Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mikogami Trilogy - Part Three: Slaughter in the Snow (Mushukunin mikogami no jôkichi: Tasogare ni senko ga tonda aka. 無宿人御子神の丈吉 黄昏に閃光が飛んだ )

Mushukunin mikogami no jôkichi: Tasogare ni senko ga tonda

Director: Ikehiro Kazuo

Harada Yoshio
Natsuyagi Isao
Yasuda Michiyo

Format Viewed: DVD (Animeigo)

It's taken me a little while to get around to this, but I finally am posting a review of the final installment -- or should I say, what was not planned to be, but was -- of the MIKOGAMI TRILOGY, 1973's SLAUGHTER IN THE SNOW (aka. Mushukunin mikogami no jôkichi: Tasogare ni senko ga tonda.)

Once again directed by chanbara director extraordinaire Ikehiro Kazuo (the helmer of the first two), this time our titular hero Jokichi from Mikogami (Harada Yoshio) is still a wandering lone wolf looking for bloody revenge-- only the more he searches for the bastards that ruined his life, the farther afield he goes.

Firmly rooted in the matatabi tradition (and what turns out to have been "Ikehiro's last matatabi work to be released theatrically..."**) , this installment is a marked departure from the tone and storytelling of the first two and appears to have been an attempt to delve into a full-fledged chanbara series ala ZATOICHI and NEMURI KIYOSHIRO (both of which have entries directed by Ikehiro). Alas, the studio decided that they'd had enough of Jokichi and he would never be able to satisfy his bloody revenge.

(ATTENTION Miike Takashi! Screw Zatochi! Here's your next chanbara film series to complete! Jokichi has razor sharp finger nails perfect for plucking out eye balls! What more do you need?)

In this installment Jokichi is sketched even darker, as a remorseless, unfeeling knot of a man who wanders the countryside in search of revenge. Hoping one day to eviscerate the men who killed his wife and child he let's the winds blow him where they may, in the hope that fate will guide him to a delicious revenge against: Kunisada Chunji.

When Jokichi meets the tubercular "Windmill" Kobunji (Isao Natsuyagi), so named for his unorthodox use of cooking knives as deadly projectile weapons, he discovers that Kunisada Chunji has a large bounty on his head. Have accepted a 20-ryo advance for the killing of Jokichi, Kobunji hotly pursues Jokichi, taunting our three fingered swordsman with cocky statements about his superior fighting skills. Only, it seems that Jokichi and Kobunji have a lot in common and an unlikely camaraderie develops between them and though Kobunji says he will have Jokichi's head, his heart doesn't appear to be into it. Perhaps Kobunji is taking the money to kill Jokichi for another reason? One that is rooted in the love sick dreams of a former farmer's son who had the misfortune to fall in love with a woman of a higher class?

Back when Kobuji was a lowly farmer's boy he rescued Oharu (Michiyo Yasuda) from a brutal rape at the hands of the Tozo gang and in the process he fell in love with her. His noble actions endangered him and to add insult he was shunned by the woman he loved. But once smitten he became convinced that all of his problems would be rectified if he could raise his social standing. By taking the Jokichi job, Kobunji's path would take him to his home town and to a final happy reunion with the woman he loves-- before he dies of tuberculosis (!).

Alas, Kobunji was born under an unlucky star and once home-- having not killed Jokichi due to the worsening of his tuberculosis-- he discovers that Oharu doesn't love him and in fact, is now in love boss Tozo, the head of the very gang that attacked her! As some consolation for Kobunji though, the ending will prove tragic for all who have wronged him as Jokichi will reign bloody havoc on those who have doomed Kobunji to this pitiful life.

From this description you can tell that the focus of SLAUGHTER IN THE SNOW is not really on Jokichi. This installment seems to be more interested in turning Jokichi into a character with the kind of folklore that the Zatoichi films have with the Zatoichi character. The notion in the matatabi picture of the wandering hero blowing into town and then finding themselves embroiled in some sort of situation that only they can solve through their superlative fighting skills is a classic archetype of the chanbara genre. With Jokichi you've got the added element of the character who has his own shopping list of baddies that he needs to dispatch before he departs this earth, but it turns out that he has an additional calling as a general problem solver-- and if you chose to look at it this way, as the moral conscience of the world he is in.

This structure works fine when you've got a longer series, but it's hampered in this situation by two things-- First: there's no precedent for it in this series. In the first two installments Jokichi is kind of a fuck up and is morally compromised from the get go. Second: through no fault of the filmmakers, the series abruptly ends with Tasogare ni senko ga tonda, and this is the unsatisfying final note on Mikogami. Too bad.

In an interview in Chris D.'s book "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" director Ikehiro Kazuo says: "The original idea for those films was to show more with Yoshio Harada's wife and children while still alive, before they were murdered." ºº Presumably the idea being that we see his inner-motivation to survive and fight at all costs. Personally, I'm the kind of fan that likes to get down into the nitty-gritty of character motivation and flaws so I would have liked to have seen where this would have gone if given the chance. Ikehiro goes on to mention that "There was a conviction behind showing Harada's character on his vengeance quest that the men he was killing also had their own wives and children. That Harada, in turn, was becoming no different from them."º* Intriguing stuff. The good becomes the bad-- this is some heady stuff that seems informed by the real world, where heroes can become villains lest they watch their moralizing and justification of their violent actions. (The question is, would audiences have bought into this? Or do they just want a good time at the movies?)

It's a shame that the series ends here, because I kind of like where this third installment goes and would have loved to have seen what would happen next. The moral vagueries questioned in this film and (implied) with future installments would make for good (chanbara) drama.

Technically the film is well done, shot in clean wide-format with a beautiful color pallete of whites, blues and blood reds. The music is 'off-da-chain' with its booty-shaking funk (please, put out this soundtrack SOMEONE!) and the pace moves with a brisk, well focused editorial style typical of these 1970s studio pictures: Get the audiences in, get them out! Sell! Sell! Sell! But with the Ikehiro's 13 years or so of contract directing his hand is firm, but so is confidence in adding with the occasional splash of experimental cinema seen in the psychedelic, kaleidoscopic spinning transitions. I especially appreciated this and it reminds me of Inoue Yoshio's experimental flourishes in THE RAZOR: WHO'S GOT THE GOLD? (Goyoukiba: Oni no Hanzou Yawahada Koban (1974))-- a classic, by the way.

One can only wonder what series of these films would have turned into, but we'll have to file that in the large section "WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN..." As for me, I'm waiting for someone to make a follow-up; there's no time like the present.

Previous Mikogami Posts.

(**D. Chris: "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" I. B. Taurus, 2005, p. 103)
(ººD. Chris: "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film" I. B. Taurus, 2005, p. 108)
(º*D. Chris: ibid.)

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