Jokichi of Mikogami (Yoshio Harada- Ronin-Gai, Hunter in the Dark, Lady Snowblood 2) is in a tough spot. As a former gangster trying to turn over a new leaf, he now has the reputation as a strong-arm killer but none of the gang credential to protect him from all the enemies he has made.
So, he is forced to wander and not settle down too long, lest his enemies find him, which is especially hard because he has stubbed his toe,... seriuously, like really bad and I guess pediatrists were hard to find in Edo-era Japan.
Jokichi is aided by a teahouse owner, Okinu, who takes him in from the rain and treats his wound. Unfortunately her after hours kindness raises the eyebrows of seedy gangster Kyubei, who takes her Samaritanism for something more scandalous, thus an opportunity to take advantage of her. Jokichi defends her, scarring Kyubei, and Jokichi and Okinu run off together in the night.
Cut to three years later and Jokichi and Okinu have settled down together in a small village and had a son. Fearing someone will recognize him, Jokichi rarely socializes but has still managed to make a decent living as an ornament carver. When business takes him away from home, Jokichi runs into Kyubei's men. Jokichi is captured, and Kyubei extracts some revenge by having two of Jokichi's fingers bashed and then chopped off. On his way home, Jokichi encounters yet another gang with a beef against him. They knock him around, push him in the mud, and piss on him. Jokichi makes it home and finds his wife and son dead, Kyubei clearly having notified the gang world of his whereabouts and calling on anyone in the area to strike out.
Needless to say, this drives Jokichi over the edge and in typical revenge film fashion, he dusts off his sword, makes some sharpened nail-talons for his dismembered hand (yes, I consider that typical), and sets out to kill the three key gangsters behind the slaughter of his family, bosses's Kyubei, Chuji, and Chogoro.
This is the first film in a three film series. I'm assuming each film features Jokichi targeting one of the gangsters who conspired to off his wife and child. The first film in a trilogy should usually serves as a good foundation for your main character. Trail of Blood (1972) does so but only in a sketchy, basic way. They were probably relying on lead actor Yoshio Harada's inerrant coolness, because Jokichi's revenge backstory is very simple and his gimmicks (the talon-hand and his underhanded sword grip) feels a bit like an afterthought and just kind of tacked on. He really only employs the talons once. If you are going to give a character a gimmick, go the whole nine yards, give the guy a pet falcon, show him training himself to eye gouge bad guys. its the kind of film that should provide some embellishment. Jokichi just doesn't have quite the same style points as Hanzo: The Razor, the Lone Wolf Ogami Itto, or Lady Snowblood, and his revenge motivation isn't hammered home with as much gravitas as other revenge films, maybe because the happy home life seems so transparent and doomed, or his backstory too sketchy (it isn't really explained why he left the gangster life or just what kind of gangster he was). Hopefully, the following films in the series help add some emotional investment, address the character issue, and establish Jokichi as a more engaging figure.
Having helmed films in two of the 60's most popular samurai series, like Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi's Flashing Sword, Sleepy Eyes of Death: Trail of Traps, and Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction, director Kazuo Ikehiro was no stranger to the samurai film. It was more or less his bread and butter. Trail of Blood feels a bit slapdash in its execution. Maybe they were thinking too much about the ‟bigger picture‟ of a trilogy, but the storytelling feels choppy, this bit here, this bit there. Things become a tad confusing when Jokichi gets his revenge underway, only to have a third act straying as he gets involved with a gangster defending a town from a gang hiding out in the mountains called the Blue Demons. Again, this plot from nowhere is suddenly revealed as a point for the sereis to expand upon. If only it wasnt unweildly in its execution.
So, while entertaining, Trail of Blood doesn't quite have the imaginative focus, tight production, or memorable fight choreography to cement itself as a great example of the 70's explosion of exploitation action samurai films. But, it is good- just good enough.
The DVD: AnimEigo
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. AnimEigo seems content to do a less than decent job with most of the their samurai film transfers. Technically the transfer is not fine, the grumble being that it is noisy and processed badly, replete with ghosting. The print has some wear and tear of time and age. Some scenes are a bit softer than others. The contrast depth is a bit lacking. It's a bit grainy. The colors tend to be just a tad dull. All these lacking areas are not weak to a bothersome degree; in general, its just not well defined and will appear more than subpar on high end systems.
Sound: 2 channel Japanese language, basically the original mono track given the two-track push. Two English subtitle options give the choice of either just the dialogue, or dialogue with sign and certain term translation. Good sound, not remarkable in terms of sound dynamics, but thankfully free from any severe age distortions. AnimEigo's subtitle translations used to take a very flowery approach. This disc shows that they have gotten a bit looser and more open to colloquialism's like ‟dumbshits.‟ The more detailed sign/definition translation is great, one of the options that really sets AnimEigo releases apart from their peers.
Extras: Program Notes. --- B&W Image Gallery. --- Trailer, plus trailers for Shogun Assassin, Lady Snowblood, and Shadow Hunters.
Conclusion: Trail of Blood is not a film I would use to introduce viewers to early 70's samurai exploitation films. It is a film that pales to better examples, like the Lone Wolf and Cub or Lady Snowblood films. For established fans, it is a decent diversion, just one that lacks the spark of better examples from the genre. The DVD presentation is a a basic affair, worth a rental for the casual, less knowledgeable samurai film viewer. Hardcore fans will be less than pleased witht he quality, so, again, best to stick to a rental.