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MAIM 1/08

Chinese movies were easy. After all, when I started to seriously research kung-fu films three decades ago, there were six movie theaters in New York City’s Chinatown – each showing a different double feature every week. Japanese movies were a little more dicey. Even though they were more lauded than Hong Kong films, there were few places to find them in Manhattan. Sure, the Japan Society (near the United Nations) showed movies every week, but they were almost always beautifully made, heart-felt, dramas, romances, or tragedies. I wanted action.
Thankfully, at least a few times a year, retrospective repertory movie theaters such as the Bleeker Street Cinema downtown and the Thalia uptown would have Japanese film fests showcasing samurai (“chambara”) flicks – and not just the stately classics of Akira Kurosawa, either.
But never, not once, in all those years, did any of them ever show what has become known as the Mikogami Trilogy. No, that honor goes to AnimEigo, who has recently released a DVD box set of the trilogy, crafted together with the company’s usual care, knowledge, and consideration.
These three films – The Trail of Blood, The Fearless Avenger, and Slaughter in the Snow – appeared in 1972 and ’73, at the height of the most bloody and baroque phase of the samurai series era. But by then Mikogami writer and director Kazuo Ikehiro had already directed more than thirty movies in a little more than ten years, and may have been getting just a teensy tired of them.
It would certainly explain why he set out, apparently, to make “anti-samurai samurai thrillers.” It was quite a challenge, since virtually all chambara films were “anti-samurai” – each clearly showing how the samurai code of Bushido was so easily corrupted, impracticable, and inhuman. Ikehiro, however, did his best to make his new entry even more loopy.
First he took a serial called Shuukan Gendai by author Sasazawa Saho, and refashioned it as the story of “Drifter Jokichi of Mikogami” – a hired sword who decides to go straight, only to have his family murdered and two of his own fingers hacked off by the gang he deserted. That certainly sets up the classic tale of revenge, which infused such similar samurai hits as the Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart series, but Ikehiro seemed adamant to take a different, more chaotic, tact.
As an example, even though Jokichi holds his samurai sword in a defensive, stabbing, position, like the famous blind swordsman Zatoichi, Ikehiro goes way out of his way to have the many fight scenes designed and filmed as scrambling, messy brawls – eschewing the gloriously choreographed fight scenes of his more famous films (like 1964’s Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword).
As another example, even though Jokichi fashions two artificial claws in place of his missing fingers, Ikehiro goes way out of his way not to use this affectation as a climatic killing stroke as he had for the “Full Moon Cut” in the several films he directed in the Son of Black Mass/Sleepy Eyes of Death series (like 1967’s Trail of Traps).
In addition, Ikehiro uses the camera in a basic “cinema verite” style, and cast relative newcomer Yoshio Harada as Jokichi – portraying him as a gruff, unkempt, monosyllabic, moody, seemingly bipolar manic-depressive who becomes ever more alienated as the films progress. To top it off, the tone of the films fell between the balletic Zatoichis and the perverse blood eruptions of the Razor Hanzo trilogy (which were released at the same time).
As a result, the Mikogami films were not clutched to the Nippon bosom as were the other aforementioned series. In any case, Jokichi suffered the same fate as Razor Hanzo and even Itto Ogami (the hero of the Lone Wolf and Cub films) in that all their film series ended before their stories did. The Mikogami trilogy is really only a trilogy because only three were made … but any viewer could see where they were going. Now you can be one of those viewers, since AnimEigo has remastered the films in all their frenetic glory from new 35 millimeter prints, reducing noise and film grain while enhancing colors during the digital processing.
The trilogy is made even more interesting in that it marked, essentially, the end of Ikehiro’s film career, but the beginning of Harada’s, who went on to star in nearly a hundred more movies, including such classics as Hunter in the Dark, The Heartbreak Yakuza, and Azumi. In fact, he’s still working. His latest film, Even if You Walk and Talk, is filming as this is written.
So if you want to see what all the fuss is about, check out the Mikogami Trilogy. Like all of AnimEigo’s great output, you can explore it at www.animeigo.com, call ‘em at 1-800-24ANIME (in North Carolina, 910-251-1850), fax ‘em at 910-763-2376, or write to ‘em at AnimEigo, P.O. Box 989, Wilmington NC 28402-0989. But should you tell ‘em who sent you? I’ll let you decide…but don’t make me start on the road to vengeance…!