In 1961’s “Yojimbo” and 1962’s “Sanjuro”, Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune turned in some of their best work and gave the world one of the most memorable characters in Japanese cinema. So well made and downright fun are the two adventures of the wandering warrior Sanjuro that it’s a shame the pair didn’t commit to making more entries in the series (what I wouldn’t give to have a Kung Fu-type “Sanjuro” television show made at the same quality level as Kurosawa’s films). But while Kurosawa moved on to more artistically challenging projects, Mifune returned to play everyone’s favorite grumpy ronin for two more films, the final one being 1970’s “Incident at Blood Pass”.
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and produced by Mifune himself, it begins with Sanjuro taking a new job that mysteriously requires him to go to the Sanshuu Pass where he is to wait for “something” to happen, then choose a plan of action. On the way there, he is once more inclined to show his chivalrous side, this time by saving a young woman named Okuni from her drunkard husband. They soon both arrive at a teahouse where from that point onwards the majority of the film’s plot unfurls.
Here, Sanjuro isn’t nearly as prominent as he is in the previous films, instead acting as one part of a wide ensemble of supporting characters whose paths converge at the teahouse. Along with him and Okuni, who begins working there as a servant upon her arrival, there is Oyuki, the spirited young woman who runs the teahouse alongside her grandfather; Yatarou, a wandering drifter; Hyoma Ibuki, an unlikable officer from the deputy’s office; and Tatsu, his prisoner. Plus, there is Gentetsu, a burly ex-doctor played by none other than Shintarô Katsu, who is perhaps best known for portraying the legendary blind swordsman Zatôichi in a staggering amount of films throughout the 1960s as well as 1970’s “Zatôichi Meets Yojimbo”, Mifune’s previous Sanjuro film in which, as the title so clearly suggests, the two classic characters meet face to face.
“Incident” contains a decent story and good writing which effectively develops the various key players sharing the stage with Sanjuro (here referred to as Yo – “as in Yojimbo!”). For example, Oyuki longs to leave the teahouse and set out on her own while Ibuki stubbornly maintains his harsh, even abusive attitude towards his prisoner, earning much disdain from the others. Everyone gathered at the teahouse is given a degree of complexity and drawn as free-standing individuals, be it through a shadowy past, strong desires or nefarious goals that have yet to be carried out. So compelling is the slower first half of the film that it’s almost a shame when the details of Sanjuro’s mission are finally revealed – but luckily, the later portion is also quite well done.
As Mifune’s final journey as Sanjuro, “Incident at Blood Pass” is a mostly satisfying one, though the climax feels a little rushed and could have been more expanded and epic for such a major hero of Japanese film. But on the whole, the film delivers the goods as a fun and entertaining ride from once upon a time in feudal Japan .