Criterion: Snow Trail (****) – Mifune’s debut has another star

Snow Trail – 1947

Director Senkichi Taniguchi
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Senkichi Taniguchi
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Kosugi, Akitake Kono, Setsuko Wakayama, Kokuten Kōdō

Snow Trail comes out of Japan in the dawn of the post-WWII era. It is the story of three bank robbers who head into the mountains in the middle of winter in order to escape with their loot. The plan is foolish, as their pursuers remark during the expositional first act. There is a hotel, then a lodge, then a vast nothingness of snow and rock. They’d never make it. This doesn’t keep them from trying.

In their journey, they lose the old man (Kosugi), who coordinated the heist. They end up in the lodge, where a man (Kōdō) is living with his granddaughter Haruko (Wakayama) with their friend, Honda (Kono). Honda is an expert climber. In lesser films, this would have been made clear right off the bat. This makes the second act interesting for the fact that there are two people in the lodge more dangerous than the others.

One of these, Eijima (Mifune) is a truly greedy and dangerous man. The other, Nojiro (Shimura), is a softer and gentler soul. He is won over by simple acts of kindness, like when Haruko offers him honey tea, or when she plays records for him. The story takes time to unfold the difference between the two, and the incredibly subtle acting skills of Shimura.

Mifune doesn’t need to be subtle, he’s just quietly intimidating. When the wheels of the story start turning, Eijima begins to make more overt gestures of irritation, as the desire to escape overrides all courtesy.

The last act involves true intrigue. The two thieves and Honda start over the mountains and the scenery is excellent, for the most part. Some of the shots seem simple enough, but there are others that are exceptional. The on location work is rather remarkable for the time and given Japan’s state as a country.

There are several Western influences displayed in the lodge, including a record collection that includes Old Susanna and My Old Kentucky Home. There is a conversation about the meaning of the latter song with is especially poignant, on a human to human level. To have Taniguchi and writer Kurosawa making this realization after such a brutal and bloody war is truly touching. This feeling is crystallized by the completely solemn nature of Nojiro as he listens and draws parallels to his own life.

Honda, Haruku and Nojiro listen to My Old Kentucky Home

Taniguchi and his writing partner Kurosawa create a remarkable work here. Two of the actors, Shimura and Mifune, would go on to become stars as Kurosawa mainstays. Mifune’s presence is keenly felt in this film. The quality of the film varies, mostly due to age. For whatever reasons, the screen is completely clear everytime they show his face. It’s Shimura who steals this story, though. His performance connects the viewer to the humanity of some of the fiercest combatants of the Western world in a format we all can relate to, no matter the barrier.

(**** out of *****)

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