Ranking: #41/111

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki (Japan)

Genre: Historical Samurai Drama

Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of Samurai dramas. One of the world’s greatest ever male actors, Toshiro Mifune, plays Musashi Miyamoto, a legendary wandering samurai from seventeenth-century Japan, in a match made in cinematic heaven. An actor with great controlled intensity was perfect for the lone warrior whose exploits with the sword won him lasting acclaim in Japan.

Musashi was a Kensei, or “sword-saint” following an incredible career as a swordsman, being undefeated in 61 duels. He also wrote The Book of Five Rings about kendo, or “the way of the sword”. Inagaki’s samurai trilogy traces Musashi’s life from youth until his defeat of arch-rival Kojiro Sasaki in a duel on Ganryu Island, when the supreme warrior was only 29 years old.

The film trilogy is as much about his search for spiritual harmony as it is about victory in combat.  The sublime cinematography in the filming of the climactic duel against Sasaki at sunset is one of the greatest combat scenes in cinema. It subtly blends the attainment of spiritual excellence and martial excellence in Musashi to exemplify what it means to be a “sword-saint”.

Inagaki used spherical lenses, rather than widescreen ratios, so he was able to focus his camera on the depth of field containing the movements on screen, rather than on wide-angled lateral movements. In the duel at Ganryu Island, the viewer feels like he, or she, is part of the combat zone, with its three dimensions of space, as the samurai clash. The warriors blend in with the sand and waves of the sea, with beautiful interplays of light illuminating their fight to the death.

From the movie’s opening shot at the waterfall, this film strives to show the need for unity between humans and Nature, especially when it comes to finding harmony, or personal mastery, in the “way of the sword”.

It is the skills with the sword that matter, not the violence and bloody gore of more sensationalist samurai films. This is about the grace of the art of swordsmanship and about the grace of the choreography of film. There is only subtlety in this work of art, there is only the striving for cinematic beauty by Inagaki.

The use of psychology against your opponent is part of the philosophy of The Book of Five Rings and while being rowed out to the island for the duel, Musashi carves a weapon out of a wooden oar. By doing something unexpected, he aims to flummox Sasaki, and throw him off guard.

The director skilfully contrasts the portraits of Musashi and Sasaki throughout the film, helping to build up narrative tension as the long-awaited climax of their duel approaches. Both are presented as formidable warriors and strong characters. For Sasaki it is a “dream” to fight Musashi. 

This is no simplistic good versus evil encounter, although Sasaki is arrogant (whereas Musashi is humble). It is pure combat between supreme warriors. They are both undefeated champions, testing their skills, honed over a lifetime, against the best in the world.

The plot focuses on how the two warriors must deal with temptations and challenges in their daily lives, which threaten to disturb the inner balance they need in order to maintain a sublime level of skill. In the end, they have to fight with a clear conscience, with a balanced soul. And Musashi is at peace with the Universe before the final showdown. After defeating his opponent, the masterful Musashi honours the fallen warrior.

It’s not just swordplay and spirituality which are merged in this exquisite drama: add to that the striving of the filmmaker to be a master of restraint, understatement and balance in his own right. For self-mastery is the real aim. For Musashi and for Inagaki.

I have a deep love of, and respect for, this wonderful Japanese film: it has a simple, epic quality and an abiding natural beauty to it.