical context, and the notes that are part of the supplements, is the subtitling that goes beyond the efforts of others. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including the most minor of actors and characters, has their names translated into romaji during the credit sequences. Also, signs, letters and postings of various kinds also get subtitles, leaving the viewer no doubt as to what is written. There may be some debate as to whether the Miyamoto Musashi series is the ideal choice of introduction of the films of Tomu Uchida. Even if this series does not represent Uchida's best work, as some have argued, it's good enough to make me want to see more from this still little known filmmaker.

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Posted by peter at May 7, 2010 12:08 AM


I'm enjoying your Miyamoto Musashi retrospective. I'm not very familiar with his work but it's great to see this little-known director getting some attention.

Posted by: Kimberly Lindbergs at May 7, 2010 02:41 PM