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The Bounty Hunter Trilogy (Blu-Ray Review)

5 min read
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It's often been observed that 's early Spaghetti Westerns were inspired by the samurai pictures of —so much so that Toho, the Japanese production company where Kurosawa worked for much of his career, won a lawsuit arguing Leone's A Fistful of Dollars was an unauthorised remake of Yojimbo. And while the overt similarities can't be denied in that instance (Kurosawa himself observed “It is a very fine film, but it is my film.”), such a tit-for-tat exchange isn't representative of the many, many examples of creative cross-pollination occurring from East to West during the same period. So it is with The Bounty Hunter Trilogy, a series of delightfully violent action films that drew on everything from Seven Samurai to From Russia with Love. For genre heads, this latest release from Radiance is a must—even if the films vary in quality.

Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama (later made famous by his role in the Lone Wolf and Cub series) as part-doctor, part-rōnin, all-badass Shikoro Ichibei, The Bounty Hunter Trilogy is as loosely connected as they come, a series of distinct adventures that are only bound together by Wakayama's turn as the gruff but kind-hearted samurai-for-hire. Not only do the films have different directors (prolific action journeyman Shigehiro Ozawa shot 1 and 3, noted B-movie stylist Eiichi Kudo shot 2), they vary drastically in tone and scope. The first, an out-and-out James Bond riff, replete with John Barry-aping score, the second, a much schlockier reimagining of Seven Samurai by way of a Western siege film, a la Zulu, and the third, a more straightforward Spaghetti Western homage. It's a lot to process, undoubtedly, and yet there's not a film here that runs longer than 100 minutes. Snappy and fun is the name of the game.

First up is Killer's Mission. Despite the rather grisly sounding title, this is probably the lightest of the bunch, a zippy adventure flick that treats its period setting—the late 18th century feuds of the Japanese Shogunate, and the encroaching influence of the parodical gold-trimmed Dutch navy—as a backdrop for some delightfully silly spycraft and high-flying skirmishes. Ichibei is tasked with preventing a hostile Shogun from acquiring a shipment of heavy artillery, adding a whip-fast femme fatale and a comic dunce (or is he?) to his posse as he zigs and zags between bawdy bars and military encampments. The Bond influence is obvious everywhere, whether it's in the hair comb-turned-blow dart, incredulity-stretching disguises and ruses, or Ichibei's seductive powers. Admittedly, Ozawa is fairly anonymous in the director's chair, but he's industrious too, knowing exactly when to cut from the film's messy (and often arduous) domestic politics to scarlet red claret gushing out of limbs and dramatic freeze frame high kicks.

A close-up of a character's face from Killer's Mission
Radiance Films

Next up is The Fort of Death, the best and most fully developed of the bunch, despite somehow releasing the same year as Killer's Mission. Gone are the overarching Bond-isms (though a few remain; a jerry-rigged corpse that flies through the air before exploding, or the sudden dramatic reveal of a Gatling gun), and instead we're in pure pulp territory. The set-up will be familiar to anyone who's even half-watched Seven Samurai—a group of ailing farmers pool their money to hire Ichibei to protect their fort from the evil local landlord—and yet Kudo brushes past the plot in a third of the time, focusing far more on Ichibei's goofy antics at his insalubrious doctor's practice applying penis ointment, or an entire fight scene in which Ichibei cuts through goons in his underwear. If it sounds farcical, it is, but the scale of the action is equally impressive, with fireballs tearing through the sky, elaborate wooden sets, and an array of accompanying miniatures. More than that, Kudo understands the importance of contrast in the Western, favouring big, bold images shot with wide-angle lenses that emphasise the smallness of each character, silhouetted against dusty expanses. This, indisputably, is the good stuff.

And that brings us to the last film, Eight Men to Kill, which, as is sadly often the case, is also the weakest. This time around Ichibei is tasked with recovering a lost cache of gold, a set-up that screams back-to-basics adventuring, but sadly leads to the driest film of the three; all of the boring backroom politicking of the first returns with Ozawa, but there's an accompanying maudlin tone and lack of memorable set pieces that dulls the end result dramatically. Ichibei's gadgets make a comeback too, most particularly a fantastic scoped pistol, but they feel out of place, stifled by a morose Western that never finds its groove. Of all the pictures this is also the plainest looking, which, given the quality of the restorations across the board, seems likely to be a result of Ozawa's televisual eye. There's still some good swordplay and a few moments of genuine nastiness that cut through, but it's a shame the trilogy ends on a bum note.

Ichibei would later make his way onto the small screen in 1975, a format you'd imagine was well suited to the serialised nature of his adventures; a spy one week, a grizzled war veteran the next. At his best, though, he felt like a real B-movie star, buoyed by Wakayama's unique screen presence and enhanced by Kudo's workmanlike cinematic flair. If the prospect of Ichibei screaming at his compatriot to “Urinate on this weapon!” to cool its overheated mechanisms faster doesn't appeal, you might be in the wrong place. For everyone else: there's plenty to enjoy here.

Special Features 

  • High-Definition digital transfer of each film presented on two discs, made available on Blu-ray (1080p) for the first time in the world
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Audio commentary on Killer's Mission by Tom Mes
  • Interview with film historian and Shigehiro Ozawa expert Akihito Ito about the filmmaker
  • Visual essay on Eiichi Kudo by Japanese cinema expert Robin Gatto
  • Series poster and press image gallery
  • Trailers
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Six postcards of artwork from the films
  • Reversible sleeves featuring artwork based on original posters
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by samurai film expert Alain Silver, an obituary of Eiichi Kudo by Kinji Fukasaku and an interview piece on Shigehiro Ozawa after his retirement from filmmaking
  • Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in a rigid box with full-height Scanavo cases and removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

The Bounty Hunter Trilogy releases in the UK on March 25th courtesy of Radiance.