Nippon Noir: Snow Trail (1947)

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Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail aka Ginrei no hate (1947) begins with a bang. A montage of shadowy figures and fragmented images bombards viewers during the film’s opening credits while guns fire, alarms ring, windows break, trains whistle and sirens scream. We soon discover that three desperate men (Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Kosugi) have just robbed a bank and in a bold attempt to dodge authorities, they make a dangerous trip to Northern Japan where they hope to lose their pursuers in the snow-covered Alps. None of the men are prepared for the hard climb ahead of them and they sorely lack the survival skills needed to endure a harsh winter outdoors. When they’re forced to seek shelter at isolated ski lodges and in abandoned ranger stations, it only complicates their dire situation. As the stress of their predicament begins to overwhelm them, tensions grow and soon the three outlaws are bickering among themselves. Their shaky solidarity gives way to fear, distrust and unrepentant greed but one man will eventually find bitter redemption amidst the demanding mountains.

This highly suspenseful, genuinely moving and remarkably inventive film marks the screen introduction of many notable talents. Chief among them is 27-year-old Toshiro Mifune who makes his screen debut here and would eventually become one of Japan’s most acclaimed and beloved actors. The film also launched the career of composer Akira Ifukube (Godzilla [1953], The Burmese Harp [1956], Rodan [1956], King Kong vs. Godzilla [1962], Daimajin [1966]) and cinematographer Junichi Segawa who went on to work on a number of documentaries including Antonio Gaudí (1984). In addition, it was the first full-length feature helmed by Senkichi Taniguchi and boasts a script co-written by Akira Kurosawa (Stray Dog [1949], Seven Samurai [1954], Rashoman [1950], The Hidden Fortress [1958]), who was friendly with the director. Taniguchi and Kurosawa were both fond of mountain climbing and occasionally did so together. I suspect that their script may have been a collaborative attempt to bring some of the excitement and enjoyment they felt during their hiking trips to the screen.

Snow Trail is a masterful debut by a director working in difficult conditions. The film was produced by Toho while the studio was in turmoil following World War II. At the time much of Japan was in ruins and very few movie theaters were still operational. Toho managed to survive during the war years but film production had dropped significantly from making 76 films in 1940 to producing less than a dozen in 1945. In 1946 a labor dispute led to a massive strike and 450 employees left the studio in protest including many of their biggest stars and most accomplished directors. Desperate to stay afloat, Toho recklessly turned to new talent in an effort to keep production rolling. In this uncertain environment, Senkichi Taniguchi and Akira Kurosawa were able to get their script for Snow Trail produced by Toho’s Tomoyuki Tanaka and Taniguchi was given director duties. Takashi Shimura (Sanshiro Sugata; 1943, No Regrets for Our Youth; 1946, Stray Dog; 1949, Ikiru; 1952, Seven Samurai; 1954, Godzilla; 1954, Kwaidan; 1960, etc.), a longtime actor and Toho regular who frequently worked with Kurosawa, was brought on board to star. The studio also took a chance on a brand new talent named Toshiro Mifune but Mifune was reluctant to take on the role.

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The future superstar of Japanese cinema originally was hired by Toho as a camera operator. Mifune hoped to continue down that path and become a cinematographer or director one day but his plans were disrupted when friends and coworkers secretly entered his photo in a Toho talent contest looking for “new faces.” In the wake of the labor dispute that lost Toho 450 employees, the struggling studio desperately needed to find new talent and Mifune’s smoldering good looks and commanding presence made him highly attractive to filmmakers. He won the contest along with 48 other contestants (over 4000 would-be actors reportedly entered the contest) and cautiously agreed to appear in Snow Trail but Mifune wasn’t keen on changing careers. Throughout filming he eagerly continued to work with the camera department lugging heavy equipment across the rough mountainous terrain but his labor was for naught. When Snow Trail opened in Japan in the summer of 1947, Mifune’s fate was sealed. The hesitant actor became a star overnight and despite a few minor exceptions, he would spend the rest of life in front of the camera instead of behind it.

Snow Trail made quite an impression on Japanese viewers when it was released and for good reason. At the time Japanese cinema was dominated by melodrama, tragedy, and comedy. This was a suspenseful action oriented film noticeably influenced by Hollywood movies featuring unlikable characters committing awful acts that viewers were asked to identify with. I referred to Snow Trail as Film Noir in my title but it’s somewhat of an amalgam of early American crime films and adventure pictures sharing divergent DNA with The Petrified Forest (1936) and High Sierra (1941) as well as The Call of the Wild (1935) and Northern Pursuit (1943). It’s also a worthy precursor to such acclaimed fare as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Wages of Fear (1953) and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Besides the Noir infused opening montage, the film features some spectacular outdoor photography, thrilling action sequences (including an exhilarating snow skiing sequence), some surprising (and discreet) male nudity and two great central performances from its leading actors.

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It’s hard to take your eyes off Mifune. He’s a stunningly handsome pent-up mass of male aggression threatening to explode at any moment. While watching him I was reminded of what audiences must have felt when they first saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Mifune’s acting is so natural, so modern and so mesmerizing that it almost seems as if he has dropped in from another planet.

Japanese film historian and critic Tadao Sato wrote about Mifune’s screen debut in The World of Akira Kurosawa noting, “Film-goers were used to actors whose faces reflected a certain complacent satisfaction with being a star. Yet here was a completely different look. The actor’s face expressed resentment at everything around him . . . It was the face that many in the audience yearned to show the world but didn’t dare. They became instant fans of Mifune, doting on his disdainful expression as much as on the roles he played.” While Frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami (Rashomon; 1950, Ikiru; 1952, Seven Samurai; 1954, The Hidden Fortress; 1958, Etc.) called Snow Trail a “fresh masterpiece of postwar Japanese cinema built on the combined efforts of newcomers” and I’m inclined to agree with her. After Snow Trail Japanese cinema would never be the same.

Mifune’s menacing performance got a lot of attention from critics and audiences but it’s equally matched by the transformative performance of his accomplished co-star, Takashi Shimura. Although not as recognizable, Shimura appeared in more of Akira Kurosawa’s films than Mifune and he’s probably best remembered for his starring roles in Ikiru and Seven Samurai. In Snow Trail Shimura was given one of the best roles in his long and varied career playing an intimidating criminal who has a change of heart that’s beautifully reflected in his body language and emotive expression. If his performance doesn’t impress, you’re not paying attention.

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A lack of information limits my ability to discuss director Senkichi Taniguchi. The director is typically evoked as a cliff note in Woody Allen’s career after the Oscar-winning filmmaker butchered Taniguchi’s highly entertaining spy spoof International Secret Police: Key of Keys aka Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi (1965) to make What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966). This is terribly unfortunate because Taniguchi’s original film is a very funny tongue-in-cheek romp on its own that I find much more entertaining than Allen’s badly dated remix. Having only seen two of Taniguchi’s films makes it difficult to assess his career but according to IMDB.com he has over 30 directing and writing credits. He also worked as an associate producer on Kurosawa’s magnificent Stray Dog (1949) as well as Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965). If Snow Trail and International Secret Police: Key of Keys are any indication (as well as the Lost World of Sinbad previously discussed by my fellow Morlock Jeff Smith), Senkichi Taniguchi is a director and writer whose career is in dire need of reevaluation and undoubtedly contains other forgotten gems and unusual genre outings.

Criterion owns the American rights to Snow Trail but for some unknown reason they haven’t released it on DVD. If you want to watch it you’ll have to view it at HULU.com where it is currently streaming online. Hopefully it will turn up on TCM some Sunday night where it might find an appreciative audience willing to embrace this neglected “masterpiece of postwar Japanese cinema.”

Further reading:
- Nippon Noir: I Am Waiting (1957)

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6 Responses Nippon Noir: Snow Trail (1947)
Posted By Ben : December 11, 2015 12:32 am

Wow, thank you for this article! Mifune’s one of my all-time favorites. I don’t currently subscribe to Hulu but will definitely be on the lookout for this if/when Criterion puts out a blu-ray or hopefully on TCM.

Posted By swac44 : December 11, 2015 2:13 pm

Despite the presence of Mount Fuji in almost any group of photographs of Japan, I had never thought about mountain climbing as an activity there until recently, when I watched the Yasuzo Masumura melodrama A Wife Confesses, in which an unfaithful wife is accused of killing her husband by deliberately cutting a rope in the middle of a precarious mountain expedition. It’s a beautifully shot, expressive crime drama, and it made me wonder why the mountains weren’t featured more prominently as a locale in Japanese films, at least in the ones I’d seen to date.

Unfortunately, Hulu’s not available in Canada, but hopefully I’ll find a way to see Snow Trail one of these days. Maybe Criterion can do a follow-up to its Eclipse set Nikkatsu Noir and do a Toho Noir set as well.

Posted By Melvin Lee : December 12, 2015 9:49 am

Yes, thank you for introducing this movie! I’d not heard of it before.
Not sure if my Japanese ability is up to understanding the movie in its native language, but I’ll try to track down a Japanese DVD when I’m in Tokyo in a couple of month’s time. Look forward to a subtitled version in the future!

Posted By kingrat : December 13, 2015 7:49 pm

Thanks for the heads-up about this film. Definitely sounds like a film I’d want to see. And thanks for calling STRAY DOG “magnificent,” because it is just that.

Posted By Autist : December 13, 2015 7:57 pm

I just want to third the recommendation of Stray Dog as a magnificent movie. Kurosawa made so many great films that it may get lost in the shuffle, which is a shame.

Posted By tolly devlin : January 15, 2016 5:30 pm

Thanks for informing us of what sounds like a pretty suspenseful & entertaining movie. My computer is so slow that trying to access Hulu would be useless. I can only hope that Criterion will release this at some point.

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