Musashi and the Flies

You Don’t Have to Draw a Sword to Prove Your Swordsmanship

I had forgotten the movie in which this scene took place until I viewed the DVD this morning. The great masterless samurai, Musashi Miyamoto (played by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune), is holed up in a cheap inn in which a loud group of gamblers was partying. When Musashi’s disciple, Jotaro, goes out and tells them to shut up, they decide to teach Musashi a lesson. They charge up he stairs to his room, where Musashi is calmly eating a dish of noodles with his chopsticks. He is not much bothered by the gamblers, but he is irritated by the flies buzzing around him and his meal. Without sparing a glance elsewhere, he reaches out with his chopsticks and kills several flies, one after the other. The gamblers are awestruck at Musashi’s demonstration of icy control and quietly back out of his room. In fact, their ringleader, Kumogoro, insists on becoming Musashi’s disciple.

The film is Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), the third film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy.

Although the Inagaki trilogy is by no means the greatest of samurai films, I have so many happy memories of seeing the films that I have invested them with perhaps more merit than they deserve. They are, in fact, quite good—particularly at influencing a 21-year-old who had just arrived in Los Angeles and found the whole genre congenial to him.

Samurai Swords

Toshiro Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The above scene is an evocative moment in Musashi Miyamoto (1954), the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. Musashi, heretofore called Takezo, has been imprisoned in Himeji Castle by the wily (and wise) Buddhist priest Takuan for three years. He has just stepped out of the castle for the first time and takes a look back at the walls that held him while he learned to tame his wild impulses.

I first saw Inagaki’s trilogy at a seminal point in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start studying film history and criticism at UCLA. Before my classes  began in January 1967, the Toho La Brea theater began screening Musashi Miyamoto. In the following months, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)—the remaining films of the trilogy—were to be shown. Although I had seen many films at Dartmouth College, I was just starting to get into the whole jidai-geki genre.

Also, I fell in love with Kaoru Yachigusa, the perennially frustrated love interest in the trilogy.

In fact, I got so much into it that, in June, I moved to an apartment on Mississippi Avenue, right in the heart of the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhood. At that time, there were two Japanese restaurants around the corner, the O-Sho and the Futaba Grill, where I frequently dined, learning how to tame those unruly chopsticks. My ignorance was still pretty much in evidence: I took the squares of tofu in my miso shiru soup to be shark’s fin.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, the Love Interest in the Trilogy

Before long, I was going with my film friends to all five Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles: Not only he Toho LaBrea, but the Kabuki (Shochiku Studio) and Kokusai (Daiei Studio) near Adams and Crenshaw, and the Sho Tokyo (Daiei Studio) and Linda Lea (Tohei Studio). Now all five theaters are gone, but back then, I collaborated with two of my friends (Alain Silver and Jim Ursini) in a column for The UCLA Daily Bruin entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which commemorated not only the Japanese theaters, but some of he others. We wrote under the collective pseudonym of Tarnmoor.

The Criterion Collection has released DVD and Blue-Ray editions of the Samurai trilogy, which are well worth your while.

The Black Finger Cult

Indulging in Past Favorites

Indulging in Past Favorites

Not two weeks ago, I wrote a post about one of my favorite Japanese actors, Raizo Ichikawa, particularly as he appeared in a 1960s series called variouslythe Kyoshiro Nemuri films and “The Sleepy Eyes of Death.” Since then, I checked out eBay and found that the whole series of twelve films was available for just over a hundred dollars in Zone 1 DVD format. Naturally, I wasted little time in buying the set.

Tonight, I watched my favorite title, Trail of Traps (1967) directed by the underrated Kazuo Ikehiro. I sat entranced as Kyoshiro walked his way between Tokyo (called Edo in those days) and Kyoto, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary for safekeeping. Along the way, he is seduced several times—Kyoshiro is, after all, an anti-hero—and attacked by a group of devil worshiping baddies who call themselves the Black Finger Cult.

It’s nice to feel the same way after almost half a century about a film one loved to distraction back in the day. Raizo Ichikawa was indeed an excellent actor, and the Daiei Studio people did a great job putting the series together.

Too bad Raizo had to die so young. I think he was even more promising than James Dean.

 

Favorite Actors: Raizo Ichikawa

Raizo Ichikawa in His Role of Kyoshiro Nemuri

Raizo Ichikawa in His Role of Kyoshiro Nemuri

The most famous Japanese actors appearing in samurai pictures are Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. There is also a third name, far less familiar to American audiences: I am thinking of the late Raizo Ichikawa (1931-1969), star of jidai-geki productions from the Daiei Studio.

My favorite character he played was that of Kyoshiro Nemuri, a.k.a. “The Sleepy Eyes of Death,” a Japanese born of a Christian father during a black mass, He is also referred to as a Son of the Black Mass. In his films, he regards the Christians baptized by the Portuguese as hypocrites.

His signature sword move was the Half-Moon Cut, against which his opponents were all but powerless. Note the strange cross symbol on his costume.

Raizo as Kyoshiro Nemuri

Raizo as Kyoshiro Nemuri

Now that I am semi-retired, I would like to pick up as many of the Kyosiro Nemuri films as I can find. It wouldn’t be too difficult, but I would definitely need English subtitles.

During the 1960s and 1970s when I went downtown with friends to the Sho Tokyo and Kokusai theaters (which played nothing but Daiei films) on an almost weekly basis, I always considered myself lucky to see Ichikawa in any role, but especially as Kyoshiro Nemuri. The directors of the series included such names as Kazuo Ikehiro (the best), Kenji Misumi, and Issei Mori.

Unfortunately, Daiei and most of the other Japanese studios disappeared during the obscene run-up in real estate values from 1986 to 1991. More’s the pity. During the 1960s, I believe that the best films that were being made anywhere were the Japanese samurai pictures. And Raizo Ichikawa was, to my mind, the best of the actors.