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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.

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