Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Producer: Toshiro Mifune
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yujiro Ishihara, Ruriko Asaoka, Shintaro Katsu, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Chusha Ichikawa, Ichiro Arishima, Mika Kitagawa, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Jotaro Togami, Chieko Nakakita, Ryunosuke Yamazaki
Running Time: 117 min.
By Kyle Warner
Toshiro Mifune has played many great characters but perhaps his most popular and influential role was born in the 1961 samurai action comedy Yojimbo. After the success of that film, Toho wanted more of the character, so Mifune and Akira Kurosawa returned to their nameless ronin for Sanjuro the very next year. And though writer/director Kurosawa would never again return to the character, Mifune seemed less willing to let the nameless ronin go. After the studio contract system started to die, Toshiro Mifune and other esteemed talents in Japan were forming their own production companies. In 1970, Mifune would bring back the Yojimbo character for not one but two films, both of which would co-star Shintaro Katsu. The first would be in the crossover film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which was produced by Katsu Productions. And the second would be Incident at Blood Pass (aka Ambush), produced by Mifune Productions.
There’s some debate about whether the character that Mifune plays in Incident at Blood Pass is the same man he played in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. My opinion is that yes, he is playing the same guy, but the character has changed from how we remember him. In Incident at Blood Pass Mifune plays a nameless ronin in tattered clothes that hires himself out as a yojimbo (bodyguard) and is more interested in gold than he is in proper samurai etiquette. Sound familiar? The thing is, it’s the same man on the surface, and a different man underneath. Whereas before the Yojimbo was a fiery, amusing rogue that liked to watch people and how they reacted to changing circumstances, here he appears somewhat bored with everybody. Much of this probably stems from Mifune himself, who does not give the same level of performance that once made the character so endearing. What’s puzzling, though, is that he did manage to tap into the character more successfully in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, but wasn’t up to task on this film despite having more creative control. But that’s not the film’s most puzzling question. The real mystery is this: how did they get so many talented people together and end up making such a bland movie?
The cast and crew of Incident at Blood Pass can read like a who’s who of classic Japanese samurai cinema from the 60s and 70s. You’ve got Toshiro Mifune maybe-probably-kinda giving a final performance as his most popular character. You have Shintaro Katsu (the Zatoichi series) getting into villain mode to play a sleazy, discredited doctor that’s making illegal medicine in the woods. There’s the stunning Ruriko Asaoka (Goyokin) playing a woman that’s had enough of her abusive husband and leaves him in the dust. Plus there’s Kinnosuke Nakamura (The Shogun’s Samurai) as a half-crazed lawman and 60s superstar Yujiro Ishihara (Crazed Fruit) as a homeless gangster. The film is directed by genre-favorite Hiroshi Inagaki (The Samurai Trilogy) and co-written by Hideo Oguni, who had been one of Akira Kurosawa’s favorite collaborators. There’s so much talent and star power involved in this movie. How did it go wrong? Short answer: bad script.
Mifune’s ronin is hired by a mysterious old samurai to go to a mountain pass and “wait until something happens.”
That’s the plot. ‘Wait until something happens.’
Because he can’t just stand around waiting forever, Mifune checks into an inn where all the other colorful characters are also staying. The film’s not bad when it tries to be an ensemble character piece, because it does a good job of letting every actor shine in their role at one point or another. But mostly we’re just waiting at the inn for something to happen. There’s even a few times when Mifune goes into voice-over and wonders, “Is this it? Is this what I was supposed to wait for?” It’s a film that’s wasting time as it tries to arrive at a plot. Mifune’s hero (and soon the audience) just wants the wait to be over and the mission to end.
Now, I believe that a film can be without plot and still make for a watchable movie. But those successful films are about characters or themes and that’s what makes them work. Incident at Blood Pass is a film that teases you that it’s about something by constantly reminding you, ‘wait for it… wait for it!’ There’s a part where Mifune leaves the inn for a time only to return to find villainous characters are staying there. Mifune says, “I see… so I guess something did happen, after all.” That’s the payoff we’ve been waiting for all this time. I believe the movie thinks it’s being cute and clever but really it just feels like unengaging storytelling.
When you ignore the movie fumbling around for a story to tell it’s possible for you to enjoy the individual scenes. I like the characters and I appreciate how much the actors put into their performances. While he could be accused of overacting, Kinnosuke Nakamura gives an enjoyably nutso performance as the stammering self-righteous officer of the law. And I do believe that any film which pits two titans of cinema against each other is something that fans of those actors are likely to enjoy, so I had fun watching Mifune and Katsu try to figure each other out. But even so, they’d done pretty much the same thing more successfully earlier that same year with Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.
The film’s final scene is an interesting one. I’m not going to spoil who dies, but I do want to explain the imagery. Mifune cuts down a group of samurai and then walks off into the distance as a harsh wind blows, kicking up dust that flies past the camera in a flurry of movement. Every Yojimbo film ends in a similar fashion: climactic swordplay, Yojimbo gives a somewhat sad farewell, and he walks off as the wind really starts blowing. I think that this final scene of Incident at Blood Pass is deliberately meant to remind the viewer of the imagery from the original Yojimbo and Sanjuro (Kurosawa sure did love his wind), but what’s strange is that this sort of imagery is almost completely absent from the rest of the film. It’s like it took director Inagaki the entire film to figure out the sort of movie that he should’ve been making.
Incident at Blood Pass is not a good movie, but I’ll admit it took me two viewings to figure that out. I liked it more the first time I watched it a few years back. I knew it was flawed then, but I enjoyed it. And you know what, I still enjoy it today, at least on some level. The screenplay really could’ve used a couple more revisions before the cameras started rolling, but there is some good stuff here. Incident at Blood Pass is one of those cases where you can admire multiple scenes but you can’t exactly praise the film on the whole. It’s just unfortunate that the great character of Yojimbo went out on such a dull note.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5.5/10