Director Hiroshi Inagaki, Jun Fukuda (assistant director)
Screenplay Hiroshi Inagaki, Tokuhei Wakao based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa and a play by Hideji Hōjō
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kōji Tsuruta, Mariko Okada, Kaoru Yachigusa, Michiyo Kogure, Mitsuko Mito, Kurōemon Onoe, Akihiko Hirata, Daisuke Katō, Eiko Miyoshi, Sachio Sakai
Samurai II has Musashi years down the road after leaving Otsu at the bridge. He is at peace, beating all comers in samurai battles. He meets up with a priest after his latest battle. The priest tells him he’s still got a ways to go before he wins by more than just force. He takes these words somewhat to heart and heads into Kyoto.
In Kyoto, too many things happen:
- Musashi meets up with Otsu and Akemi at separate times
- Gets embroiled in a battle with a samurai school
- Asks to duel its head samurai
- Duels and kills his brother
- Is observed from afar by another ronin
- Sought by his former friend and his mother
- Spends the evening with the courtesan
- Tricked and double crossed
That isn’t even half of what is going down. Even so, the story is quite compelling, leading to a series of remarkable clashes in the end.
What sets this film apart is the confidence in which it is portrayed. We know instinctively that fellow samurai Sasaki is the most dangerous person in the film. We don’t get a whiff of the two fighting. We see Sasaki use his blade but once, so memorably.
Played by Tsuruta, Sasaki is in no hurry. He’s also not a sinister man, either. He’s got honor enough to act as a second for Musashi in the titular battle. He realizes that its a fools errand, and takes off. From there he performs several tangential acts of heroism. The best one being when he keeps someone from yelling out to our hero because it might distract him and get him killed.
Then there is Mifune. This film shows how he’s grown as a hero. He understands more than he did, but he still has farther to go. He’s contemplative, and he is honorable. And Good Lord is he driven. The best thing about Mifune is his ability to express aggression mixed with wisdom. This is best witnessed when he decides to head into an unfair combat with 80 men and then lead them into the rice patties in order to turn the fight to his advantage.
The last act of this film is remarkable. Musashi’s presence is undeniable as the burgeoning samurai. His is one of the giant characters in episodic history, every bit worth the value of the legend he represents. This series would have been huge if it took place in American lore. As it is, it’s a good league above the best films of its day. Even 12 years later, when it debuted in the States, it was as good as the best of its time.
As second acts go, they don’t get much better.
(***** out of *****)