4.0 out of 5 stars Bloody vengeance
Samurai flicks, like all long-running genres, have their eras. The Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s had directors like Kurosawa and Kobayashi telling stately stories of honor and politics, with classical samurai themes and tropes. In the 70s, however, it was all about the crowd-pleasing spectacle of blood and vengeance.
The “Mikogami Trilogy” is a perfect example of the 70s samurai. This is Shaft compared to The Godfather, with Harada Yoshio’s (Lady Snowblood – Love Song of Vengeance) character Jokichi slaughtering and swaggering to funky baselines rather than austere koto music. This is all style and fun, without the social themes and bottomless depth of the Golden Age films. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Obviously, there are three films in the trilogy, but it seems likely that more were intended. Director Ikehiro Kazuo was a veteran of “series” flicks, having filmed a few Zatoichi entries, like Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword and Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, as well as several “Sleepy Eyes of Death” flicks. It is possible that Mikogami was supposed to be the start of a new series that never really took off, or maybe they just wanted to leave the trilogy open-ended. The series is based on a serialized novel by Sasazawa Saho, and was originally marketed in the US as the “Trail of Blood” series when released on VHS, although the official title “Mushukunin mikogami no Jokichi” translates as “The Drifter Jokichi of Mikogami”. For this DVD release, Animeigo has re-titled the series “The Mikogami Trilogy”.
The first film “Trail of Blood” (original title “Kiba wa hikiretsuita” or “The Fang has been torn loose”), sets the stage with Jokichi as a bad man reformed by the love of a bad woman. A prostitute loves a killer, and together they vow to leave behind their world of bodies and blood to start a new life in peace. Jokichi’s former enemies don’t want to let him off so easy, however, and things don’t go well for his new wife and child (or for Jokichi, for that matter, who tries to pay his debt the old-fashioned yakuza way). With everything he loved take from him, the path of vengeance is the only road he can walk.
The next film, “Fearless Avenger” (“Kawakaze ni kako wa nagareta” or “The past has flowed away with the breeze from a river”), gives Jokichi a detour from his vengeance. He is commanded to protect the daughter of a powerful ganglord, who will in return help Jokichi find the men responsible for killing his wife and daughter. This almost feels like a Zatoichi set-up, but Jokichi’s world is not as kind as the blind swordsman’s, and things quickly go from bad to worse.
The final film, “Slaughter in the Snow” (“Tasogare ni senko ga tonda” or “Sparks fly in twilight”) finishes off the trilogy, but not in the way expected. Make no mistake, there are buckets of blood splattered across the white snow, and Jokichi gets to do some fine slaughtering, but he has also matured in his quest, and no longer seems to have the drive to revenge. He hooks up with a partner named “Whirlwind” Kobunji and they set off on a different quest. I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but this is definitely not the ending I had foreseen.
The “Mikogami Trilogy” is far from the greatest Japanese film series ever made, but it is still a good time and worth checking out. There are some fantastic visuals, my favorite of which is Jokichi’s basket-like hat slowly falling apart as the series progresses, showing more and more of his face. The sword fighting is also excellent; Jokichi loses some of his fingers in the first film, and has to adopt a creative style in order to keep cutting his enemies, as well as using his remaining fingers as a lethal claw. As always, Animeigo has put together a nice package, with top-quality subtitles, production notes and some other bonus features.