The Celluloid Traveler: Miyamoto Musashi and Ganryu Island

There are many reasons to travel: to get away from day to day reality, to explore new places and meet new people, to be taken to another time and place. Perhaps not so strangely, these are also reasons we watch movies. When we sit down in front of a movie we are transported into that film and live with its characters for a short time (or, if the movie is bad, for what can seem like a long time). What could be better then than bringing a good film into the real world?

In this series, I’ll be visiting locations from various films. In some cases, it will be where the film was actually shot. In others (as is the case with this first installment) it will be to compare how the place shown in the film differs from real life. By visiting these places, by bringing a part of the film into the real world, I hope to deepen our appreciation for these films. Or at the very least, I hope to have a good time.

On April 13th, 1612, two men met on a tiny island in Western Japan. In fact, you almost feel bad calling it an island, it’s so small. At the time it wasn’t much more than a stretch of sand and some trees, sitting all alone in the middle of the Kanmon Straits, the narrow body of water that separates Japan’s main island of Honshu from its southern neighbor, Kyushu. Had those two men never set foot on this forgettable islet, it might still be known by its original name, Funajima (Boat Island). But as it happens, those two men were Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman, and Sasaki Kojiro, his archrival, and history was made here. I had come to this windy place on an unseasonably warm February day not only to see where history was made but also to see how reality measures up when compared to history’s amplifier, the movies.

For most of us, the story of Miyamoto Musashi is synonymous with Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956) (known as Miyamoto Musashi in Japan). Starring a swaggering Toshiro Mifune in the title role, this film series depicts Musashi as the star-like center of a constellation of supporting characters, with equal weight placed on both his desire to become Japan’s greatest swordsman and his magnetic sex appeal, of which he is entirely and oddly unaware. This Musashi is a focused powerhouse when one-on-one with a man, but a clueless dolt when faced with an attack by the opposite sex.

Although Inagaki’s film series has become canonical outside of Japan when talking about Musashi, it is just one of many depictions of the man. The story has been told in kabuki, novels, on TV, and in other movies, of which Tomu Uchida’s five-part series, also called Miyamoto Musashi (1961-1965) and recently released by Animeigo in the US, is worth watching. Starring Kinnosuke Nakamura, perhaps best known for playing Ogami Itto in the Lone Wolf and Cub TV series (1973-1974, 1976), Uchida’s films shows a more intense and driven Musashi, a man struggling with the path he has chosen to walk and the choices he has made.

So which depicts the “real” Musashi? Neither, most likely. Both film series are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s historical adventure novels, which romanticized the man’s life, adding in subplots about supporting characters and taking liberty with what he may have said or thought. Very little is actually known about the life of Musashi and his 60 some-odd duels, aside from some rough details, but his meeting with Sasaki Kojiro, his greatest rival, was held in front of the top men of the Hosokawa clan of northern Kyushu and is thus well documented.

But I was less concerned with what happened 400 years ago than what continues to happen on movie screens, TVs and computer monitors. For our media-saturated modern age, what matters most is image. How does the real Ganryu Island (the name was later changed to honor Kojiro, whose sword-style was called Ganryu, or “Big Rock”) compare to those depicted in the films?

To get a feel for the place where Musashi fought his last major duel, I would have to get there like he did: by boat.

Passenger ferries leave for Ganryu Island throughout the day from both sides of the Kanmon Straits. Although I left from Karato Port in Shimonoseki, on the northern side of the channel, you can just as easily catch a boat in Mojiko, the touristy port area of Kitakyushu, on the southern side. There is no reason to go to Ganryu Island other than to stand where Miyamoto Musashi did. No one lives there. There isn’t even a vending machine, a surprising fact for a country that has vending machines at temples, at the ends of roads and even at the summit of Mt. Fuji.

The Ganryu Island of today is more than five times larger than the original Funajima. Most of it is off limits to sight-seers and appears to be used as storage for metal scrap, the by-product of the busy ship-building industry and other noisy, maritime things that are happening just a few hundred meters away on the Shimonoseki side. But take a short stroll around the east side of the island, away from the ferry dock and towards the south side, and magically the clangs and bangs of 21st century industrial Japan fade away. It’s not hard to feel the reverence on the island, with its myriad of pictures of Musashi and Kojiro and few small shrines. It’s a place that resists raised voices and encourages quiet contemplation.

There, ahead, is a beach. Musashi landed on the southern edge of the island, having come over from Kokura (modern day Kitakyushu) in the south. A beach has been preserved at this spot, and a boat placed on the beach to show what it may have looked like at the time.

Uchida does a good job of recreating this in the film Miyamoto Musashi: Duel at Ganryu Island (1965). That’s Musashi emerging from the water on the left, and Kojiro, played by Ken Takakura, on the right.

Sasaki Kojiro was waiting for Musashi with the men of the Hosokawa, who had also come from Kokura. Their camp likely was set up facing south, their backs to a hill. Inagaki’s corresponding film, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), depicts this hill as rather large, with an even larger mountain visible in the background.

Uchida’s film has the camp set up on level ground.

Uchida’s film more closely resembles the real place. There is a small hill next to the beach, on which a statue depicting the duel has been erected. There are a few trees (there were likely more back then) but the island was only 17,000 square meters large, more a floating park than an island.

What is really striking about being on Ganryu Island is just how close land is on all sides. Inagaki makes it appear as if the island were far offshore rather than sandwiched between two hulking landmasses. Even taking into account modern land reclamation, which has swelled not only the island but the shores of both Honshu and Kyushu, it would still be impossible to look anywhere and not see land. This is particularly evident when looking to the east, where today the Kanmon Bridge spans the two coasts. Even without the bridge, the landmasses almost appear to touch.

We know that this eastern point is where Musashi defeated Kojiro, as Musashi made use of the rising sun to dazzle Kojiro’s eyes and distract him. In the Inagaki film, it is plain to see that there is no land behind Musashi.

The Uchida film does not contain the sun strategy but depicts the two running northeast along the beach, putting them at roughly at the same spot for the end duel. Again, Uchida frames the scene with land visible in the background.

Having seen both the beach and the likely spot where Musashi felled Kojiro (disappointingly paved over, with only the marker in the above picture there to identify it), I passed the few picnic tables, abandoned and lonely in the off-season, and got back on the ferry with the other tourists who had made this short pilgrimage.

Cruising back to port, I pondered these two cinematic recreations again. Although Uchida’s film was the more realistic, faithfully depicting the island as closer to land, Inagaki’s version wins out for me. It’s a better fight, for one, but by placing the island far from land it makes for a much more dramatic scene. Musashi must travel a long way by himself, just as he has all along this path he has chosen. He has no clan to fall back on, no master to impart wisdom. He has only his own wits and self-determination to guide the way.

This was to be Musashi’s last major duel. After this, he would concentrate more on his mental training, eventually retreating to a cave to write The Book Of Five Rings, the culmination of all of his training. It’s fitting then that Musashi should set out from his victory with no land in sight. He still had a long way to go before he could reach his longed-for destination.

Add to the Experience

For those wishing to visit Ganryu Island, a side trip to Kokura Castle in Kitakyushu is a must. Although a castle is shown in both Inagaki’s and Uchida’s films, it’s very likely that it’s not the real Kokura Castle. However, as far as recreations of Japanese castles go, it’s a nice one, despite its incongruous location next to a modern shopping mall. Both Ganryu Island and Kokura Castle can be seen easily in one day.

Fans of the films may also want to see Himeji Castle, where Miyamoto Musashi was confined for three years by Priest Takuan. Both Samurai I: Miyamoto Musashi (1954) and Miyamoto Musashi: Sword and Zen (1961) were filmed at the real Himeji Castle. And although Uchida’s series makes it sound like Himeji is just up the road from the Kanmon Straits, it’s a good couple of hours on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). It’s well worth the trip, though.