This is the last of Hiroshi Inagaki's samurai trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi and I think the best. Unlike the first two films which were a lot more action oriented, the final film shows Musashi struggling with questions as much as opponents. The most important question which is: what makes a warrior worthy of renown-strength, and the number of victories, or something more?
Victorious in 60 duels, Musashi has become known throughout Japan. His only rival is the ambitious samurai Kojiro. The two do not meet in combat until the film's final scenes but they are clearly in competition from the beginning. The difference between the two are reflected in their methods. Having proved himself in combat, Musashi seeks a way to cope with the regret that he feels over the death he has caused, while Kojiro slays and maims without any conscience. Kojiro baits Musashi by slaughtering 4 hapless samurai.
But Musashi turns his back on this life by returning to his roots of farming while Kojiro goes into the service of the Shogun. Musashi drives off a band of murderous brigands and achieves a sort of grandeur very similar to that of the heroes of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Meanwhile, Kojiro has become famous using his sword on behalf of the Shogun and their long awaited duel is finally set and fought on a small island.
My favorite scene occurs when Musashi, interrupted from his meal by a ruffian, shocks the man into silence by showing his skill--not with his sword, but by plucking flies out of the air with his chopsticks (he got some clean chopsticks before continuing to eat of course). The final duel with Kojiro shows how Musashi has changed. Musashi chooses to fight Kojiro with a wooden staff rather then his sword.
The films do a pretty good job following the reality of Musashi's life. The real Musashi was a man of many different parts, both cruel and brutal, but also articulate and reflective. In the film he is shown creating several carvings of Amida Buddha. He was a gifted painter and writer. The real Musashi did have a vendetta against the Yoshioka school and he did injure and humble its leader Seijuro and killed Seijuro's two brothers. He defeated Kojiro Sasaki on a small island in 1612. Musashi later participated in the 1614 siege of Osaka castle against the surviving elements of the Toyotomi regime on whose side he had previously fought at Sekigahara. Later, he was also a participant in the destruction of the Christian community on the island of Kyushu. Musashi also apparently fought many of his duels with a wooden sword and after the duel of Ganryu Island, it was his only weapon. During the final years of his life he withdrew to a monk-like existence and wrote Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), as a legacy to those who would follow him.