Blu-ray Review: The Bounty Hunter Trilogy (Limited Edition)

Blu-ray Reviews, Reviews, Top Story

During the ’60s, Akira Kurasawa had two of his Samauri films adapted into Westerns. His masterpiece Seven Samauri became the Magnificent Seven with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and more. It was a major hit. Unbeknownst to Kurasawa at the time, Sergio Leone used his Yojimbo as the basis of Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. This film ignited the Spaghetti Western revolution (and Kurasawa sued Leone for adapting his script without permission). So why shouldn’t the Japanese Samauri film borrow elements from Westerns to give a different touch to life in feudal Japan? Can the Wild West exist in the Far East without feeling awkward or having actual cowboy characters? The Bounty Hunter Trilogy features a Japan that’s about to change from its traditional ways. Tomisaburo Wakayama plays the bounty hunter. You might know him as ronin Ogami Ittō in the Lone Wolf and Cub movie series. This was his major character before he started pushing a cart with a kid around the countryside. He’s dealing with a lot more in these three movies than childcare.

Killer’s Mission (1969 – 90 minutes) opens up with a music score that sounds like a James Bond movie is happening. There is a bit of international intrigue. A ship from Holland has arrived in Japan, filled with guns and eager to make a deal with a clan. Other Shogunate officials are fearful that such an armory could change the power dynamics. They fear pure violence and chaos. They band together and hire Ogami Ittō for the mission of putting an end to this arms deal. He loads up various secret weapons and journeys to the clan’s territory to infiltrate, discover the deal and bring it to an abrupt end. Wakayama doesn’t get overwhelmed by the gadget play. He does a bit of subterfuge such as faking that he’s blind to get in deep. It’s a thrilling adventure including an explosive finale. It plays less 007 and more like an episode of The Wild Wild West TV series.

The Fort of Death (1969 – 98 minutes) opens like a Spaghetti Western with Shikoro Ichibei riding through a rather rocky and dirt covered terrain in Japan after nabbing his man. He has a showdown that could happen in a Sergio Leone movie. When he’s not collecting bounties, Ichibei’s working as a doctor in a village. He’s a man of many talents. A group of farmers offer him money to come save them from villainous characters. He puts together a crew that includes female fighter Kagero (now played by Tomoko Mayama). This is not a direct retelling of Seven Samauri or even The Magnificent Seven. Instead of a group of roaming bandits, the people terrorizing the village are the local rulers who keep jacking up the taxes so there’s no way the farmers can survive. This is a protest against the feudal lord. Ichibei shows up with his crew and meets other fighters hired to protect the wall. These hired killers are far from magnificent and might be more of a threat to the farmers and their women than the soldiers outside the gate. During an initial raid on the front gate, we witness how Ichibei is no longer anti-gun. He’s embraced technology. We get a “Say hello to my little friend” moment nearly 20 years before Scarface. There are comic elements as things get more and more grim for the farmers under siege. The lighthearted moments turn incredibly dark since there seems to be little hope that anyone from above rescue the farmers from the local tyrant. Wakayama proves once captivating on screen as he holds back the constant attacks. Tomoko Mayama adds so much as his partner in attacks. They’re a great lethal couple.

Eight Men To Kill (1972 – 88 minutes) has a group transporting a gold shipment get attack by group of bandits using bow and arrows. Some escapes with the loot only to realize he’s dying. He swallows one of the gold coins and falls into the water. His body is retrieved and brought to Shikoro Ichibei’s medical center. He cuts open the guy and find the coin. Around the same time, he gets hired to track down the missing gold. In a way, he’s already a few steps into the case. He heads off to once more retrieve a bounty although he has a set time to retrieve the loot. This isn’t quite as intense as The Fort of Death. Wakayama makes it a great adventure as we get the western plot of finding the gold coins.

The Bounty Hunter Trilogy cements Tomisaburo Wakayama as one of the great badasses of Japanese Cinema along with Toshiro Mfume and Sonny Chiba. He’s a frumpy and lumpy guy. Yet when he pulls out his samurai sword, Wakyayama slices and dices with the best of them. The Spaghetti Western influence pays off since this is a time in Japanese history when the pistol and rifle take the place of the sword and bow during battles. It’s not unnatural to see the samurai on horseback and firing guns at each other. These are three period pieces that are not stuck in the past. If you are a fan of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, you better get your hands on The Bounty Hunter Trilogy boxset to see him in action without a child. This version is limited to 3,000 copies. You don’t want to have to hire Ogami Ittō to track down a copy.

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The Video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer brings out the details clearly. You see the intensity in Tomisaburo Wakayama’s face when he goes on the attack. The Audio is DTS-HD MA Mono in Japanese. It’s a clean track so you can hear swords clashing or guns being fired. All three films are subtitled in English.

Audio commentary on Killer’s Mission by Tom Mes, a historian of Japanese cinema. He gets into the background of the release. We get plenty of details on the career of Tomisaburo Wakayama. Did you know he was in The Bad News Bears Go To Japan and Michael Douglas’ Black Rain?

Interview with film historian Akihito Ito (15:43) about director Shigehiro Ozawa who made Killer’s Mission and Eight Men To Kill. He gets into how Toei made program pictures and Ozawa rose up from the ranks. Toei wanted the films to be less artsy and followable to people who have a hard day at work and don’t wanted to think too much. During the time of US Army occupation, they couldn’t make Samauri films, so the studio made detective movies. Ozawa got a reputation for working on time and budget. He also could direct action and drama so the studio didn’t need an extra director on the shoot. During the ’70s when TV was getting a major audience Toei promised to deliver the carnality and violence TV couldn’t match. We get to learn a connection between Tomisaburo Wakayama and the Zatoichi film series. Ozawa would go on to direct The Street Fighter films with Sonny Chiba.

Visual essay on Eiichi Kudo (18:00) by Japanese cinema expert Robin Gatto. The focus is on The Fort of Death. He talks about how Toei Films would produce 104 movies a year so they could supply a fresh double feature each weekend for theater owners that had exclusive contracts with them. We get to understand how samurai movies changed over the decades by the studio. Eiichi Kudo is presented as a director who worked well at the studio although he pushed the boundaries like letting mud splash on the camera in a shot. The studio executives weren’t into such a visual revolution. He gets into the elements of The Fort of Death.

Gallery of 16 images of posters and press photos.

Trailers include Bounty Hunter: Killer’s Mission (3:13), Bounty Hunter: The Fort of Death (3:20) and Bounty Hunter: Eight Men to Kill (3:07).

Six postcards of artwork from the films

Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by samurai film expert Alain Silver, an obituary of Eiichi Kudo by Kinji Fukasaku and an interview piece on Tomisaburo Wakayama after his retirement from filmmaking.

Radiance Films present The Bounty Hunter Trilogy. Directed by Eiichi Kudo & Tomisaburo Wakayama. Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, Tomoko Mayama, Minoru Ôki, Arashi Kanjuro, Bin Amatsu & Chiezo Kataoka. Boxset Contents: 3 movies on 2 Blu-ray discs. Rating: Unrated. Release Date: March 26, 2024.

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Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.