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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shokin Kasegi (1969) review



Tomisaburo Wakayama (Shikoro Ichibei), Yumiko Nogawa (Kagero), Bin Amatsu (Okiteyama Nikaido), Chiezo Kataoka (Ijuin Ukyo), Goro Mutsumi (Yotoji), Koji Tsuruta (Shogun Ieshige), Yusuf Osman (Captain Segal), Junya Usami (Makino Bungo), Tomoko Mayama (Akane)

Directed by Ozawa Shigehiro

The Short Version: Serious fans of Toho's LONE WOLF & CUB series will be intrigued by this samurai spy tale about a clan attempting to oust the Shogunate with foreign weapons procured in a secret alliance with Dutch militants. A feared bounty hunter proficient in martial arts, secret weapons and women is sent to uncover the plot. Wakayama endeavors some low-key comedy in between subterfuge and sword fights. The highlight is a superb Zatoichi impression by Wakayama that's so good, it will have you double-taking if it's him or his brother, Shintaro Katsu. SHOKIN KASEGI is the first in a trilogy of varied tales of its Bondian style bounty hunter, Shikoro Ichibei.

The time is 1751 during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Believing the Satsuma Clan is secretly planning to overthrow the government with the help of foreign aid, Shogun Ieshige sends a cunning secret agent sword master named Shikoro Ichibei to investigate. Meanwhile, the advisers to the Shogun, the Roju Council, send their own spy to find out what the Satsuma are up to.

Toei hyped this lively, sassy samurai saga as a mixture of James Bond style spies and Italian western motifs. It must have been successful since it was sequelized twice -- one saw release in the same year; and a third, and final installment followed in 1972. Like many samurai pictures, there's a touch of historical significance in the script within its Tokugawa Era setting. Aside from some appealing ideas, it's basically a standard Jidaigeki tale, but told with a sense of wit as sharp as Shikoro's many blades. Takada Koji and Igami Masaru's droll screenplay is rife with memorable moments. Among these is an extended section of self-referential humor that's arguably one of the most welcome, and hilarious instances of parody ever filmed (more on that later). Thankfully, they wrote a charisma saturated main character with which to carry this movie.

Wakayama is incredible as the wily, brazen, and burly sword slinging samurai spy. He's absolutely magnetic onscreen. His spy swordsman character is just as slippery and resourceful as James Bond, but replaces the British agents swagger with brutish mannerisms. Both men share the same level of confidence -- imbuing both with an air of invincibility. Shikoro is a learned character, too. It's not expanded on here (the sequels go further with it), but he's also a doctor of medicine who has trained himself to have immunities against certain poisons. This comes in handy early in KILLER'S MISSION. 

Arguably the finest sequence in this movie is when Wakayama pretends to be a blind masseur from Osaka. His mannerisms, body language and even his line delivery poke fun at his younger brothers famous Zatoichi character. If you're familiar with Katsu's renowned series of films about the sightless samurai named Zatoichi, you'll get a huge kick out of this portion of the film. Wakayama does a fantastic impersonation perfectly mocking his brothers most famous role. He gets just the right pitch in his voice; so much so, you'd swear Katsu dubbed over the lines. If you only know Wakayama Tomisaburo by his more famous Ogami Itto role in the SIX LONE WOLF AND CUB films (1972-1974), you're in for a treat here.

The spy craze is a bigger influence on SHOKIN KASEGI than the Euroaters, although the first sequel, GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI (1969) is a veritable western in samurai tresses. The most obvious western moment is a mainstay of countless Italian six-gun scenarios. In it, we see Nikaido using one of the unique Dutch scope rifles to pick off captives while giving them a chance to run for their alleged freedom. Yagi Masao's fabulously energetic score features some familiar Euro western strains, too. Regarding the score, it's so catchy, you're likely to be humming it to yourself once the film is over.

The spy nuances are more prominent with Shikoro's admittedly rough methods of intrigue, and a utility belt full of weapons. Outside of his blind masseur disguise, Shikoro has no problem marching unabashedly into the eye of the storm freely touting who he is, and what he's there for. This makes for some interesting introductions with often humorous results. Our man Shikoro has an armory of assorted weapons, too. Most of them are shown during the opening credits sequence, and used throughout the movie. Among them are a varied arsenal of swords, guns, crossbows, spring-loaded knives and darts hidden on his person, or cased within a large leather belt he wears around his waist. Aside from his trusty sword, the scabbard that sheathes it doubles as a telescope.

His main partner in this movie, Kagero, is also a spy who has a hidden weapon of her own -- a comb that hides a deadly poison dart gun. She's captured at one point, and suffers some terrible tortures (see insert), but somehow survives the ordeal. She's one of two love interests enjoyed by Shikoro -- another trope of the James Bond series. The star of several Japanese erotic films, Yumiko Nogawa (above and below) also worked with Wakayama's brother Katsu in his ZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES (1968), one of the bloodier films in that series. Taiwanese born Judy Ongg played the Kagero role on the subsequent BOUNTY HUNTER television series in 1975. She appeared a few times in Wakayama's violent THE MUTE SAMURAI series as well.

The two brothers (Wakayama and Katsu) were wild cards offscreen, often against type with their more famous roles, and fancied themselves ladies men. For SHOKIN KASEGI, the aforementioned Bondian element of women falling all over the hero applies here too -- even though Shikoro is somewhat forceful, or uses a trick to bed down the ladies. Still, they both fall for him in what is his expert sexual prowess. This is played almost for parody in the first sequel when women are literally throwing themselves at him. In the third movie, Shikoro's mastery of the sexual arts is exploited once again.

The actions scenes are what you'd expect from Wakayama. They're fast and exciting, and have a bit of empty handed punches, kicks and throws mixed in. A Kobudo (traditional martial arts) coach (Nakajima Masayoshi) is listed in the credits. Ueno Ryuzo's choreography is dotted with moments of bloody eruptions such as an early decapitation, severed limbs and swords through necks. It's not in the same class as the fire hose level of blood spraying of the BABY CART films, but the red stuff is present. It increases in the next film, and makes the depressing second sequel all the more somber.

Bolstered by two big name elder statesmen of Jidaigeki, Chiezo Kataoka (see above) and a cameo from Tsuruta Koji, Toei had a hip and high profile chambara actioner on their slate. Of more importance to Kaiju fans, they'll recognize Goro Mutsumi in a supporting role as a sympathetic government spy. Playing two different, if identically dressed aliens in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), Goro was also in Toho's inferior STAR WARS clone, WAR IN SPACE (1977).


Director Ozawa will always be well known to Japanese cult film fans internationally for directing Sonny Chiba in the iconic THE STREET FIGHTER, and its two sequels among other credits. His direction of SHOKIN KASEGI (1969) starts this series off on a high-spirited note. A different director took the reigns of part two, but Ozawa returned to close the series in downbeat fashion in SHOKIN KUBI: ISSHUN HACHI-NIN GIRI (1972). The directors penchant for humor married with bloody violence foreshadows the extremes the later Chiba classic would indulge in. For samurai, and especially Wakayama fans, SHOKIN KASEGI (BOUNTY HUNTER: KILLER'S MISSION) is worth tracking down.

You can purchase this DVD and box set HERE and HERE.

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