The 1970 film Machibuse (Ambush but often known as Ambush at Blood Pass) is notable for three reasons. One, it features Toshiro Mifune in a character that may have been intended to a reapperance of his Sanjuro character from the Kurosawa film Yojimbo and it’s sequel. Two, its a star studded production, almost the whole cast were very famous in Japan. Finally, it was the last film directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. Let me tackle those in reverse order.
I’ve written about director Hiroshi Inagaki here before when I mentioned his Musashi trilogy. Inagaki gathered quite a lot of international acclaim in his day. He won the Best Foreign Picture Academy Award for the first part of his Musashi trilogy, Musashi Miyamoto, in 1954. In 1958 he won the Golden Lion at Venice for Rickshaw Man . Both these films featured Toshiro Mifune, as did many of his others. Mifune is most famous for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, but he appeared in 18 films for Inagaki compared to 16 for Kurosawa. Unfortunately Inagaki’s acclaim, like the settings of his pictures, stayed in the past and these days he’s not as widely known as he once was. Machibuse was the last movie Inagaki made, though he lived on for another decade or so.
The stars of the film would have been a big casting coup of the time, no doubt facilitated by Inagaki directing and Mifune co-producing. 1970 was five years after Red Beard, the production of which had split the Kurosawa/Mifune team forever. Mifune had a number of successful collaborations with other directors in that time, especially with Inagaki. He’d also appeared in some of his most famous international pictures such as the Oscar winning Grand Prix with James Garner and John Boorman’s excellent Hell in the Pacific with Lee Marvin.
Co-star Shintaro Katsu was also at the height of his popularity. Katsu is perhaps best known as Zatoichi, the wandering blind swordsman/masseuse, a part he played for 27 years in 26 films and 100 TV episodes. As well loved and mainstream as the Zatoichi series was, Katsu also had a hand in a number of the shadier exploitation samurai films. Many of these are very popular today in Europe and North America, pictures like the Lone Wolf and Cub / Baby Cart series which he produced and which starred his brother, or the series known in the West as Hanzo the Razor which he produced and starred in himself.
Yujiro Ishihara, another star of Machibuse, is not very well known abroad but was a huge celebrity at the time, appearing in some of the highest grossing Japanese films of the time. While he never caught much international attention, audiences were obsessed with him at home. Like Mifune and Katsu, Ishihara also founded a production company that made some his smash hits. His older brother is Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and right-wing author. His name still might bring a tear to the eye of some old women today, despite the fact that he was hardly the most dashing leading man.
Despite the time it was made and those involved, Machibuse is not a chanbara action-heavy film. The style is much closer to a parlour mystery. Mifune plays a wandering ronin who takes a mysterious job. The mission is essentially to proceed to an isolated countryside inn and await an undisclosed event. When the event occurs, it’s left to the ronin’s discretion if he ought to kill someone or not. All very hush hush. Over the early parts of the film, a number of colourful characters end up at the inn, including a hulking ex-doctor (Katsu), an itinerant gambler (Ishihara) and a battered policeman with his captive. As time wears on, the secret motivations and connections between the characters reveal themselves and the double crossing begins.
The music in the film tries to suggest Morricone, and therefore Leone, and while the film does have the feel of a Western, it’s not that of a Spaghetti one. It some ways the movie reminds me more of pictures like Man of the West, with all the people cooped up together, our comprised hero, the woman in his care under threat, and a snarling mountain man his antagonist. Also Katsu is not quite the Lee Cobb part here, he’s definitely playing against his Zatoichi type, wild, rough and straggly here, he tries to force himself on Mifune’s charge a number of times.
Though the film is mostly quite serious, it has a number of silly sequences. We get a whole taiko drumming performance that seems like it would have been better later in the film to cause some tension, or intercut with something other than faces watching them play. There’s a fistfight between Mifune and Ishihara, one of those ones where no one really loses to the displeasure of fans of either, and it’s so badly staged it’s only saved by Mifune bursting out laughing at the end.
There is one of the silly scenes that I like however. The introduction walks that line between cool and hilarious. Mifune agrees to take this job, despite it involving so much over the top secrecy and abstract directions. At one point, he even seems to notice the ninja types which are hanging outside the room eavesdropping on the whole thing. Nevertheless, he takes the money, weighs it up in his hand and says “I wonder if this is good luck or bad? Well, only one way to find out!”. Just then the Japanese title slaps on the screen in huge red letters: AMBUSH! No kidding.
Despite the involvement of Inagaki, the film is not really enjoyable for the direction. Though there are some nice shots of the snowy mountains, most of Machibuse takes place in the small set of the inn itself. The pleasure of watching doesn’t come from fantastic wide angles or any exciting combat, but rather from the play-like series of revelations, double and triple crosses. The comically ambiguous orders Mifune receives in the pre-credit sequence actually play into the story very well, as he tries to apply them to each new interesting situation as they appear, wondering if this is the incident he was sent to take care of. It gives him a motivation to stick around and interfere at the beginning, when the easiest solution would be to walk out of the trouble that’s brewing and the obvious set up.
At last we come to the question as to if this character of Mifune is intended to be his character from Yojimbo and Sanjuro. In my opinion, it is. His character is slightly more serious (and cleaner cut) than those films but then again he is a good bit older. Many of his character traits are in common. His weakness is for women in need, as we’ve seen in the Kurosawa films, although he himself never takes a lover. He mentions in this film that he doesn’t remember what his name is anymore, similar to Yojimbo/Sanjuro, but in this case he does not invent one like in those films (Sanjuro Tsubake) but is given the nickname Yo (short for yojimbo) by one of the girls.
Like in the Kurosawa films, Mifune’s ronin is a great swordsman, but more of a canny strategist, figuring out the motivations and seeing through the lies of others. Though Mifune played a number of wandering swordsman, small comparisons show how this is closer to his Yojimbo role than anything else. For instance, in the other Katsu/Mifune team-up picture known as Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, despite the inference in the name, the character is extremely different. Mifune spends most of that movie drunk, is more interested in getting a sweetheart than manipulating people, and is not even a real ronin.
While not the finest work of anybody involved, Machibuse is a slow-paced but interesting picture that shows a slice of the top talent working in Japan in 1970. By this stage, movies like Machibuse were already past their prime but Inagaki gives them, and movie making in general, an entertaining farewell that says a lot about his approach to cinema: character over action and situation over spectacle.