Monday, May 28, 2007

The Fearless Avenger (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kawakaze ni Kako ha Nagareta)

The Fearless Avenger
Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kawakaze ni Kako ha Nagareta

Director: Ikehiro Kazuo
Harada Yoshio
Nakamura Atsuo
Minegishi Ryunosuke

80 minutes
Format Viewed: DVD (Animeigo)

The second film of the Mikogami trilogy and for some mysterious reason named “The Fearless Avenger” though the Japanese title should be translated to something like “The past flows on the river breeze.” You know what? On second thought, “The Fearless Avenger” really is a better title, seeing as this series of films is constructed on one of the old standbys of the Chanbara genre: revenge.

Our favorite razor finger nailed hero, Jokichi from Mikogami, apparently is not that good at what he is billed as being: a badass sword fighter and general ass kicker. He, however, IS good at starting up trouble and inevitably getting over his head into it. Right here we’re already in some interesting territory for the Chanbara genre—and this is one of the reasons why this second film of the Mikogami trilogy is ultimately more interesting than the enjoyable first installment.

While in title it is a revenge story—and this series still has Jokichi hot and bothered on the trail of bloody revenge for the men whole brutally raped and murdered his wife and slaughtered his young son—it proves to be a greater lesson of how shitty life really was in old Edo; how the rich and powerful held onto power in through coercion, manipulation and strong-armed tactics (some things never change!). We also learn that having three main bad guys is a perfect equation for a trilogy because you only need to kill one baddy a time at the rousing climax of each film. But what makes this all alternately interesting and occasionally frustrating is that Jokichi’s odds of survival in these films are so totally against him that he has no choice but to be saved by dumb-luck, last minute decisions for mercy by scheming Yakuza honchos (they never learn, do they?), and the occasional mysterious sword fighter, who has an incredibly well-defined moral compass and stunning sword skills.

Jokichi still on his quest for revenge makes a rash decision to assassinate the evil Chogoro while he is at a meeting of the eight Yakuza heads during the memorial for a deceased comrade. This show of bravado and stupidity guarantees Jokichi a death sentence, which is narrowly averted by Boss Juzaburo, who, for some reason, desires harmony at this important occasion. Now totally in Juzaburo’s debt, Jokichi is hesitant to take up boss Umezo’s request to guard and transport Juzaburo’s daughter Oyuki back to him. Ultimately Jokichi has no choice in the matter and agrees to transport Oyuki through the danger forests home. But tragedy strikes when Oyuki is raped and murdered (this seems to be par for the course in old Japan) and Jokichi becomes truly stuck between bad and worse. All that remains for him is to walk down the path of hell that is his fate in life and fight for his survival and maybe, kill those who destroyed his life.

So, after watching The Mikogami films and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance Harada Yoshio is officially one of the oddest choices for badass swordsman. Though a relatively famous actor in the seventies who was well-known for embodying anti-hero pathos, he is a veteran of countless films (and still working at a mind-bending rate, thank you very much). That said, there’s something about his slightly cross-eyed, shaggy-haired Jokichi that is anathema to the Chanbara genre. What he does do well as an actor is force and brooding anger. What he doesn’t do so well is romancing the ladies, generally appearing too soft or sensitive—at least to this reviewer’s eyes. While not a bad actor in these early films of his career, he isn’t nearly as engaging enough of a performer to really support the weight of these films. But as I mentioned at the start, that didn’t really matter, what people were coming to these films for was the comfort of the Chanbara genre with, perhaps, a bit of a twist of something new. This time it is a razor taloned sword fighter who is a bit of a fuck up who gets beaten constantly. That, in and of itself, was something that you didn’t see too much in Chanbara. Jokichi is interesting to watch because he doesn’t seem so super powerful, or super human-- that alone made for a different type of viewing experience.

This all being said, the Mikogami films aren’t, honestly, the best of the Chanbara genre. While fun to watch, they are very obvious quickie cash-ins—but that’s what program pictures were intended to be, cash machines. Therefore this film and others of the exploitation genre should be viewed in the same sort of context as the modern V-Cinema flick: they satisfy the hankering for this kind of storytelling. You want O-Toro and Kobe Beef? Don’t eat at the mall. You want some comfort food, maybe a pretty good burger? This is the place to come.

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