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Review: Killer’s Mission

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WANRED!]

Unlike Angel’s Egg and Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, Toei’s Bounty Hunter trilogy was not a hidden gem that I spent years hunting down; on the contrary, it was an unexpected gift that almost literally fell into my lap. I wasn’t even aware of the series’ existence until Radiance Films announced its limited-edition Blu-ray box set on Twitter late last year. I immediately pre-ordered a copy, of course—how could I possibly resist?—and this week, I finally had the opportunity to give the discs a proper spin in my player.

The distributor’s marketing emphasizes the franchise’s similarities to Eon’s James Bond movies, and the first installment—The Street Fighter director Shigerhiro Ozawa’s Killer’s Mission—certainly delivers in that regard. The narrative features virtually every trope and cliché that you’d expect from a ‘60s spy thriller: extremely conspicuous espionage (the protagonist’s infrequent attempts at subtlety and subterfuge invariably result in spectacular bloodshed), femmes fatales that are equally adept at combat and seduction (and who ultimately succumb to our hero’s rugged charms), and gadgets galore (mostly cleverly concealed blades, firearms, and explosives).

The only notable departure from convention is the setting of 18th Century Japan—and therein lies the story’s novelty. The conflict revolves around a nefarious conspiracy by Dutch arms dealers to provoke civil war between rival samurai clans, weakening the country’s defenses in preparation for an eventual invasion. While the latest shogun of the Tokugawa bakufu sees through the manipulation right away, he’s essentially powerless to prevent it: he’s been reduced to a mere puppet ruler, with his corrupt senior council pulling the strings from the shadows. Thus, he goes behind the backs of his crooked “advisers” and secretly employs the services of elite mercenary (and part-time physician) Shiroko Ichibei. His objectives: expel the foreign meddlers and maintain peace by any means necessary.

Obviously, the political subtext of this premise walks the razor thin line between anti-imperialism and proto-fascist nationalism… but the filmmakers seem to be sincere in their condemnation of tyranny and oppression, despite their apparent pro-government sympathies (a relative rarity when it comes to the traditionally anti-authoritarian chanbara genre). And anyway, problematic themes were pervasive in this era of pop culture; what truly determines the quality of an old-school swashbuckling adventure is its style—and Killer’s Mission has plenty to spare.

Tomisaburo Wakayama (best known as Lone Wolf and Cub’s Ogami Itto) does much of the heavy lifting; his charismatic lead performance and acrobatic stunts absolutely ignite the screen, ensuring that the audience never has cause to question the absurdity of his character’s borderline supernatural abilities. The writers make excellent use of the actor’s remarkable talents, and even throw in a few Easter eggs to appeal to devoted fans of his career. In one extended sequence, for example, he disguises himself as a bumbling blind masseur—a humorous reference to his brother Shintaro Katsu’s starring role in the sprawling Zatoichi saga (complete with a near perfect mimicry of his exaggerated mannerisms—rolled-up eyes, waddling gait, dry chuckle). Later, the primary antagonist ensnares him with a bullwhip and drags him behind a galloping horse—a variation on the climactic duel in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, with Wakayama now on the receiving end of the abuse.

But Killer’s Mission transcends these superficial (albeit deliciously satisfying) winks and nods, excelling on its own merits. Action-packed, gleefully gory, and unapologetically pulpy, it’s a genuine treasure of low-brow cinema. Normally, this is where I’d say that I looked forward to experiencing the insanity of the sequels—if I hadn’t already binged them both in a single sitting!

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