Genre: Yojimbo Samurai Tale
Director: Inagaki Hiroshi (1970)
review in one breath
A rogue ronin samurai is hired by a mysterious man to travel to a snowy mountain pass and wait for further instructions. Along the way he rescues an abused maiden who asks to accompany him until he reaches his destination. Once there, the samurai encounters a hodge-podge of seemingly innocuous local characters who unbeknownst to him are plotting a major ambush of an official caravan soon to pass their way. This is the last of Toshiro Mifune's "Yojimbo" films.
In terms of a milestone film, the back story of Incident at Blood Pass has plenty to offer. It stars and was co-produced by mega-samurai Toshiro Mifune [ 三船 敏郎 ] and is the last in the series of four films revolving around his "Yojimbo" (the unnamed bodyguard) character. The prior three Yojimbo films are Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970).
Mifune's Yojimbo character first appeared in the aptly named 1961 film Yojimbo by renowned director Akira Kurosawa. The following year Kurosawa directed his second Yojimbo film, Sanjuro also starring Mifune. The formidable, unnamed ronin (masterless and wandering) samurai was an immediate hit with Japanese audiences and was rather quickly adapted for Western audiences by director Sergio Leone. His 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars, starring a young and squinty Clint Eastwood is based quite wholly on Yojimbo and paved the way for a series of "Spaghetti Western" films starring Eastwood as the formidable, unnamed yet somehow endearing gun slinger.
By 1970, the year of this film's release, Mifune had become a phenomenally successful actor and was already highly engaged in film production and direction. As far as other samurai/ronin actors remotely on par with him in terms of popular appeal and screen presence, there was only one -- Shintaro Katsu who had long-played the beloved rotund yet formidably fierce blind swordsman Zatoichi. Somehow in 1970, Mifune and Katsu got together and decided to appear in each other's films. The first appearance involved Mifune's Yojimbo character appearing in Zatiochi's world with director Kihachi Okamoto's 1970 film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. The second, reciprocal film in which Katsu appears in Yojimbo's world is Incident at Blood Pass. Katsu's character here, however, is not as the good-willed, blind swordsman, but the quasi-antagonist Gentetsu. For Mifune, Katsu's participation in Incident at Blood Pass would mark the retirement of the Yojimbo character, while Katsu's role as Zatoichi would continue for several years thereafter.
The film's narrative and its reference to some historical names allows us to peg fairly precisely the timeframe of this film. Audiences are given a brief paragraph on the historical significance of the "Sanshuu Pass" (Three River Pass) where the tale takes place. We are told that during the Sengoku Era the pass was a critical and strategic resource for local daimyos as it connected three districts or prefectures. With the emergence of the Tokugawa Era and the unification of the warring daimyos, the pass' strategic value became obsolete and proved useful only to outcasts and villains desiring a secluded, roundabout passage through the territories. The narrative then places the tale sometime within the Tokugawa Era which ran from 1603-1868 AD.
Through the events and dialogue which unfold in the film, we are able to narrow the precise date down quite a bit. Although the mysterious employer of Yojimbo refers to himself only as "The Crow", his secret messages all bear the stamp of the "Tempo-sen" which is created by dipping the large Tempo-sen coin in ink and pressing it firmly onto the secret notes. The tempo-sen's historical existence as currency was very short-lived. It was introduced in 1835 AD and was removed from circulation around 1865 AD near the commencement of the Meiji Era.
Late in the narrative Katsu's Gentetsu character divulges the driving force behind his determination to go through with his destructive plans. He was once a high standing samurai in the capitol of Edo until a high official caught in sexual promiscuity with a High Lord's maiden accused the innocent Gentetsu instead. The corrupt official's name was Mizuno Echizennokami, an actual historical figure who served as Chief Minister under the Tokugawan Shogun. Historians note that Mizuno was the mastermind behind the infamous "Tempo Reforms" implemented by the Tokugawan Shogunate from 1841 to 1843 AD. Interestingly. there also seems to be some historical evidence to support the notion that Mizuno was obsessed with women and used his office to satiate his sexual appetites.
All of this, put together, suggests that te tale depicted here takes place in the early 1840's AD, very late in the Tokugawan Era and during the socio-political turmoil (such as the Tempo Reforms) which would give rise to the new Meiji Era.
A formidable ronin is hired by a man identifying himself only as "The Crow" to travel to the remote Sanshuu Pass and await further instructions. He is told to remain vigilent since "something" will undoubtedly happen there. He is also told that he is free to kill whomever or refrain from bloodshed at his own discretion.
Along the way to Sanshuu Pass, the ronin rescues a young woman from a drunk and abusive husband, and together they continue upward into the mountains. Once they have arrived they make use of an isolated inn, home to a handful of colorful characters, a few of which have rather shady backstories. While at the inn, the ronin slowly discovers that all is not what it seems and that a major ambush ("machibuse" / 待ち伏せ) is being planned for a secret shipment of the Tokugawa's gold traveling the remote mountain pass.
After only a few days with this assorment of characters, he finds his allegiance torn between simply killing the "bad guy" and recognizing the injustices of the aristocratic machinery upon tthe common folk.
This is a really good samurai tale and serves as a satisfying conclusion to the Yojimbo saga. All of the characters herein are well drawn and developed, and their quirky blend adds significantly to the tale's momentum. Portions of the storyline are a little overdone in the "feel good" category and there seems to be much more emphasis on humanitarian emotions than in the previous Yojimbo films. There is also significantly less violence and bloodshed than one might expect from the presence of our two formidable and beloved swordsmen.
This more mild and emotional presentation is perhaps a weakness, at least in terms of this film's relation to earlier films in both the Yojimbo and Zatoichi franchises. But the quiet strength and wisdom of the unnamed Yojimbo character comes through very strongly and thus delivers what Yojimbo fans most likely want to see.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (with subtitles)
|Fourth and final of the Yojimbo films. This one stars Zatoichi swordsman Shintaro Katsu alongside Toshiro Mifune.||Plenty of threatening glares and some death by sword, but this comes across as relatively tame and restrained.||Some groping of a beatiful maiden, but then Yojimbo wanders along..||One green skull for all the historical tidbits contained in this film.|