Friday, February 28, 2014

Shokin Kubi: Isshun Hachi-nin Giri (1972) review


Wakayama Tomisaburo (Shikoro Ichibei), Oki Minoru (Kanoke Tatsu), Amachi Shigeru (Azami Yajuro), Kato Sayoko (Tendo), Kawamura Maki (Omon), Endo Tatsuo (Hirutoku), Imai Kenji (Yashi Okami), Naito Taketoshi (Noro Jinnai), Uchida Asao (Hotta Bungo), Minami Toshiaki (husband with pregnant wife)

Directed by Ozawa Shigehiro

The Short Version: The director who started it all returns to close out the trilogy with a convoluted, and very violent tale of greed with a touch of revenge. A shipment of government gold has been stolen and Shikoro is hired to find it within five days before Edo's economy collapses; but it's a complicated matter as the gold has passed through a multitude of hands. The wide array of characters -- some of which are unnecessary -- is mildly confusing at times, but it's a fun journey picking over the various allegiances and double-crosses. The humor that dotted the previous entries has left the building, however. The somber tone and shocker ending may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some viewers, but the versatility of Wakayama makes for a satisfying chaser.

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

Shikoro Ichibei undertakes the task of retrieving a half ton of government gold stolen by Yasha Okami. Used to mint currency in Edo, the longer it remains missing, the greater the threat to Edo's already unstable economy. He has five days to find it leading up to a solar eclipse. Along the way, he encounters numerous shady characters who either had the gold stolen from them, or are looking for it themselves. Among this clutch of self-serving individuals is a ruthless ex-secret service agent who will stop at nothing to lay his hands on the consignment of coins. 

The director known around the world for his ultra violent THE STREET FIGHTER (1974-1977) trilogy, returns to finish what he started with the last entry in the vastly entertaining BOUNTY HUNTER series starring Wakayama Tomisaburo. Three years had passed since the release of GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI (1969), a film that, while notably spectacular, deviated from the formula present in Ozawa's introductory film. With his return, some of the elements missing from part two resurface for the third, and final round.

Whereas SHOKIN KASEGI bore an historical template with which to introduce its charismatic bounty hunter spy, the second movie went for a straightforward western approach with relentless, bloody action -- totally abandoning Shikoro's spy  nuances. This final film is somewhere in the middle. It's not as bombastic as part two, nor does it possess any of the humor that enlivened either previous picture. The amount of action is likewise streamlined. SHOKIN KUBI is more rich in its characterizations, motivations, and depiction of mans innate greed. Nearly every character lusts after money, or uses sex to get more of it. The screenplay by Takada Koji (who worked on the previous pictures) and Honda Tatsuo makes this the running theme of the film.

Ozawa's movie is also far more bitter when compared with its two predecessors. Even with fewer fight scenes, the violence is ratcheted up a notch; and the ending is downbeat to put it mildly. There are a few gory scenes with arms and heads cut off, but there's also a scene (two, actually) where a man's stomach is cut open to remove gold he swallowed. One of these takes place in Shikoro's clinic (it sets the plot in motion), and the other occurs at the Koshu Mines where the film winds down before the climactic settling of accounts. This brought to mind the similar scene from DJANGO KILL... IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! (1967), but minus the extreme cynicism of a town full of bloodthirsty "normal" folks.

Wakayama again plays Shikoro with a treasure chest full of charm and brutish intensity. Unlike the previous two movies, he goes it alone this time out. His lover Kagero from the earlier films wasn't written into the script, nor is there mention of her. The only returning character is Shikoro's female helper at his clinic, Chie. The sidekicks he had in parts 1 and 2 carries over to the third chapter, but it's a different actor and character type. Hirutoku is a filthy, hunchbacked mute Buraku who, according to one characters description, brings death wherever he goes; this holds true especially when he's accompanying Shikoro. Our bounty hunter does meet up with other assorted characters, but none are loyal to anyone outside of their own interests. Virtually no one is trustworthy here.

Omon (see above) is the type of woman who is self-absorbed and whose only care in life is money. She's the type of woman that uses her body, and men to her advantage. Upon her run-in with Shikoro, his sexual prowess wows her to the extent she's willing to stick with him a bit longer than the average male she leeches off of.

Aside from our devout bounty hunter, there are two other honorable female characters, but for different reasons between them. One is Tendo, a very young woman seeking revenge for her brothers death -- the one who initially took the gold in the first place. She is among the robbers, but little is learned about the gang. Both Tendo and Yasha Okami have righteous qualities about them, but we learn little else. 

The other is the wife of the man who ends up with all the money (see above). She's the representation of the classic dutiful wife. She loves her husband and makes an offer to the devious Omon that she'll tell her where the gold is so long as she leaves her husband alone. However, if you've seen the movie, her loyalty reaps no benefits.

With so few morally righteous persons on hand, Shikoro's emotional, philanthropic side is given more exposure. It was always there (you see a lot of it in the second film), but this third movie pushes it further. There's a bit of political subtext inserted here about how Shikoro's clinic is self-funded. His helper, Chie, makes the remark the government should be funding such establishments for the sick and the old. This is meant to slight the governments flimsy handling of taxpayer dollars, and their bewilderment as to how to run an economy; that, by leaving a government in control of the lives of the people, they know more about destroying than creating. This message is one that rings very true in our current economic climate. 

Veering away from his flat top and comb-over hairstyles of the previous two movies, Wakayama sports a perm for the last. His ladies man attitude (absent in part two) is carried over to this movie, as are his surgeon skills that played an important role in expanding the character in  GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI (THE FORT OF DEATH). The two scenes of him performing civic duties are played strikingly different. The first is delivering a baby; and the second is to remove gold from a slaves stomach. The former is played for mild laughs (the only such instance in the picture), and the latter is played serious, and grueling to watch. Kanoke tells him to not sew the man up, but Shikoro refuses claiming it's against his profession. 

SHOKIN KUBI is arguably the most successful entry in relaying the sort of man Shikoro really is. The first film showed him to have multiple facets to his personality -- playful, nonchalant, impertinent, and very serious. The first sequel abandoned much of that in favor of depicting him as this stern, unsmiling, yet always in control benefactor of the people. His utter disdain for government shone through occasionally, but he makes this abundantly clear throughout this second sequel. His role as Shikoro Ichibei -- particularly in this movie -- is likely among his best performances.

Of all the duplicitous characters, the most despicable would have to be Azami Yajuro, played with villainous zest by Amachi Shigeru. A former Secret Service agent, he, too, is after the gold, and doesn't care who he uses, or who dies to get his hands on it. Near the beginning when the Chief Elder and the Finance Commissioner are giving Shikoro the details of his mission, he asks why they didn't send the Shogun's Secret Police. The Commissioners response is they were all killed in the process. It's never stated, but it's reasonable to assume Yajuro was responsible for killing them all. 

Amachi was an actor of some repute in Japan having starred in a number of well known and classic films. Among his credits are Nobuo Nakagawa's THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959) and JIGOKU (1960), Misumi Kenji's THE TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962), and in one of Paul Naschy's best productions,  THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983). In 1985, while planning a new production, he suffered a Subarachnoid Hemorrhage (bleeding between the brain and the thin tissue that covers it) and died in hospital at 54 years of age.

The music of Sakarai Hideaki bridges its Japanese and European inspirations. The results are adequate to this reviewers ears, but nothing as impressive, or boisterous as the sounds emanating from Yagi Masao's compostions from SHOKIN KASEGI (1969). The cues here have a melancholic effect for the most part. 

Doi Junnosuke's fight choreography isn't as prominent, nor as exciting as Ueno Ryzo's from the first two pictures, but there's some variety in the action sequences; such as a jailbreak and subsequent chase, and the duel leading into the solar eclipse. The finality of the last duel is accentuated by the moon passing away from the sun -- light returns as death comes to the villain. This moment brings a false sense of assurance, though. It's not over yet, and the actual ending is anything but upbeat. 

With the trilogy wrapped up, this wasn't the end of Shikoro Ichibei. In 1975 a television series premiered about his exploits. The film series is unique with each film standing out in its own way. SHOKIN KUBI is the least interesting in the action department, but it excels past the others when expanding on its title hero, making him a man of the people more than the previous two pictures did. Fans of Wakayama and the director should be very satisfied with this samurai trifecta. Director Ozawa will always be recognized for his three Sonny Chiba outings, but his beginning and ending entries in this astonishingly entertaining trilogy are arguably worthier pictures, if not deserving of equal attention and merit.

You can buy the DVD, or the box set HERE and HERE.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gonin No Shokin Kasegi (1969) review



Wakayama Tomisaburo (Shikoro Ichibei), Mayama Tomoko (Kagero), Oki Minoru (Mochizuki Yataro), Kitamura Eizo (Onizuka Hayato), Tokudaiji Shin (Bessho), Ibuki Goro (Otohei, ninja leader), Tsuchida Sanae (Miyuki), Ishiyama Ritsu (Shinpachi), Amatsu Bin (Jisaburo), Ushio Kenji (Asami Juzo), Arashi Kanjuro (Tazaemon), Nakatani Ichiro (Mondo), Koike Asao (Ozeki Sadonokami)

Directed by Kudo Eiichi

The Short Version: High octane sequel to the visually, and expositionally impressive SHOKIN KASEGI (1969) finds our bold samurai spy saving a fortified stronghold of farmers from a brutal government oppressor and his band of ninja assassins. It's a much bigger production this second go round in nearly every regard. The goriest, and most action packed of the trilogy, there's less emphasis on spy intrigue and more on slashing swords and blazing bullets in what is essentially THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) minus two. 

After a plan to force the farmers of Enoki Village to partake in the rebuilding of Edo Castle crumbles, the government lays siege to the peasant hamlet. Upon taking away their food, heavily taxing them, and murdering those who refuse to pay, the villagers lead an uprising by building a fort around their homestead from which to defend themselves. Fearing the government will eventually wipe them out, a young man seeks the help of the famous bounty hunter, Shikoro Ichibei and his small band of specialists. 

This superior sequel to the fitfully entertaining samurai-spy movie SHOKIN KASEGI (1969) starts off somewhere in the desert. Shikoro is transporting a criminal across the barren mountain regions. He's attacked by a group of enemies and quickly riddles their bodies with bullets rapidly fired from his pistol. So begins THE FORT OF DEATH, the grimy, if more ambitious entry in Wakayama's BOUNTY HUNTER trilogy. Think THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) without the extensive characterization, minus two title swordsmen, and more action and you have an idea as to what THE FORT OF DEATH is. In this second go-round, the Euroater flavor takes precedence from a visual standpoint. The music (by Tsushima Toshiaki) is more distinctly Japanese, and not quite as memorable as Yagi Masao's from the first movie, but the western feel is palpable in this films imagery.

The Bondian trappings are almost non-existent with the scales tipped in the favor of sword and gun action, and lots of it. The use of a group of ninjas supplants the spy conventions that were so prevalent in the first feature. It's this section with the ninjas that provides THE FORT OF DEATH with its most viscerally exciting set piece. Otohei is the leader of this faction of Shinobi. He's a man of few words and is missing an eye. Sent in to steal away the Gatling gun Shiroko brought with him, they do get away with it, but Otohei and his men don't get far. Shiroko -- who is already having a bad night -- duels with the ninjas in his underwear! After dealing with an extremely horny woman, our half-naked hero is forced to fight a few unscrupulous ronin moments before ninjas attempt to kill him. It's a tense battle inside a bamboo grove that ends in gruesome fashion. 

Ueno Ryuzo returns to contribute the fight choreography, although the sword battles are outnumbered by the guns this time. The large scale action is likewise very well executed. The fort is attacked multiple times, but the last fifteen minutes is a breathlessly intense segment that ends on a bitter note. Seeing Wakayama firing off a Gatling gun with a sword at the ready is surreal. He'd later repeat the gun and sword motif in his classic THE MUTE SAMURAI series from 1974.

Wakayama Tomisaburo is even more charismatic this time out, although there's been some noticeable tampering done with his character. Takada Koji's screenplay (encoring from SHOKIN KASEGI, but taking sole credit) writes him as more emotional than before. He seems far more concerned about those around him than simply making money. He's not the only one, either. A few other actors in the picture wax patriotic at times. The movie is not a political one, but there's a slight subtext there regarding government oppression of a populace. Wakayama delivers a poignant speech during the closing moments about the uselessness of a governing body if its sole purpose is to march over the lives of those who keep them in power. 

The actors penchant for comedy is in evidence here, but his brazenness that made certain situations humorous is exempt from this sequel. Instead, the humor is derived from an individual interacting with Shikoro, and his attempt to resolve the chaos before he's affected by it. The bulk of these moments revolve around the topic of sex, and Shikoro just doesn't have time for it in THE FORT OF DEATH. 

The women are just crazy about Shikoro in this series; and some of them are literally losing their mind to have sex with him. In fact, sex plays a big part in the societal makeup as depicted in this movie. In Shikoro's first scene he treats a man in his infirmary with gonorrhea who has waited an awfully long time to get treatment. This is an hilarious sequence, by the way. Moments later a woman comes in claiming to have an ailment, but Shikoro sees through her scheme of covert horniness. Later on at the fort, Shikoro is nearly raped by a woman with an unbridled libido. Towards the end, a woman who has lost her mind plays rough in an attempt to get the bounty hunter's clothes off!  Oddly enough, Shikoro shows no interest in the flesh here unlike his libidinous aura of the first and third entries. His focus is on helping the Enoki villagers.

Shikoro's lover from the first movie returns, but the actress who played her the first time around, Yumiko Nogawa, does not. Playing Kagero in her place it's the exotic beauty of Mayama Tomoko. She played Akane, Shikoro's other lover in the previous movie.

Speaking of sex and Kagero, there may have been something cut from the finished picture involving her. After a failed  attempt to steal Shikoro's Gatling gun, his Iga ninja lover says to Shikoro he "shows more affection for the weapon". Doubtless there will be some who will read into this something that isn't there, but Kagero's frustration to get some attention may have been further explored in the movie prior to its release. There are production stills showing a half naked Kagero and shirtless Yotaro together like they'd just finished having sex (see insert). This lends a later scene a bit more gravitas. Towards the finale, Shikoro decides he will act as a decoy to lure away Mondo's men so that the village headman can escape to Edo for help. Yotaro speaks up and insists he go instead. It's as if he feels shame for moving in on his boss's woman. This is just speculation per the still photo and the absence of the scene in the film. 

Wakayama enjoys a respite of theater as he sings and dances for a quick wedding ceremony moments before the renegade official and his army attacks with his cannons. Early in his career, Wakayama was a kabuki performer, and you get to see some of that here. He also sings the opening theme, 'Song of the Bounty Hunter'. He would do this again singing the somber main theme for THE MUTE SAMURAI.

Directed by the same man who helmed the original 13 ASSASSINS (1963), Kudo Eiichi shows a masterful touch in capturing a gloomy atmosphere. The darkly playful tone that balanced SHOKIN KASEGI is missing, save for the comical numbers mentioned above. The narrative itself, and ending is so dark, the comedic bits in GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI feel somewhat forced, but don't hinder the film so much as add a quirkiness to it that began at the start of the trilogy anyway. As downbeat as the movie is, it's not quite as bleak as the third and final film, SHOKIN KUBI: ISSHUN HACHI-NIN GIRI (1972).

Aside from expert direction by Eiichi, Suzuki Jubei's cinematography gets additional mileage out of the expansive scope offered by Koji's script. From indoor settings to wide open spaces, Suzuki's camera captures the right mood. This is glaringly apparent during the opening moments with Shikoro in the desert windstorm backed by an almost red sky. Later shots are drenched in fog further enhancing the dank atmosphere Eiichi's movie wallows in.

Fans of Japanese exploitation will spot Makiguchi Yuji listed in the credits as the assistant director. He was an AD on a number of trashy movies in the 1970s and directed one of the most notorious, ghastly exploitation films ever made in the form of SHOGUN'S SADISM from 1976.

With a multitude of characters, a large scale storyline, and a visually appealing landscape, GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI (1969) surpasses its predecessor in a number of ways. It lacks some things that made that first outing so special, but it also improves on some others. Fans of the star and his more well known international cult classics will find much to enjoy in this series, and this movie in particular.

You can buy this DVD and the box set HERE and HERE.

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