Recently, “Banksy” on twitter posted a bad meme, which inspired a furious, brief, friendly debate between me and a friend. I’d love to hear your opinions, as well.
Not to get too formal about this, but I find that when offering opinions, it’s best to include some “why” for context unless the opinion is purely aesthetic, in which case it may be hard to come up with a tangible reason why.
This is, of course, the woodland path scene from Sword of Doom, where Ryonosuke is attacked by Utsugi’s kin after the fencing match at the temple (where Ryonosuke kills Utsugi).* I commented back at the ‘banksy’ account that this was an inappropriate image because the character in that scene was exactly the opposite of what the image intends to express: he’s pursuing unsound methods and has fallen into a path of swordsmanship that is leading him in exactly the opposite direction from the samurai/swordsman’s ideal. Ryonosuke is what many would describe as a “nihilist” though I’d say he’s the opposite: he believes in killing. A lot.
Anyhow, my friend Bill fired back that the best swordplay scene in any movie was the duel between Kyuzo and the loud ronin in Seven Samurai. I countered that that was a fairly simple (though beautiful) scene and it was more a matter of fantastic context than great swordplay. After some back and forth, I offer this list:
- The fencing master (Toshiro Mifune) fighting in the snow in Sword of Doom. Reasons: the cinematography and camera movements are better than Kurosawa’s – yes, I know, that was as hard for me to write as it was for you to read – and Mifune’s sincerity and motion with his blade is an amazing thing to watch.
- The duel between Kyuzo and the loud ronin in Seven Samurai. Seiji Miyaguchi’s calm cut and self-containment is a lesson for any student.
- The fight between Ryonosuke and Hyoma’s family after the duel in Sword of Doom. The choreography is beautiful and weird, and the emotional valence of Tatsuya Nakadai’s totally inhabiting his character is pretty hard to handle, frankly. It’s an amazing scene.
- The fight between Hanshiro and Hikokuro in Harakiri. Kawabata hides so much in the scene – Hikokuro is brave and skilled, but hasn’t got as much practical experience as Hanshiro. It’s a beautifully rendered version of “old dog, new tricks” between experts at the peak of their game. Elegantly shot, beautifully choreographed, and incredibly atmospheric, it plays perfectly into the rhythm of the surrounding action.
- The small-sword fight at the beginning of The Duellists. I like the way that the action starts off organized and then, as the fighters get angrier and wrapped up in adrenaline, they lose control over their movements and everything suddenly gets much more dangerous. Harvey Keitel totally sells the headspace Feraud is stuck in; his performance through the entire movement is a fine thing to behold.
I’m not sure what’s #6; I’m a bit on the fence really. Any suggestions or corrections? I lean toward the final fight scene in Goyokin. The duel between Hyoma and Ryonosuke is pretty amazing, too, thought it’s not exactly a “sword fight.” I love the Zatoichi movies but Katsu’s technique would just get him killed more or less instantly in a real fight.
Honorable mention: the scene where Shimoda is working his bow in the rain at the end of Seven Samurai is really incredible.
I know this is heavy on samurai movies, but that’s because that’s where I think the best effort is expended, cinematically.
*(corrected) I initially exchanged Hyoma (Utsugi’s brother) and Utsugi. That’s what happens when you go from memory! But if I fact checked everything I remember, I’d never publish anything because I’d be re-reading every book and re-watching every movie.