Many people believe they are masters of their own fates but occasionally mother nature steps in to remind them that there are outside forces they cannot control such as a mountain wilderness or a blizzard or an avalanche. Such is the case in Snow Trail (Japanese title: Ginrei no hate, 1947), an engaging B-movie crime drama in which three bank robbers flee to the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hakuba, located in the northern alps of Nagano Prefecture. With the law in close pursuit, the trio soon find themselves in dire straits with no experience in mountain climbing or dealing with extreme weather conditions. Nature is simply indifference in such matters.
The opening credits of the film featuring a police manhunt for the runaway criminals looks like a typical crime drama in the Warners Bros. style but Snow Trail quickly transitions into an intimate man vs. nature drama as well as a tale of redemption for one of the robbers known as Nojiro (Takashi Shimura). He is the ringleader of the group that includes Eijima (Toshiro Mifune), a violent and impulsive hothead, and Takasugi (Yoshio Kosugi), an older and not so bright accomplice. At first Nojiro appears to be quietly menacing in his dark sunglasses while displaying a gloved hand that is missing two fingers but, as the film progresses, he exhibits more resignation and regret over his profession than his feral companions.
[Spoiler alert] The trio first check in as guests at the Shikanoyu Spa Hotel, a remote resort at the edge of a mountain trail. The men secretly destroy the radio transmitter at the hotel but two spa workers have already guessed their identity. The criminals then force the hotel guests and employees into the hot spa waters when they hear the approach of a police hunting party with their dogs and flee into the forest. They find temporary shelter in a forest ranger hut and split up the stolen money but are soon on the run again. Takasugi can’t keep up with his partners and, when a police dog chases him, he shoots at it, causing an avalanche that buries him alive.
Eventually Nojiro and Eijima stumble upon a cabin in the wilderness which houses Haruko (Setsuko Wakayama), her grandfather (Kokuten Kodo) and their house guest, Mr. Honda (Akitake Kono), an experienced mountain climber who has been stranded by the winter storm. Haruko welcomes the strangers into their home and no one suspects they are fugitives. But the relationship between Nojiro and Eijima begins to unravel as the latter acts like a caged animal and secretly kills Haruko’s pet carrier pigeon because he deems it a threat to their safety.
Events take a turn for the worst when Eijima forces Honda at gunpoint to guide him and Nojiro off the mountain before the police can apprehend them. In the end, Eijima tries to steal Nojiro’s share of the money and during the ensuing struggle, Honda is accidentally shot in the leg. Guess who survives and carries the mountain climbing expert to safety? Haruko’s grandfather has the last word on the outcome, saying, “The mighty mountain will punish the bad.”
Snow Trail might not be a Japanese cinema masterpiece but it is historically important for a number of reasons and well worth seeing on its own merits as a solid genre exercise. First of all, it marks Toshiro Mifune’s feature film debut and launched his career, which is ironic since he originally wanted to be a cinematographer. In fact, he worked before and behind the camera on Snow Trail, helping to transport heavy photographic equipment across the snowy landscapes of Mount Hakuba, where much of the movie was filmed. At the time, the Japanese film industry was suffering financially from the after effects of WW2 and it was rare for a movie to be filmed on location (in a rural vacation resort, no less!) and away from studio resources. But the effort was worth it as you can see from the spectacular landscapes and vistas of the Japanese Alps and the fluid ski sequences.
As the surly Eijima, Mifune exudes the sex appeal and raw magnetism of a young Brando and it’s easy to see how he quickly became a star. For a first film, it’s an impressive debut and Akira Kurosawa, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Senkichi Taniguchi, realized his potential and cast him in his next feature Drunken Angel (1948) as a violent gangster suffering from tuberculosis. In the title role was Takashi Shimura, who had already made several films with Kurosawa and would go on to even greater critical acclaim in such directorial masterpieces as Ikiru (1952) and The Seven Samurai (1954). Snow Trail is like a warm up role for Mifune’s hoodlum from the slums in Drunken Angel and he is as vicious and threatening as Humphrey Bogart’s Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). When Honda advises him on rope support for their climb, he angrily responds, “I’m on a leash? Do you own me?” Yet, Honda keeps his cool and later explains to the more sensible Nojiro, “Mountaineers have a code. No matter what, we don’t cut the rope. The rope ties one human life to another and is not to be touched.”
Regarding Shimura, he is easily one of the most honored and prolific Japanese actors in the profession and began his screen career in 1934. He died in 1982 at age 76 with more than 300 film and TV credits in his filmography but western viewers will recognize him not just for the many Kurosawa films he made but also for his high profile roles in such iconic fare as Gojira aka Godzilla (1954), the sci-fi thriller The Mysterians (1957), Yasuzo Masumura’s Yakuza noir Afraid to Die (1960), and the samurai actioner Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968).
Among the other notable firsts for Snow Trail are the feature film debuts of film composer Akira Ifukube, who created the score for Godzilla and many other Toho monster bash entries, and cinematographer Junichi Segawa, whose final screen credit is the astonishing 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.
One of the most surprising aspects of the score for Snow Trail are the western-influenced arrangements which prominently feature two songs by Stephen Foster, “Oh Susannah” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” This isn’t as odd as it seems when you consider the historical connection that began when Admiral Perry and his ships arrived in Japan between 1853 and 1854. Perry brought along military bands that played the music of Stephen Foster and concerts of western music became fashionable and popular during the 1890s in Japan. Also, the use of Stephen Foster music in Snow Trail also provides clues to Nojiro’s past. When Haruko plays him “My Old Kentucky Home” on the phonograph, he says wistfully, “the song reminds me of my childhood.” We also learn that he had a daughter who died and was the same age as Haruko so the music has a transformative effect on the thief that leads to his reformation and redemption. The Foster music cue is repeated at the end as Nojiro is led away by the police but he is finally at peace with himself (Shimura’s soulful performance as Nojiro is one of the film’s greatest assets).
Director/screenwriter/producer Senkichi Taniguchi collaborated several times with Akira Kurosawa as screenwriter in the late forties/early fifties and their work often starred Toshiro Mifune but few of Taniguchi’s films found distribution in the U.S. One of the few exceptions was Samurai Pirate (Japanese title: Dai Tozoku, 1963), a fantasy adventure which was released in the U.S. in an English dubbed version entitled The Lost World of Sinbad in which Mifune played the swashbuckling hero. Taniguchi is probably more famous – or is it infamous? – for Key of Keys (Japanese title: Kokusai Himitsu Keisatsu: Kagi no Kagi, 1965), a spy parody which Woody Allen recut with new English dialogue and songs by the Lovin’ Spoonful and released as What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966. Those who have seen the original like it better than Woody Allen’s silly, dumbed down version.
Snow Trail is not currently available as a Blu-ray or DVD in the U.S. but the film has been streamed on Hulu and The Criterion Channel. TCM has also recently aired the movie so be sure to check their listings on a regular basis. Since the film is in the Janus Collection (which is licensed by The Criterion Collection) it seems likely it might surface as an analog release down the road but the current print seen on the Criterion Channel definitely needs a restoration and is scratchy and slightly damaged in spots.
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