It’s Toshiro Mifune’s FIRST MOVIE!
I guess that this movie was so adamant in being under 90 minutes that uses the opening credit sequence to hint at the start of the story. Buildings. Buildings. Buildings. A revolver firing. Two other guns firing. Cops in cars and motorcycles. Trains. Newspaper. The newspaper talks of a trio of robbers who have most likely fled to the Nagano area, a place known for mountains. So…all of that story in two minutes. Okay…let’s go.
So, here are some the cops who have been chasing the robbers, currently in their base by the mountains, joking with some reporters about how foolish it is of the robbers to be hiding out up there during the winter.
Anyways, they are assuming that the robbers in the Shikanoyu Spa Hotel. Unfortunately, no one at the hotel is answering the phone. The trio probably cut the phone lines. In any case, the Chief calls the robbers rats in a cage, as there is only one way in and out of the area…unless they are skilled mountain climbers…which the robbers are not.
The journalists would like to go to the hotel, so…I guess the cops start to escort them there. They were going there anyways, right? It will take a few hours though. They pass through a village and meet a kid who says that he has heard on the radio about the robbers. The main cops discuss whether they should say something on the radio about the robbers being at the hotel in case the radio still works there. It is ultimately decided not to make that public, in case one of the civilians try something rash or the robbers get desperate.
Well, it turns out that that conversation was both unnecessary and moot, because the robbers have probably stolen some parts of the radio, rendering it unworkable. Two of the hotel employees try to work out what happened. Well, one of them tries. So, what is going on? First the phone lines get cut and now this? The first man concludes that it must be the bank robbers from the news. The second man remains unconvinced, but the first man brings up the three men who arrived earlier. One of them had turned off the radio after the announcer began describing the robbers. And one of them has been wearing gloves the whole time, maybe because he is missing two fingers like the radio announcer said. The second guy is still unconvinced, reminding the first guy that this would not be the first time that he had totally misread a situation. He won’t believe without solid evidence, like the gloved guy actually missing two fingers.
Time passes and it is nighttime. The second guy has just woken up from a nap, but the first guy is still thinking about how to get a look at the man’s hand. The second guy says that they should just go for a bath in the hot springs and then have dinner. BATH! The guy would have to take his glove off when he takes a bath. So, the first guy goes to take a peak for when the supposed robber goes to take a bath. And so does the second guy. Hey, who is this?
Dang…wrong suspect. First guy guesses that they must be bathing one at a time out of caution. The second guy goes back to eating, but the first guy stays a peeping at the hallway.
Time passes and the first guy is eating dinner while peeping. Oh, the first suspect returns to his room from the bath and here comes another suspect.
Dang…not the guy either. The second guy suggests that they go to the hot springs and wait for the finger guy there. So, they go and…oh, here he comes.
Dagnabbit. He has his hand covered. The first guy goes over to him and…snatches the cloth from the suspect’s hand. And then promptly falls into the water.
Time passes and the third suspect is done with his bath, giving the first guy a death glare. An employee passes by the suspects’ room with a tray of sake on her way to a room full of drunken customers. The first suspect stops her and tries to “buy” one of the bottles on the tray. She refuses and he starts to get angry. The third suspect arrives just in time to prevent an incident, saying that something happened and pushing the first suspect back into the room.
Well, looks like the jig is up. The first suspect, now confirmed robber, rounds up the employees.
Meanwhile, the other two robbers shut up the group of drunks, though a few are too drunk to fully comprehend how dangerous it is. The second robber gets so frustrated that he shoots into the ceiling.
The cops make their way up the mountain.
The cops finally get to the hot spring, where they find the previously drunk customers.
The robbers had told them to strip down and then fled out the back. It is unclear whether they forced the customers to stay in the hot spring or if they went there themselves to keep from freezing. Either way, the cops have the information that they need. Is anyone going to help the customers get their kimonos back?
The robbers have been struggling to ascend the mountain, but manage to find a hut for the forest service. They break in to find no one there. So, they settle in and make a fire. Knowing that the cops are looking for three men, the first robber, Ejima, suggests that they split up. Also, it seems like he doesn’t quite trust the others. Either way, the third robber, Nojiro, agrees, and tries to split the money into three. It is not quite equal, so Nojiro takes the last batch and the others don’t object…at least not openly. The second robber, Takasugi, is not fond of this idea to split up, since they had previously vowed to stick together no matter what. Ejima recalls that it was Takasugi’s idea to go to the hotel in the first place, resulting in their being cooped up in this hut in the cold. Takasugi wonders what would happen if they turned themselves in now. What?? Ejima assaults him. And Nojiro has to break them up.
Oh, shit. A dog barks outside. Nojiro and Takasugi peak outside. Ejima…tries to snatch some of someone else’s pile. Nojiro catches him and…erm…scene changes.
The three robbers book it up the mountain. Well, Nojiro and Ejima do; Takasugi struggles. Nojiro wonders if Takasugi is okay, but Ejima callously presses forward.
And here come the cops. The guy out front with the dog warns the others to avoid shooting their guns unless it is absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, that order did not reach Takasugi. Unable to keep up with the other two, he finds himself approached by the dog. He shoots and the dog runs away.
And…well…that gunshot causes an avalanche, which sends everyone running. Everyone except for Takasugi, who gets buried under snow.
Nojiro and Ejima manage to escape from the avalanche, and have a brief opportunity to relax. Nojiro is in mourning. Ejima…is more unhappy over the waste of money. He briefly considers taking Nojiro’s share right there, but decides against it.
So, the three robbers, now two, continue up the mountain, through the snow, in the snow. The roll down several feet at least once. And they start climbing back up. Man, that has got to stink.
Finally, the two notice ski tracks, which means that there is something to account for human life…somewhere somewhat nearby. They follow the ski lines up and…oh, would you look at that?
Ejima shouts out to the house and a girl emerges. She shouts back and waves at them.
There are three people in the house. The girl, her grandfather, and a young man. They invite Ejima and Nojiro inside for sake.
Nojiro admits that he had no idea that people could live in such a remote area. The young man, named Honda, notes that the avalanche and the current blizzard has prevented them from going back down the mountain. The grandfather says that they will have to wait at least a week. The girl, Haruko, seems to be overjoyed, at least at the prospect of Honda being trapped here for a week. Honda’s boss won’t be happy, but what can you do.
Nojiro has been acting all chummy with Honda and their hosts. Ejima, silent up until now, asks whether the radio works. Haruko tells him that the batteries died six months ago. She asks Honda if he can bring them some batteries next time he comes, and then laughs at seeing his face flush from alcohol. That even gets Ejima to slightly grin for a split second.
And then Ejima hears a bird. Haruko and Honda explain that it is a carrier pigeon that helps them communicate with the town below in case of an emergency.
None of the three seem to have noticed Ejima glaring at the bird suspiciously. Honda is too drunk and Haruko has been getting him drunk so that she could get him to perform a goofy dance to Oh Susanna.
So, Ejima and Norjio seem to be in the clear…for now. And Norijo can even take his sunglasses off in front of other people now. They just have to hope that they can wait this out until they can leave. And hope that the police don’t come looking. Or do they risk it and book it through the snow once more?
Indeed, this is the absolute first role by Mifune Toshirō. Or maybe not, since he did play a gang-boss in a two-part film called These Foolish Times that was also released in 1947. But Snow Trail is listed first, so there. And, while this movie was directed by Taniguchi Senkichi (whose 52-minute debut as primary director was only the year before), it was written by Kurosawa Akira. So, consider this a prelude to their first actual collaboration on Drunken Angel the following year. Having grown up in a photographer’s household, Mifune had been hired at Toho studies as a camera operator when for…reasons…photo of him was entered into a Toho talent contest in the for new faces while the studio was in the midst of a labor dispute. Despite having almost no acting experience or ambition, Mifune was one of the winners. And this movie made him a star, which stood out from the melodramas, tragedies, and comedies being shown on Japanese screens at the time, made him a star. It didn’t hurt that his face was the biggest on the poster. I gather that that was not due to his fame afterwards, but because people didn’t want to put superstar Shimura Takashi’s face on it in case there was a death during production in the mountains. Perhaps that is not true. I don’t know.
It is also the first…or second…film for Wakayama Setsuko, who was 18 when the film was released. She would marry Taniguchi in 1949, but they would divorce in 1956. He was seventeen years her senior, by the way. She would quit acting in 1961 after being diagnosed with an illness that also affected her sister. She would die (uh…indirectly) from the illness in 1985. For a character so joyous and lively, the actor portraying her would have quite a bummer of a life.
Apparently, both Taniguichi and Kurosawa were fond of mountain climbing, which was probably the inspiration for this movie. They could have made a comedy, tragedy, or melodrama. But perhaps none of those styles could properly depict both the tempting beauty and the deadly danger of the wintry mountains. So, just as critics would accuse Kurosawa of later in his career, this movie was inspired by what was coming out of Hollywood: the suspenseful action flicks, crime films, and adventure movies.
That may be the reason for some of the American songs that Haruko liked to listen to. It can be seen as a hat-tip to American cinema. On a deeper level, it can show that the emotions from the songs, such as carefree joy and regretful longing can be simultaneously unique to a specific culture and wholly universal.
The story in Snow Trail is somewhat simple: cops pursue robbers up a snowy mountain. But it is told somewhat interestingly. The first 4 ½ minutes after the credits focus on the cops and journalists. The next several minutes focus on a pair of hotel employees. It is not until 10 ½ minutes into the movie that we get our first glimpse of a robber’s face (hi Toshirō) and it takes another 6 minutes or so until the viewer gets the impression that the robbers are the main characters. That is just under a fifth of the way into the movie. And, even then, it is not clear, especially when Honda, Haruko, and her grandfather are introduced. Perhaps, this is because none of them are the main character: the mountain is. This must be why the movie rushes through the robbery and initial chase during the credits in order to get to the mountain.
It is an…interesting choice to have all of these characters who must have backstories…and generally avoid showing their backstories beyond hints. Why is this old man and his granddaughter living all the way up here? What happened to her parents? Did they die during the war? You kind of just have to either guess or just accept not knowing.
As for the robbers? The robbery is the backstory. And that’s it. Everything else has to be inferred. The middle-aged robbers seem to have a past, and went into this robbery out of desperation and need. Takasugi appears to be a troubled psychological state. He is utterly broken and remains dependent on Nojiro. Nojiro is a tough guy, but his gruff exterior appears to cover a noble soul that has guilt over a tragic past.
As for young Ejima? He is the kind of person whom one might assume would rob a bank. Already an asshole from the start, he spirals further as the movie goes through under the guise of cold pragmatism. But, what would you expect from Mifune? Just look at him? He was born in Japan-controlled China, raised in Japan-controlled China, and drafted into the Aerial Photography unit during WWII. He must have seen some serious shit all his life and the studio bigwigs must have picked up on that just by looking at him.
Could the personalities of the robbers be a commentary on how the war has impacted the Japanese psyche? Nojiro being a Japanese soldier haunted by his actions, with Takasugi representing his trauma and Ejima representing the cruel mental repression of his cruel physical? I don’t know. That could be a stretch. But throughout the film is someone on the wrong path who has to reckon with his own crimes and starts wonder if it is too late for redemption. Maybe?
This is a fun little movie with perhaps a bit more to offer. I quite liked it.
WTF ASIA 225: Lobster Cop (China: 2018, approx. 93 minutes)
WTF ASIA 226: 24 Hours to Die or Truck (South Korea: 2008, approx. 96 minutes)