AnimEigo / 1972, 1973 / 88 Minutes, 80 Minutes, 83 Minutes / Unrated
Available at Amazon.com
The 1970s were an interesting period for Samurai cinema in a lot of ways. Much like the Western had done in the ’60s, morphing from the rip-roaring American-style Western, such as The Magnificent Seven, into the operatic stylings of the Spaghetti Western, once films such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly were produced, the Samurai film went through a very similar seismic shift in the 1970s. This happened when films known as Jidaigeki (period dramas) in Japan, the province of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki, which were rich in showing the traditions and settings in the ancient times of the country, gave way to the blood-thirsty action of Chambara flicks (sword-play adventures), Samurai films that would emphasize action and nudity more than classic films of the country would.
This period produced most of the standards of Chambara, including many of the adventures of Zatoichi, Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf and Cub. All of these produced the gory sprays of blood Quentin Tarantino emulated in his Kill Bill films, taking their over the top queues from Spaghetti Westerns to create incredible displays of furious swordplay and other violence. Those looking to examine this period further would do well to take in The Mikogami Trilogy, a series not as big in stature as those mentioned, but one with enough severed limbs and red geysers to satisfy the most hardened fan of the genre. Presented in a new set by AnimEigo, fans can now get all three adventures about the wandering swordsman looking for vengeance in one shot.
Disc One: The Trail of Blood
In this first film., we’re introduced to Jokichi of Mikogami (Yoshio Harada), a world-weary swordsman who wanders into a country inn to rest, as one of his feet is injured in battle and suffers from a horrible infection. While trying to recover from his injuries, he stumbles upon a state of affairs where the local Yakuza boss is trying to force the Madame of the inn into marrying him. Intervening in the situation, Jokichi injures many of the gangster’s men, and runs off with the girl; the two vowing to live as peasants so as to never have to face that type of danger again. As years pass, the two make a life together and have a child, Jokichi working as a woodworker so they can get by. Times are tough, but they are happy, until the thugs the swordsman had scorned end up recognizing him and shatter the world Jokichi had peacefully made for himself. In the film’s last half, we get to see Jokichi return to his former self, and begin his road to vengeance.
The Trail of Blood is definitely the slowest of the three Chambara flicks, but still has plenty to offer in way of action and entertainment. What Director Kazuo Ikehiro seems to have done is treat all three films as if they were one story, taking time to really develop character, which would account for the lack of zip in this movie’s opening half. The last half of the movie though, has plenty of flashing swords; bad guys seemingly to come out of the woodwork just to get cut down.
While not the top of this genre in any way, The Trail of Blood is a fine example of Chambara, with plenty of style and a surprising amount of substance as well. There are some really nice touches throughout, especially a moment where Jokichi is trying to ignore a woman getting accosted by a group of ruffians, until the memory of his dead wife makes it too much for him to bare. Edited for maximum impact, this is a terrific flourish of style be the director. In the end, the movie does everything a flick like this should do; it entertains you with loads of bloodshed and sets you up for the two films to follow.
Disc Two: The Fearless Avenger
The Fearless Avenger does a decent job of catching you up with Jokichi’s plight up to this point, and then immediately throws you into this new movie, as the now renowned killer must escort a Yakuza boss’ daughter on a long journey to safety in order to obtain information on the men who are responsible for his family’s death who we’re killed off in the first film. Just like the first film, we’re given a large helping of sword fights and bloodsheds, and to be honest the story flows a little better than the first film does.
The darkness that runs throughout these films makes them a little more serious than your standard Zatoichi film, and again Yoshio Harada is excellent as the trilogy’s main character. This is a character that’s a little hard to pin down, not outwardly heroic and noble like so many of the heroes of these films. It is a testament to Harada’s charisma as an actor that we stay with Jokichi, even though often his intentions and actions are quite far from noble.
Disc Three: Slaughter in the Snow
In Slaughter in the Snow, the closing chapter of The Mikogami Trilogy, Jokichi meets up with a hired assassin named “Windmill” Kobunji, a man with a curious technique for dispatching his victims; using a knife, he spins his arm furiously, and with deadly accuracy plunges the knife into his target’s heart. Though Kobunji has been paid to eliminate Jokichi, the two find each other interesting enough that they begin to travel together. What ensues is a relationship that is both respectful and yet antagonistic, reminding me of the leads from 3:10 to Yuma and how they treat each other in that film.
Slaughter in the Snow is a mixed bag in some ways, because overall it fails to really end the series the way it should. We get no great resolution to Jokichi’s storyline, and it looks as if the film wasn’t supposed to be the last entry in the series, but ended up being so. This is unfortunate, because to be honest this was the film in the series that I liked the most.
We get just as much action here as with the other two films, but the overall aesthetic of the film is richer than the other two. I love the character of Kobunji, played by Natsiyagi Isao, who has his own personal demons he must slay before having to deal with Jokichi. This leads to some terrific sequences, including an early fight scene in which Jokichi stands and watches while Kobunji must deal with a small army of fighters.
Just as with the other two films, Slaughter in the Snow is filled with a dark mood and a terrifically funky score, heightening just how enjoyable this flick is while we watch the carnage. It’s too bad that the movie doesn’t have the finality you would expect, because it just brings an overall disappointment to a movie that is actually quite good while standing on its own. Again, it’s clear this wasn’t meant to be the last film of this series, and for whatever reasons it ended up being just that.
While other Chambara series suffered similar fates, the detriment to this series is a little more severe than most. Still, this is an enjoyable Chambara series on the whole, with sword fights a plenty, giving genre fans exactly what they’re looking for. While I wouldn’t say this trilogy would be the first Chambara series I’d jump into as a new fan, those looking for something after exhausting their Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi collections could do a lot worse.
All films are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, but the prints on the films vary quite a bit. Trail of Blood’s is actually quite bad, with a lot of image problems that make the image really pixilated at times. The prints for the other two films are quite a bit better, with the clarity of the picture being quite acceptable on both sequels.
The mono audio track for all three films is pretty decent, with minimal damage coming to each of the films in this regard. The transfers here are actually quite good, which seems to make the print on Trail of Blood actually worse by comparison.
Trailers – You get trailers on all three discs for these films, as well as several titles that are similar in tone, including Shogun Assassin, Lady Snowblood, and Shadow Hunters.
|The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for The Mikogami Trilogy
(NOT AN AVERAGE)