Hiroshi Inagaki – Ambush: Incident At Blood Pass (1970)

As the legend goes, Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu swore at some point to appear together in a film. Both were gigantic film stars, Mifune thanks to his iconic roles in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Katsu thanks to his Zatoichi films, and a concerted appearance in a movie would almost certainly result in a giant box office success.

That was undoubtedly the reasoning behind Inagaki's casting of the two superstars in Incident At Blood Pass, together with the female lead Ruriko Asaoka who was a major film star at the time as well (she appeared in a staggering 121 films between 1955 and 1967). Inagaki's career was already flailing, securing financing for his jidaigeki movies was tuff, and the Japanese film industry in general was feeling the box office competition from imported Hollywood fare. Shochiku, Toho and Nikkatsu had to deal with increasing financial woes. In the mid-1970's, the share of ticket sales for domestic movies fell under 50%. The once glorious Japanese film industry was in a deep crisis.

Assembling a star ensemble and getting Mifune to reprise his role as Yojimbo for one last time, then, seemed like a good strategy to get Incident At Blood Pass greenlit by the studio. The resulting film has somewhat of a bad rep because it is billed as a swordplay film and has next to no sword play to offer. Fans of Yojimbo and Zatoichi hoping for a sort of super sword fighting adventure may not find a lot to like here, but Incident At Blood Pass is a very interesting film in which Inagaki varied some tropes of his former work and constructs a carefully balanced script that should be studied by everyone interested in the craft.

Where Inagaki built his characters with a lot of intricacy in Samurai Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man, the characters in Incident At Blood Pass are nothing more than basic types, simple caricatures. Yojimbo doesn't get any new coloring, we have the archetype of the husband who beats his wife, the woman who submits herself to the hero, the old man who owns an inn, the rogue who tries to stay in the shadows, the hysterical police officer, the good-hearted crook, and the asshole villain. We get a little bit of backstory for some of the characters, most importantly Gentetsu the villain played by Katsu, but it is ultimately of no real importance to the movie.

What Inagaki does do with great precision, however, is to construct the situation in which all of the characters find themselves in. Just what is the titular "incident at blood pass"? We don't know until late in the film. And by that time the fate of every single character depends on the actions of someone else so that no one is in full control of their own life anymore. The movie is divided into two uneven sections: a longer one in which we don't know what is going to happen and in which the characters only make allusions to their past or what their intentions are, and a shorter more action packed section in which we finally learn what is going on and in which the focus shifts from the character's past to the immediate future.

In the first part, Inagaki leaves the audience in the dark about almost everything that's happening. Yojimbo gets an order to travel to Sanshun pass where something will happen at some point. His employer never reveals the nature of that "something". Along the way, Yojimbo picks up a woman who is beaten by her husband. Here, we don't know why or how long it has been going on. At an inn not far from Sanshun pass, where most of the film's action takes place, we meet the old owner and his daughter, as well Gentetsu who claims to be a doctor. We don't know what his relationship is with the owner and why he is living there in a shed behind the inn. Later, an officer appears with a crook he just apprehended. But we never know what the arrestee did. There is also Yataro, a gambler who teams up with Yojimbo at several occasions, but his motivations are kept in the dark for most of the time as well.

It is this first section of the movie that is most commonly criticized, as not much happens. Inagaki patiently moves the pieces on the chessboard until he has everyone where he needs them to be. The director is not known to be a superior visual auteur, but his compositions here complement beautifully the fractured nature of the character's interactions. In wide shots expertly employing depth of field, he arranges the characters on two or more different planes, thus slicing up the screen horizontally. When two characters have a hushed conversation or have a more intimate exchange, he captures it in a prolonged medium shot. Cuts on action are prevalent but not always used, as Inagaki delicately stages his shots. In one instance, the officer squats down next to the crook and tries to get a confession out of him. The camera films them both in profile, then slowly travels around them on a half circle. At the 90 degree mark, the officer stands up and squats down on the other side of the crook, so that, when the camera completes its 180 degree traveling, the characters remain in the same position as they were in the beginning of the shot, now simply mirrored. This is not an innovative technique, of course, but it shows that Inagaki is a commanding director and employs visual language that enhances or complements the plot.

Once we know what the "incident" is, the uncertainty shifts from the character's past to the future. As it turns out, Gentetsu has a plan to rob gold from a convoy posing as simple travelers. And Yojimbo was sent there to work with Gentetsu. Having formed some bonds with the people at the inn who are now held captive by Gentetsu, he is asked to work with the enemy and kill everyone at the inn. There is a certain element of unpredictability in the air because Mifune's character is so ill-defined that there was a part of me who thought that he really could kill the individuals he just spend half of the film protecting. But in the end, the denouement is both more confusing and more bland than the film lets on. But by that point, it was just a joy to observe how Inagaki's story chess moves finally paid off, even if the climax isn't very convincing.

Hiroshi Inagaki - The Rickshaw Man (1958)

With The Rickshaw Man, Hiroshi Inagaki and Toshiro Mifune turn in a surprisingly nuanced film. Both men are championed for and excelled in broad strokes cinema, for lack of a better term, but this tale of a poor rickshaw man who sees himself confronted with social boundaries, the advent of the industrial age and his own image as a masculine swank is an exercise in sensitive observation. Inagaki uses cinemascope to its full extent (both in scenes with large crowds and in scenes in which he showcases his superior understanding of negative space and deep focus), and Mifune turns in what is probably one of his most memorable performances. Commanding, vulnerable, crass, funny, smart, charming and touching, Matsugoro the Rickshaw Man, as performed by Mifune, is undoubtly one of the more memorable characters of 1950’s Japanese cinema.

Inagaki, who co-wrote the script with Mansaku Itami based on a novel by Shunsaku Iwashita, takes great care in crafting a well-rounded main character. Which also means being honest with the audience about Matsugoro’s weaknesses and failings. We first meet the titular rickshaw man as he is sought out by law enforcement because he got into a fight with a swordsman. Later, he tells the story of that fight to a group of people at an inn and we realize that his performance in the “fight” was pitiable at best, that he acted a big shot but was defeated after only one blow on the head. Matsugoro first appears to be hot-headed, oblivious but also weirdly endearing.

Later, he fights a bunch of people at a theater after he threw garlic on an open fire which greatly offended his fellow theater enthusiasts (most of which are of higher social standing) because of the stench. Instead of getting the garlic out of the fire and enjoy the show, Matsugoro stubbornly decides to challenge some of the men to a fight. Here, he somehow keeps the upper-hand, defeats his opponents and is stopped only by a mediator who finally gets an apology out of him and screws his head back onto his shoulders. These two scenes alone make for fascinating character development. Matsugoro might be a bully at times and can act obnoxiously, but he can also see where he went wrong and learn from his mistakes. In addition, we never know which version of the rickshaw man we’ll get. It’s put to great use in a scene where he goes to an athletics competition. He decides to participate in a race that’s open for the public. At first, it seems like he will be left behind very quickly by his competitors who seem more athletic and don’t goof around as much as he does. But by the end, Matsugoro outlasts them all because he kept a steady pace and didn’t overdo it in the first few rounds. He wins the race.

That particular scene is also a great showcase for the actor Mifune. The way he carries himself physically in the scene is remarkable. Matsugoro has a physicality unlike any other Mifune character that I have seen so far. His lanky running style is hilarious at first but turns out to be a competent way of winning a race. While Mifune carries his body the same way throughout the scene, he subtly transforms before our very eyes from good-natured goof to competitive candidate for the win. All throughout the film he appears physically intimidating when needed, vulnerable when confronted with an impossible love he has for a woman he can't have and goofy when his temperament gets him into a predicament. It's a remarkable performance from Mifune who's histrionics could sometimes get the best of him and who's iconic performances in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are excellent but broad.

Yet, his nuanced performance in The Rickshaw Man doesn't mean that he loses his trademark intensity. However, he channels it differently. The film's story kicks in when Matsugoro is hired by a couple to transport their boy Toshio to and from doctor's appointments. Both Matsugoro and the family grow close. When Toshio's father dies, the rickshaw man becomes a sort of surrogate father figure and develops feelings for Yoshioko, the boy's mother. It is here that Mifune does truly exceptional work full of tenderness and emotion. Being a man's man, Mifune has no problems playing the scenes in which Matsugoro tries to teach Toshio what it means to be a worthy male. But he is equally heart breaking in scenes in which he tries to be close to Yoshioko but knows he will never be able to be with her because she belongs to a higher class.

The Rickshaw Man, then, is not only a finely observed character study of a simple worker who takes the boy of a wealthier man under his wing, but also a subtle critique of debilitating social conventions and a study of what it means to be a man in different social milieus. For Matsugoro has a different approach to masculinity than the boy's parents. When Yoshioko is worried that Toshio might get into a fight, Matsugoro simply retorts that fights are a normal rite of passage for young men. Where intellectual ability and academic achievement might be of fundamental importance to Toshio's parents, Matsugoro values physical prowess and a certain subdued macho attitude. Both worldviews clash in Toshio's education but the script doesn't raise a fuss about it. We are simply presented with some observations and are left to make up our own mind.

The Rickshaw Man
is a deep text that warrants many more viewings before I could make a final assessment but there is no doubt that while The Samurai Trilogy is an excellent and very entertaining spectacle, Rickshaw Man is a superior film that shows that when Inagaki paints in shades of grey the result is sublime. From the intimate story over the superb compositions and bravura camera movements to the performances, Inagaki and company get everything right. It is unfortunate, then, that the film is not available on DVD in the United States as of yet.

Hiroshi Inagaki - Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island (1956)

It is always difficult to find an appropriate entry point into the work of such an iconic cinematic figure as Hiroshi Inagaki (1905 - 1980). Consider this: he started out as a child actor during the 1920's, the very inception of Japanese cinema, was promoted to director at the young age of 22, helped revive the jidaigeki films during the 1930's as a member of the Narutaki group alongside Sadao Yamanaka for whom he wrote several scripts, helped re-revive the jidaigeki genre after the war by directing historical films of epic proportions, found international claim an won an Academy Award, but, like his peer Akira Kurosawa, had an increasingly difficult time securing financing beginning in the 1970's despite his pedigree as master director, became bitter, took on alcohol and died a lonely death.

The Samurai Trilogy, much like Kurosawa's Rashomon, is certainly his most well-known work in the West (Inagaki won the Academy Award for best foreign film for Samurai I) and presents a good way to start to inspect his oeuvre. The trilogy was also produced at an interesting historical time when discourse in jidaigeki films shifted from the nationalistic overtones of the 1930's to the nihilistic violence of the 1960's films. Certainly, The Samurai Trilogy exhibits a rather conservative ideology but also stands as a definite manifesto of a certain breed of ronin genre fare that would become increasingly rare in the following decades.

Samurai tells the sweeping story of Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) who traverses a 17th century torn apart by civil war, as he tries to attain the wisdom of a true samurai. We first meet him as a hot-headed whippersnapper and see him change until he finally finds the enlightenment and the mental tools of a true swordsman. In between, we witness several obstacles and tests he has to endure in order to learn life lessons, as well as his various romantic liaisons that define his masculinity. Oftentimes referred to as Japan's Gone With The Wind, the film is based on Eiji Yoshikawa's epic novel Musashi Miyamoto and was already adapted once before by Inagaki during the war as a three-part film. Unfortunately, that version is now lost. When the director tackled the material again in 1954 for Toho, a rival production was on the way, called Musashi Miyamoto and directed by Yasuo Kohata, not based on the identically titled book but covering the same events, for Tohei studios. A few years later, in 1960, Tomu Uchida adapted the same material again, as a six-part film called Zen and Sword. All of these productions were immense popular successes in Japan, but only Inagaki's 1954 version was similarly applauded by Western audiences. Like with Kurosawa's Rashomon, the Academy Award for Samurai I paved the way for the anglophone West's discovery of Japan's cinematic treasures.

Since the film’s reason of existence is to trace our main character’s journey from rogue to sage, the plot concentrates almost exclusively on Musashi and his development as a character. The focus is on process.  We ruffly know at all times where Musashi’s journey is leading him mentally and emotionally, the question is how we get there. The three different parts, then, correspond to three very specific stages in his development. Ruffly speaking, the first part follows Musashi’s growth from thug to warrior, the second part traces his evolution from samurai student to real swordsman and part three finds him accepting the duties of a samurai. At the beginning of every of the three installments, a clear objective is formulated for Musashi. His objective for the first film is to obtain fame on the battlefield. In the second film he seeks wisdom and a way to refine his skills. In the last film he has to do the last steps to finally become a real samurai.

Having announced these objectives, Musashi is immediately faced with failure. In Samurai I, Musashi, at first, is kept from participating in the Sekigahara battle,  and when he finally does, realizes that the Ashikaga forces he is part of, were already defeated. In Samurai II, he wins a fight against a samurai armed with a chain and sickle and kills him, but, as a priest tells him, “lost as a samurai”. Samurai III nicely inverses this dynamic as Musashi is challenged to a duel even though he doesn't want to fight out of spiritual reasons. His attempt to withdraw himself from the battle fails and he is attacked and has to defend himself. Every film then traces Musashi’s trajectory from failure to finally achieving his goal. This structure unifies the trilogy while maintaining a certain independence for each part. Even though each one of the parts is one piece to the larger puzzle, the Samurai trilogy is more than a sum of its parts. Every film can be enjoyed as a single story and cinematic achievement.

There is a lot of emphasis on building Musashi’s character in very definable traits. In Part I he is a loner without parents, who’s distant relatives call him “lawless”, obsessed with fame and glory, courageous but hot-headed and immature, loyal, demonized by others and, at times of solitude or intimacy, torn by guilt. The first installment of the trilogy is about him overcoming his worst first impulses and learning a lot of hard lessons. “You ignored wisdom and reason, you thought you could defeat the world”, tells him the priest who takes him under his wing. Musashi has to learn that he can’t defeat the world by himself and certainly can’t ignore wisdom and reason.

The scene where the priest hangs Musashi from a tree and leaves him for several days, even through a snow storm, is pivotal. That’s when he turns a mental page. Kicking and screaming and cursing at first, he decides against running off with his lover Otsuo when she secretly frees him after seeing him hanging there for days. There is, of course, an almost insane amount of pathos in this scenes but from the standpoint of plot these are all very important stepping stones for Musashi and for the audience’s understanding of the character.

Samurai II shows us Musashi as a much more accomplished man but also much more humble. When he goes to a sword maker and asks him to repolish his sword, the artisan tells him “I polish the souls of samurai. Not murderous weapons.” Musashi’s reply: “would you kindly repolish my crude soul?” This is in tune with the first scene of the movie where Musashi wins the battle against the chain and sickle warrior and a priest tells him “You’re not yet a real samurai!” This informs the entire film. Where fame and glory were his main combustibles in the first part, here he tries to acquire a higher mental state, a wisdom that will enable him to live the real life of a samurai. But that comes at the price of female suffering. Otsuo and Akemi are not only rivals in their courtship of Musashi but they can’t compete with his calling: “I love my sword more than I love you”, he tells Otsuo at one point.

The second film of the series, with a main character more interested in his intellect than in battling competitors, is, consequently, much less erratic than the first one, although it ultimately boasts a much higher body count. There is always a lot of tension in the air because Musashi literally has to face life and death stakes constantly, but Samurai II is much quieter and introspective where Samurai I was a wild rollercoaster ride filled with action and battle sequences. Musashi moved around a lot, traveled, had to flee, he led the life of a vagabond and thus had no real points of orientation in his life. In Part II, he travels to one location and stays there for most of the time, sharpening his intellectual tools and anticipating the final climax that forces him again to leave.

Said final climax, epic in its scope as he affronts 80 men out to kill him, also underlines just how much Toshiro Mifune represented the masculine ideal of the time. Brave, fearless, passionate, thoughtful and aware of his physicality, not only the samurai Mifune but the man Mifune was made into a symbol of what Japanese manliness was all about. And certainly, portraying such a torn and heroic character contributed to that image. In the end, when he is dueling with Kojiro, Masushi is about to strike the last blow but his conscience prevents him from doing so. He is not a rogue anymore, a mental page was turned again. Which also adds to the archetype of the manly man with a twisted past that taught him important life lessons.

In the third and final Samurai, Masushi announces: “I want to fight without regrets”. And it is the film that sees him struggling the most with his chosen profession of samurai. For a while, he even abandons the idea altogether and lives as a farmer. An antagonist is introduced very early on in his eternal rival Kojiro and we anticipate a confrontation for nearly one hour and a half. There is no doubt that Masushi, no matter how competent and powerful Kojiro is made out to be during the film, is going to defeat him. The film becomes about what lessons he will learn that help him complete his skill set to do so.

We open the film with yet another duel that simultaneously showcases his extraordinary faculties as a swordsman and charts his mental state. In Samurai III the situation is exceptional. He is the best warrior in Japan, or approaching that, yet he doesn’t want to fight. There are several confrontations during the film in which Masushi doesn’t draw his sword to defeat his opponent but hints at his capabilities otherwise. In one memorable instance he uses his chopsticks to pick flies out of the air. A man that precise, focused and quick? Better not get testy with him.

Masushi’s character arc in Samurai III is, I think, the most interesting of the trilogy because his refusal to use his skills is nicely pitted against Kojiro’s desire to showcase that he is the best swordsman of the country by defeating Masushi. Though Kojiro is clearly driven by fame it is not a vane ego-driven undertaking as Masushi attempted himself in the first film. Nonetheless, making a name for himself is important to him. Meanwhile, Masushi is on the quest for the exact opposite: self-realization and bliss. He doesn’t need Kojiro to attain glory, battling “without regrets” is what Masushi is after. But he needs time on his own, far away from any swordsmanship, before he can do that. Kojiro is anxious to finally confront him. It is a simple and compelling way to chart just how far Masushi has come as a character. Where he would have charged Kojiro in Samurai I without any second thought, he actually goes to live with peasants and works the fields for a while in Samurai III and lets Kojiro stew in his own grease.

As Isolde Standish remarks in her excellent book A New History of Japanese Cinema, the Samurai Trilogy is rather conservative in its depiction of samurai values and masculinity. Jidaigeki movies were revived during the 1950's after the occupation authorities had banned them immediately following the war. In later decades, the genre would become increasingly violent and cruel. While Miyamoto Musashi can be seen as a positive role model and valiant warrior, a figure like Tsukue Ryunosuke in The Great Bhodisatta Pass is a much more ambiguous and morally corrupt character, although both Pass and Samurai treat similar themes. Standish: "While Miyamoto Musashi travels the land seeking knowledge and enlightenment, Tsukue Ryunosuke traverses the land indiscriminately killing. Located within violent periods of civil strife, both characters are symbolic of the clash of the postmodern and modern civil order. Ryunosuke is a relic from an age (…) that will soon cease to exist while Miyamoto Musashi (…) undergoes a lengthy period of training that allows him to maintain a legitimate position in the new order." (280)

Musashi is an outsider and social misfit who seeks knowledge in order to attain a certain social standing of his own choosing. Again Standish: "Within the more conservative discourse of [Samurai], Buddhism tempers the violence of judo/bushido through compassion and self-abnegation through transience (mujo)." (281). But such a discourse was rejected by later generations of filmmakers who also took Akira Kurosawa, among others, to task for having an outdated and ultimately romantic view of humanity. Both Kurosawa and Inagaki, who both won an Academy Award during the 1950's and were hyped by Western critics, had increasingly difficulties securing financing for their films in the later years of their careers, prompting Kurosawa to attempt suicide and Inagaki to revert to alcohol. Certainly, the fact that their filmic discourse seemed out of date had to account for a lot of their troubles. Movie giants they were both. But they didn't seem fit to say something substantial about contemporary issues. And while the Samurai trilogy is sweeping filmmaking at its best, one can see how a younger, wilder and overambitious generation could have perceived it as stale, square and, for lack of a better word, Biedermeier.