Compared to the likes of Yojimbo, Sleepy Eyes of Death, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Zatoichi, the comic based Mikogami trilogy is a lesser known samurai action series, collected here after AnimEigo's initial single releases.
Trail of Blood introduces Jokichi of Mikogami (Yoshio Harada- Ronin-Gai, Hunter in the Dark, Lady Snowblood 2). As a former gangster trying to turn over a new leaf, Jokichi 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. 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,... seriously, I guess podiatrists 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.
In Fearless Avenger, Jokichi tracks Chogoro down and confronts him during a gathering of several gang bosses. His head is saved by "Thunder" Juzaburo, the most powerful boss at the meeting, who, despite Jokichi's rudeness, respects the ostracized outlaw's courage. Jokichi's waves later lead to Boss Umezo asking Jokichi a favor, he wants him to escort Juzaboro's runaway daughter back to her father. Jokichi initially refuses, he is after all an outlaw, banned from both civilized and crime society and, in addition a hunted man, but the prospect of money as well as the good favor is too much for him to refuse. Naturally, as is the case with Jokicki's life, things turn out quite badly.
With Slaughter in the Snow being the last film in the Jokichi Mikogami series, it is pretty clear it wasn't meant to be the last film and the effort was canceled because the character simply wasn't interesting enough to sustain a prolonged series. Why? Well, first, Jokichi takes a backseat, his character drive is muted while the focus is on knife-throwing assassin and tuberculosis sufferer "Windmill" Kobunji. It is the same technique the Zatoichi series employed, the Fugitive style storytelling (and no doubt indicative of its comic source as well) where our anti-hero finds himself drawn into the affairs of others. Thing is, Ichi was a lovable scoundrel. Jokichi is just depressing. So, it is the final film, yet there is absolutely no resolution, much less forward momentum, to Jokichi's character and his quest for revenge. The series ends with him finding no satisfaction, no triumph, no defeat, just called to an abrupt, unresolved end.
Sometimes films are lesser known for a reason. I'm a samurai film nut, especially on the more exploitative side. I had always heard brief mentions of this film series, never anything glowing (unless it was from some bootlegger trying to sell the title). I hoped for an undiscovered gem and found a very middling set of films. It is surprising considering the pedigree both behind and in front of the camera. As a lead Yoshio Harada is a cool, smoldering cat, but he is failed by the writing of the character (too shallow, too one-dimensional- and that dimension is oppressingly dour) and he isn't much of a swordsman, thus the action is lacking, usually brief and sloppy. Director Kazuo Ikehiro was a fine samurai film director, but all three films are lacking in the storytelling (the first two films straying weirdly, suddenly, in the third acts into all new plotlines/bad guys) and the productions were obviously rushed and on the cheap, leading to some less than smooth pacing and clumsy direction.
The DVD: AnimEigo.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The first release suffers from some transfer issues, notably some boosting and ghosting issues. For the next two, the transfers are technically much better and do not suffer form the same problems. In terms of the prints, they are fairly decent. Considering the age and budget, one expects some grain and the occasional soft scene here and there. They are a tad muddled, overall sharpness and color levels are acceptable but not extremely detailed or vibrant.
Sound: Mono Japanese language with two optional English subtitle tracks (a straight dialoge option and a extra-definitions option). Well, it is mono, so you cannot be expecting the audio to bowl you over. Not much to say other than the tracks are relatively clear and free from any age wear or distortions.
AnimEigo does go above and beyond with their subs. The dual option is a godsend, providing some extra tidbits to cultural terms and signs that most Western viewers may not understand. On the dialog side, they feature good timing and multiple color choices when many characters are speaking. It does play loose with the translation, using words like "pissed" and phrases like "It looks like you've been through the wringer."
Extras: Each disc comes with Detailed Program Notes, an Image Gallery, and Trailers for various AnimEigo samurai related titles.
Conclusion: Well, if you are going to buy this series, the box set is the way to go. Those who bought the films upon their initial release will no doubt feel shafted at the money they could have saved but that's why you've got to be picky sometimes, especially with cult release companies that are likely to offer repackaging.
One caveat, based on the film's individually, I would say for your casual film fan and even devotees of samurai films, each and every film is purely a "rent it." They are not terrible or lacking in entertainment but the series is, in the grand scheme, disappointing, and there are certainly better efforts out there if you want your samurai-exploitation kicks.