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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

The Bounty Hunter Trilogy Blu-ray Review

Radiance Films

Blu-ray Release: March 26, 2024

Video: 2.35:1/1080p/Color

Audio: Japanese LPCM 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English

Run Time: 89:28, 97:39, 88:02

Director: Shigehiro Ozawa, Eiichi Kudo



Bounty Hunter: Killer’s Mission (Japanese: Shokin kasegi, 1969)


Doctor and spy-for-hire Shikoro Ichibei (Tomisaburō Wakayama) is hired to prevent the sale of firearms to a hostile Shogun. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


The first film in the Bounty Hunter or Shikoro Ichibei trilogy, Killer’s Mission, exists on the precipice of cult film immortality for its veteran director and star. Filmmaker Shigehiro Ozawa had been working regularly in the Japanese film industry since 1954, churning out multiple samurai melodramas and gritty yakuza thrillers per year and helping to introduce the Girl Boss genre with Delinquent Angel (1960). But his most explosive claim to fame came late in his career with the releases of 1974’s The Street Fighter, The Return of the Street Fighter, and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge.


Meanwhile, actor Tomisaburô Wakayama had been paying his dues almost as long, appearing in major franchises throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, including a recurring role in the Shinobi No Mono series and two Zatoichi films – Kazuo Mori’s The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962) and Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964). Shortly after the Bounty Hunter trilogy wrapped up, he stamped his mark on the international exploitation market with Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972). Based on the comic of the same name by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, it was the first of six Lone Wolf and Cub films released between 1972 and 1974, culminating in a highly successful cobbling of the first two films dubbed Shogun Assassin, which was unleashed upon North American grindhouses in 1980.


Killer’s Mission is a sincere, serious attempt to combine familiar jidaigeki costume drama and chumbara exploits with updated action direction (i.e. more trampolines and wires) and concepts from post-Bond European spy movies and revisionist westerns. It’s not bordering on cartoonish, like the Street Fighter and Lone Wolf and Cub films, which set new standards in violence, but it still dabbles in comic book characterizations, is sheathed in grit, and features spectacular bloodshed. Ichibei epitomizes the film’s notion of a samurai-spy-western by embodying traits of the cool-headed samurai, the hyper-prepared MI6 agent, and the spaghetti western antihero, though, given his proclivity for lethal gadgets, he’s more of a Sartana or Sabata type than a Man with No Name. 


Despite the European influences, the adventure remains unmistakably rooted in Japanese filmmaking traditions. Besides the Edo period political intrigue, which threatens to rival the over-complexities of the Cold War intrigues of a typical Bond movie (in an amusing coincidence, I’m reviewing this set at the same time that I’m watch the latest episodes of the television adaptation of James Clavell’s Shōgun [pub. 1975]), and a brutal torture scene, Killer’s Mission also replaces cheeky femme fatales with vengeful martial artists, portrayed by Cat Girl Gambler series (1965-’66) star Yumiko Nogawa and Lone Wolf and Cub and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) alum Tomoko Mayama. Ichibei even pretends to be a Zatoichi-esque blind masseur to gain access to bad guys’ camp at one point.









Bounty Hunter: The Fort of Death (Japanese: Gonin no Shôkin Kasegi, 1969)


Shikoro Ichibei (Tomisaburō Wakayama) assembles a team to protect a village of farmers from a ruthless lord. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


All three of the Shikoro Ichibei films have a definite spaghetti western vibe, but the first sequel, The Fort of Death, is the most spaghetti-adjacent of the trilogy in terms of its measurable western-esque iconography, like horse riding and gunplay, and more European affectations, like brusque violence, handheld camerawork, and a surprise gatling gun attack that mirrors the machine gun reveal from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966). For reference, Italy’s western craze began in earnest after Sergio Leone reused major plot elements from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) for A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964). Kurosawa had, himself, been inspired by Hollywood westerns and the spaghetti/samurai influence cycle continued throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, culminating in hybrid films, much like the Bounty Hunter Trilogy. Other connections between the genres include the blind gunfighter of Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay (1964) mirroring the aforementioned Zatoichi, the blind swordsman.


As it embraces western tropes, The Fort of Death dials back on the political intrigue in favor of a mercenary mission variation on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), though the particular misfit nature of the protagonists (including a returning Tomoko Mayama) and military nature of their opponents also pays homage to Robert Aldrich’s then recently released Dirty Dozen (1967), which itself became popular plot fodder for spaghetti westerns. Director Eiichi Kudo and screenwriter Kôji Takada also increase focus on Ichibei’s medical practice, devoting significant screentime to his work treating poor peasants and farmers. I assume that the heroic medical professional aspect of the character was inspired by Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) and that part of the pitch was ‘Seven Samurai meets Red Beard,’ but I don’t have enough information on Fort of Death’s production to be sure. Either way, it's a unique use of familiar narrative and character types (edit: I just finished the extras and Robin Gatto makes several references to Red Beard in his interview, so I guess I was on the right track).


Director Eiichi Kudo, known for his work on the somewhat similar 13 Assassins (1963) – a samurai action epic that was remade by Takashi Miike in 2010, which helped legitimize the maverick filmmaker in the eyes of international critics – doesn’t depart significantly from Ozawa, at least from a stylistic standpoint. A couple of really crude comedic gags aside, Fort of Death is an incredibly efficient and succinct film, cramming a lot of action and plot into a brisk 97 minutes. The climactic siege sequence is downright relentless.










Bounty Hunter: The Eight Men to Kill (Japanese: Shokin Kubi: Isshun Hachi-Nin Giri, 1972)


Shikoro Ichibei (Tomisaburō Wakayama) is hired to recover a cache of stolen gold from a government's mine. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


The final Ichibei adventure saw the return of original director Ozawa, who, without abandoning its connections to western iconography (and music), reiterates the series’ ties to Japanese history and Eurospy adventures. The plot requires extensive narrated context to set the political stage and features broad nods to the most popular Bond film ever made, Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964). Also harkening back to Killer’s Mission’s Bond-like narrative devices, Ichibei finds himself in bed with a villainess, infiltrating the ranks of the baddies, and dependent on deadly spycraft gadgets, instead of large-scale weapons of war.


Eight Men to Kill also reiterates the jidaigeki genre’s turn towards comic book sources in the build-up to the Lone Wolf and Cub series with its arch villains, femme fatales, protracted sex scenes, and cartoonish violence, which is gorier than the other two movies, but also more knowingly ridiculous and fun (floppy beheadings and chopped limbs aplenty). It’s not all romp, no circumstance, though. The hero is reintroduced via a bloody surgical sequence to remove gold lodged in a man’s abdomen (this is done again without acupuncture anesthesia later in the film), a major supporting player is raped off-screen, and Ozawa brings back baroque torture sequences, following their absence in the previous entry. 







Video

None of the Shikoro Ichibei/Bounty Hunter films have seen release on home video in North America, at least not through any official channels. There were decent, anamorphic DVDs released in Japan, though (at least of the first two movies; I can’t find definitive proof of the third being on disc), for curious samurai fans with multi-region players. Radiance doesn’t specify what went into the restorations – they only say that Toei handed them completed digital transfers – but texture, grain, and contrast levels all seem to indicate a nice, clean negative source.


Cinematographers Jûhei Suzuki and Nagaki Yamagishi keep things consistently dark and gritty throughout the series, including some super-deep shadows and jet black backdrops, all of which threaten to make some scenes difficult to discern. Fortunately, the delicate highlights tend to stick out and delineate shapes when shots are shaded by the gloom of night. Even the brighter daylight scenes tend to be moody and overcast. Despite being shot by two different directors and cinematographers, the overall look is pretty consistent over the three films, something that is magnified by the transfers’ homogenized browns, greens, and blues, as well as punchy red accents in the form of costumes and gore. The often busy details are tight, but not oversharpened, and the softer edges tend to have a deliberate, film-like quality to them. 



Audio

All three films in the Bounty Hunter Trilogy are presented in their original Japanese mono in uncompressed LPCM 2.0. The dialogue is a bit on the raspy, hissy side, but the limited effects work is cleaner than expected, even during action scenes, when multiple elements are stacked up and crammed into the solitary channel. The brassiest and loudest part of every mix is Masao Yagi, Toshiaki Tsushima, and Hideaki Sakurai’s music, which really hammers home the Bond and spaghetti western influences. Killer’s Mission, in particular, quotes John Barry and Ennio Morricone beautifully throughout without fully ripping either composer off (note that I may be confusing the composers’ names, because the IMDb credits are incomplete).



Extras

  • Commentary by film historian Tom Mes (2024, in English) – Killer’s Mission’s extras begin with the Midnight Eye editor/writer and author of Agitator: The Cinema Of Takashi Miike (FAB Press, 2004) exploring the film’s origin and influences, historical basis and anachronisms, the intricacies of Toei Studios during the period, the wider careers of the cast & crew, and gender roles in the film as compared to similar movies from the period.

  • Interview with Akihito Ito (15:43) – Disc one also features a new informative interview with the Japanese film historian and Shigehiro Ozawa expert, who discusses the director’s life and work, emphasizing his direction on Killer’s Mission and Eight Men to Kill.

  • Robin Gatto on Eiichi Kudo (18:00, in English) – Disc two’s one substantial extra is a new visual essay from the Japanese film expert and Midnight Eye contributor, who examines director Kudo’s career, his success with gritty samurai mission movies, the Fort of Death’s connections to spaghetti westerns and various Japanese films (including the revelation that the gatling gun might be the exact same one seen in Luigi Vanzi’s The Silent Stranger [Italian: Lo straniero di silenzio, 1968]), Wakayama’s rise in prominence, social movements informing audience tastes in violence, and Toei’s attempts to keep up with changing fads. 

  • Theatrical trailers for all three films

  • Photo gallery (disc two only)


The images on this page are taken from the BDs and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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