Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Mikogami Trilogy: The Trail of Blood, The Fearless Avenger, Slaughter in the Snow


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know me and old samurai movies.  I love them all.  The ones by the masters from the 50's and 60's are great pieces of art, and the ones from the 70's were often bloody, stylish, grindhouse flicks.  I can't pick favorites between the two.  They have samurais so they're all great.

In this entry, I'm looking at a trilogy of revenge films from the early 1970's, by director Kazuo Ikehiro, known as the Mikogami Trilogy. 

The Trail of Blood (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kiba wa Hikasaita), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1972


The first film introduces us to Jokichi Mikogami, a fierce ronin mercenary.  At the beginning, he wanders into an inn, feverish.  While he's there, a gang of Yakuza jerks bust in and try to rape the girl, but Jokichi steps up to defend her, cutting the boss, Kyubei in the forehead.  He vows revenge and they take off.  Jokichi and the girl (sorry, names are tough when there's no Wikipedia for the movie I'm reviewing) soon fall in love, and he gives up his violent life in exchange for a peaceful one.

Three years later, Jokichi is still living with the girl, and they have a young son.  He gets a job opportunity, but must travel through the territory of the gang that still hates him to get there.  He promises not to fight them, and to keep his head down and get home alive.  Of course, he runs into them, and they hold him down and start bashing his pinky and ringfinger off with the hilt of a sword.  It's a pretty gruesome scene, even though the fingers are obviously fake.  When Jokichi can't stand it anymore, he swipes a sword off one of the guys, and instead of attacking them, he quietly slices off his two fingers, returns the sword, and thanks them as they all stare in shock.  Holy crap!

Unfortunately, Jokichi arrives home too late.  They already murdered his wife and son while he was away.  Aaaaaaand cue vengeance.  Jokichi finds out which bosses were behind the brutal act, and in true samurai tradition, becomes an unstoppable killing machine in order to bring them down.  He always has his wife's red belt around his waist, and he ties sharp little spikes to the tips of the remaining three fingers of his mangled hand and uses them as claws.  HELL YEAH.

It's a pretty standard revenge movie, actually, but very well executed and fun to watch.  Yoshio Harada is totally cool as Jokichi Mikogami.  There's also a mysterious one-eyed helper character named Hurricane Isaburo, but unfortunately, we never end up learning what his deal is.  The score is that weird but awesome funky music that pervaded 70's samurai movies such as the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  He even has sex with his lover with funky saxophones playing in the background.  Of course, this is an ongoing series, so he doesn't find all three bosses in this movie, he just faces off against the guy whose head he cut at the beginning (and all his men, of course).

The Fearless Avenger (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kawakaze ni Kako wa Nagareta), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1972


The second film in the trilogy, The Fearless Avenger, is kind of the weak link of the three, but it's still pretty good.  This time around, Jokichi continues his relentless quest for vengeance, even walking right into a meeting of all the gang bosses and attacking them up front.  All this serves to do is get them angry, of course.

The main part of the story is about Jokichi being assigned by one Yakuza boss to protect another boss' runaway daughter and return her to him.  Of course, things end badly, and of course, Jokichi ends up butchering another army of guys.  This goes without saying.

The Fearless Avenger is lean and mean at only about 75 minutes, not including the 5-minute recap of the first film at the beginning.  It's still good, and there are some pretty surprising twists in the story, but it doesn't have a lot of character development for Jokichi, who had this great origin in the first film, and in this film just kind of spins his wheels.   I loved the final showdown, in a rocky river, with Jokichi submerging his sword arm underwater so his attackers can't see where he's pointing it.

Slaughter in the Snow (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Tasogare ni Senko ga Tonda), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1973


That title makes a pretty hefty promise, doesn't it?  Slaughter.  In the snow.  And let me tell you, it lives up to it.  Slaughter in the Snow is by FAR the bloodiest movie in the series.  It's also the best one, and I'm not saying that just because of the geysers of blood spraying out of chests, though that is a factor.

After the horrible events of the first two films, Jokichi has pretty much tossed aside all semblance of humanity.  As the movie opens, he just sits by his fire, quietly eating his pheasant, as a gang of bandits attacks and attempts to rape a poor girl.  He doesn't even look their way until they get in his face.  The girl follows him, despite his attempts to brush her off.

Soon, a similar scene plays out differently, as Jokichi witnesses a man save a girl from a gang without thinking twice.  Jokichi soon meets the man, an assassin named "Windmill" Kobunji, who is suffering from consumption.  He uses throwing knives with deadly accuracy, and throws them by twirling his arm like a windmill.  He's right upfront with Jokichi that he's already been paid a hefty retainer to kill him.  Despite this, they have a mutual respect for each other, and decide to travel for a while before they duel.

The strange, layered relationship between Jokichi and Kobunji is at the center of the movie.  When a bunch of men seek vengeance on Kobunji, Jokichi just sits back to watch the battle, reasoning that if they kill Kobunji, it's one less problem for him.  But when Kobunji begins coughing up blood during the battle, Jokichi steps in and scares the guys off, then takes the suffering assassin back to the inn where they met and helps nurse him back to health.

The reason I liked Slaughter in the Snow so much is the depth and complexity of the characters.  It's about Jokichi reacquiring a conscience.  The girl he rescued even calls him on his hypocrisy: He won't save a helpless girl being attacked by rapists, but now he's saving this guy who wants him dead?  I don't think Jokichi could even explain his reasoning, but I think it brought him back from the void.

The movie is also only 75 minutes long, and all the more intense for it.  The blood is a sharp red on the snow white scenery.  Kazuo Ikehiro must have liked the way red on white looked, because he pours it everywhere.  Slaughter is also the most visually stylized of the series.  Lots of really cool editing tricks and cinematography. 

There is a downside, though: The word "trilogy" is misused here.  A trilogy is when three movies tell a complete story.  Just because there are three Austin Powers movies doesn't mean it's the "Austin Powers Trilogy".  This is not the full story, and was clearly meant to continue for at least one more movie.  Jokichi never completes his vengeance on the third gang boss, and I guess he never will.  But still, Slaughter in the Snow is a great movie, even standing on its own.  I would recommend all three, but the third is by far the coolest.

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