This 1972 sequel (or, follow up film) to The Trail Of Blood more or less picks up where that film left off. Our hero, Jokichi, is angry after the events that took place earlier in his story and so when we catch up to him this time around he's hell bent on getting back at the sinister Chogoro. Unfortunately for Jokichi, he makes a few false steps, his assassination attempt fails miserably and he winds up getting caught by the local yakuza chapter.
Thankfully, Jokichi has a little bit of luck on his side, at least, and the boss, Juzaburo, decides to spare his miserable life because he knows that if he has Jokichi killed, it'll mess up some plans that his gang has for a formal commemoration ceremony. Jokichi, with no one but himself to depend on, heads back into town and soon meets up with Umezo, a different yakuza boss. Umezo knows of Jokichi's skill with a sword and so he hires him to work as a bodyguard for Juzaburo's daughter, the lovely Oyuki. Jokichi agrees but soon learns that his task will be much harder than he was originally lead to believe and before long, his archenemy, Chogoro, is back in the picture and Jokichi rekindles his thirst for blood and vengeance.
It takes a few minutes to figure out just what exactly is going on if you haven't been lucky enough to catch Trail Of Blood, but after the opening fifteen minute salvo it becomes fairly clear that the plot for The Fearless Avenger really isn't that difficult to latch on to. It's a fairly straightforward tale of revenge and betrayal and if you're willing to deal with the potential confusion that the beginning of the movie could confront you with, you'll find yourself easily immersed in Jokichi's quest. If the story doesn't pull you in, the hyper-violence and sleaze factor will. This is a fast paced and bloody film that is almost on par with the Lone Wolf And Cub movies in terms of how much red stuff is splashed across the screen (though there isn't nearly as much arterial spray here). It's all set to an appropriately funky sounding seventies score that would be more at home in a blaxploitation film than you'd think it would be in a period samurai movie, but it works even when it shouldn't.
Fast paced almost to a fault, The Fearless Avenger wastes little time getting into the thick of the action. Yoshio Harada (who attentive viewers might recognize from the second Lady Snowblood movie or more recently from Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi) does a fine job of carrying the movie. He's tough enough that we can believe him in the action scenes that the film relies on but he's also able to bring enough legitimate sympathy to the role that we can also accept him in the more dramatic moments that are scattered throughout the picture.
Those aforementioned dramatic moments never last all that long, however, as this is an action movie through and through. The combat and swordplay scenes are usually group events with various characters slicing and dicing their way through the competition but a few smaller scale swordplay scenes are equally effective. Plenty of grizzly looking men scowl and grunt their way through the picture, while dainty and pretty girls cower in fear and hope to not get raped. It's all very primitive and base, but underneath the exploitative elements is a very well shot film that mixes some interesting politics and even a bit of humor into its story. The quaint Japanese countryside is captured quite nicely by Kazuo Miyagawa (who also shot the Lone Wolf And Cub movies which would explain why they have a similar look), as is the seaside. The interior scenes are appropriately claustrophobic. A scene in which our hero saves his employer from a roaming stallion is quite dramatic with the camera switching from the horse's point of view to that of the maiden about to be trampled. The story remains open ended when the film is finished, despite a fantastic battle royale that makes up the finale. The third (and final) part of Jokichi's take is told in Slaughter In The Snow.
The near spotless 2.35.1 anamorphic transfer is pretty close to perfect. Aside from some mild edge enhancement and a tiny shimmer here and there, the picture quality is very strong. There is a fair bit of mild film grain noticeable in some scenes but there's almost no print damage at all and the colors look quite good on the widescreen image. The black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish and the flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural. The picture is very sharp and quite detailed in both the foreground and the background and quite honestly, overall this film looks quite good on DVD though there are spots where the picture is a little bit on the soft side and the contrast looks a little boosted.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack on this DVD comes through with excellent clarity and doesn't suffer from any hiss, distortion, or feedback. There is some of the flatness associated with older mono tracks but that's to be expected and in terms of overall clarity, this mix is top notch. There aren't any issues with understanding the performers and Animeigo once again earns high marks for adding little cultural notes to their subtitles that help Anglo viewers such as myself better understand some of the intricacies of the plot that might get lost during the translation or go unnoticed due to cultural differences. Having these notes available is a definite asset to the presentation and it would be ideal if more companies that release Japanese films, especially those set in feudal times.
While this is hardly a super deluxe special edition, it isn't completely barebones either. Lurking deep within the confines of its menu system you'll find a few trailers, some interactive program notes in text format, and a modest still gallery. Nothing to write home about, but it is something and we all know that something is better than nothing.
Although it is the middle part of a trilogy, The Fearless Avenger isn't hard to follow at all and enough of the story is self contained that it should be pretty accessible for most viewers. The action comes quickly and holds up throughout the movie, and the swordplay is bloody and dirty, just the way it should be. Animeigo's disc is light on supplements but it looks and sounds quite nice – recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.