Invisible ManReview:
Snow Trail (1947)

Author: Patrick Galvan
December 27th, 2017
Note: review may contain spoilers

Between the years 1929-1935, three promising young talents appeared in the assistant director’s program at P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratories, the lab service provider-turned-motion picture company which eventually became Toho) and became something of a celebrity trio on the studio lot. The three men, who were considered some of the brightest and most talented apprentices employed by P.C.L., formed a close friendship and were constantly seen together both on and off the set. In time, they each rose through the ranks and became full-fledged directors. The most prestigious of the trio was Akira Kurosawa, one of the great artists of the 20th century, whose long résumé of often-imitated masterpieces include Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). Then there was Ishiro Honda, a man often neglected in critical circles but whose science fiction pictures—Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), etc.—cumulatively sold more tickets than many of his colleagues’ films and injected an undeniable influence into pop culture. And lastly, there was the third member of the group, Senkichi Taniguchi, who had been employed with P.C.L. since its inception in 1929 and pretty much left no discernable mark on the cinematic landscape.

Taniguchi made his first feature in 1946, only three years after Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata (1943), worked regularly up until 1968, and yet the bulk of his output has been swept away by the passage of time. A few of his pictures, such as the controversial antiwar film Escape at Dawn (1950), caught attention at the time of their release but have gone virtually unseen ever since. Having said that, one could argue Taniguchi’s most widespread bit of international exposure came through his 1965 spy picture Key of Keys…and only because Woody Allen subsequently re-worked it into the spoof What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (I wonder how many of the people who laughed at Allen’s comically dubbed version took the initiative to track down Taniguchi’s untouched original.) As for myself, I must confess my experience with the man’s career is minimal. I’ve seen The Quiet Duel (1949), for which he co-wrote the screenplay, and I’ve seen a 1947 film he directed: Snow Trail, the picture under discussion. Snow Trail was his second directorial effort (co-written and co-edited by Kurosawa) and on the whole is a rather lumpy and uneven piece of filmmaking. I shall refrain from passing judgment on Taniguchi’s overall virtues as a director until I see a few more of his films; but if Snow Trail is any indicator of what’s to come, I cannot say I’m too surprised he’s been forgotten while the films of Honda and Kurosawa live on.

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Snow Trail (1947)That is not to say, however, that Snow Trail isn’t worth seeing. Despite its occasional stretches of monotony, the picture is mildly enjoyable; and, more importantly, it holds a special place in the history of classic Japanese cinema. This may have been the second feature for its director, but it was also the film scoring debut of the brilliant composer Akira Ifukube. (And I imagine tokusatsu fans will drool with the revelations offered by his score here.) In addition, Snow Trail marked the initial screen appearance of an aspiring cameraman who ended up becoming one of the major film actors in the world: Toshiro Mifune. Anyone who cares at all about the legendary figures of Japanese art practically owe it to themselves to see this picture.

As the film opens, a major bank heist has been committed. The police track the culprits to the Japanese Alps, rationalizing they must be staked out in a hot springs hotel in the mountains. While the authorities are en route, the hotel’s staff become leery of their three most recent guests. And, sure enough, the newcomers turn out to be the bank robbers. The leader is Nojiri (Takashi Shimura), a stubble-faced man who’s missing the fourth and fifth finger on his right hand, and constantly wears a glove to hide it. Following in line is the skittish Takasugi (Yoshio Kosugi). The third culprit is a tall, fearsome-looking man called Eijima (Mifune), the one most prone to acting on anger, no matter who gets hurt in the process. The robbers escape into the wilderness, but the authorities are hot on their heels, driving them into a valley notorious for avalanches. As the chase ensues, the hot-tempered Eijima fires his pistol at a police dog, the report causing a massive wave of snow and ice to slide down the mountain. Nojiri and Eijima survive, but Takasugi is swept away to his doom, and the avalanche prevents the police from advancing any further.

Having gained a few days, the two surviving crooks venture deeper into the mountains, eventually coming across a remote ski lodge. The occupants are: an old man (Kokuten Kodo), his granddaughter Harubo (Setsuko Wakayama), and a visiting mountaineer named Honda (Akitake Kono). Since the people in the lodge have no communication with the outside world, they are unaware the two strangers are, in fact, criminals and welcome them with open arms. The days pass. Nojiri becomes more and more relaxed, bonding with the much-younger Harubo, who he claims reminds him of his deceased daughter. However, Eijima doesn’t particularly care for their new companions and feels they should hightail it into the wilderness again before the police catch up.

Snow Trail is an interesting motion picture that probably would’ve been a great one in the hands of a more experienced director. Once again, I cannot attest to the quality of Senkichi Taniguchi’s later films, but his visual rhythm and handling of scenes here is fairly hit-and-miss. To start on a positive note, the director has done a phenomenal job when it comes to showing off his setting. Snow Trail was filmed on location in the Japanese Alps (Taniguchi was an experienced outdoorsman) and the vistas of the snowy mountains are simultaneously breathtaking and ominous. The peaks look gorgeous, the slopes the protagonists scramble over arduous. This is one of those pictures where I realize, while I’m watching, that the cast and crew put themselves through absolute hell to get the job done, risking their lives day in and day out, and I cannot help but feel a visceral sense of appreciation for their efforts. Taniguchi also pulls off a number of genuinely dramatic images: close-ups of the robbers as the flickering light of a fire alternately highlights and darkens their faces; a wall of ice with man-shaped shadows whisking across it; an excellent low-angle shot of the police traversing a bridge. The scenes these shots are featured in still feel a bit clunky in terms of execution, but the striking images somewhat make up for it.

close-ups in Snow Trail (1947)

Some scenes, however, do not recover so well. This is especially true of the first act, in which sequences tend to run a tad slow for their own good and are oftentimes photographed in a not-so-enthralling manner. Two would-be comical scenes set in a hot spring fall flat due to lethargic staging. Furthermore, the director regularly relies on long takes—an admirable cinematic ambition—but only on occasion does he channel enough interest to justify their tremendous length. A prime example occurs when the authorities enter the avalanche-prone valley. The camera starts off framing a wide shot: of an officer at the front of the posse warning the others not to fire their guns unless absolutely necessary; the camera then swings, slowly, to the tail-end of the group, to a journalist who has tagged along; at that moment, we cut to a medium shot of the reporter inquiring why guns shouldn’t be fired in the valley (the risk of triggering an avalanche). The camera movement comes off a bit ponderous, as it doesn’t cover anything especially interesting in those many intervening seconds. What’s more, it’s not even necessary. A simple cut from the officer hollering to the reporter making his inquisition would’ve been simpler and more effective. The inevitable avalanche is not particularly impressive, either, though mostly in how the various shots are stitched together. (In small defense of Taniguchi, the film was co-edited by Kurosawa, so I know not to whom the blame belongs.)

Most problematic of all: the picture’s final thirty minutes. The “climax” concerns Nojiri and Eijima taking Honda hostage and forcing him to guide their way over the mountain. In a completely underwhelming sequence, Honda is crippled (unconvincingly—he just falls lightly on his elbow with a rope around his arm) while saving his captors. With their guide incapacitated, the convicts debate what to do next. Nojiri wants to turn around and return to the lodge. Eijima, correctly predicting the police are already there, opts to go on. (During this whole exchange, Honda is accidentally shot in the leg.) The scene makes a turn for the better with a well-choreographed fight between Nojiri and Eijima as the robbers attack each other with rope, picks, and the crampons on their boots. But the excitement is short-lived: the fight ends on a bathetic note, the struggling men collapsing on an icy ledge which suddenly gives way. Eijima perishes in a completely dissatisfying manner: no blood-curdling scream, no distant image of him pummeling to his death. He simply disappears over the edge, Nojiri climbs back up, and that’s it. For the big climax in which the villain receives his comeuppance, the finish doesn’t deliver at all. And the subsequent return trip to the lodge is completely mind-numbing. It is here, most of all, that the picture would’ve greatly benefited from a more capable director. On the other hand, one could argue fault lies with the script co-written by Kurosawa: perhaps penning a finale that drags as long as this one does (weighed down further with unimportant philosophizing) was the crucial mistake.

Snow Trail (1947)

Swinging back to the positive side of things: while the first act of Snow Trail is interesting and a bit clunky, and the third act is ponderous and extremely clunky, the second act is delightful. The film’s highlight occurs shortly after Nojiri and Eijima arrive at the ski lodge. Harubo liquors up Honda in an effort to get him to dance; when he concedes, she plays Steven Foster’s Oh! Susanna on the gramophone; Honda grabs Harubo and forces her to dance with him; Nojiri rests on his side, head in hand, smiling, while Eijima downs cups sake. An exquisitely shot sequence, consummately edited to the music, creating a wholly absorbing cinematic moment. The second act also marks the point where the film eschews action for genuinely enjoyable character study. That said, let it be known that even though Mifune receives top billing, Snow Trail is Takashi Shimura’s movie. He has the most well-rounded and complete character, he gives the strongest performance, and as the story progresses, he gradually becomes the center of the narrative. It is really fascinating to watch him steadily morph from a villain who merely sticks out a little more than his accomplices to the humanitarian core of the picture. Another favorite moment of mine, one which brilliantly shows off just how good an actor Shimura was, occurs when Harubo puts on My Old Kentucky Home, another Foster tune. (The choice of an American song about a sense of longing anyone, anywhere in the world, can relate to—and having the characters actively comment on the subject—adds another layer of humanity.) Notice Shimura’s acting choices in this sequence. After remarking that the song reminds him of his hometown, he gently strokes his glove—remember, the glove hides his three-fingered hand. Is he recalling the incident which maimed him? Is he recalling a more innocent time in his life, before he went down the criminal path? We never learn, but we can infer a great many possibilities all while Shimura, with bare minimum dialogue and simple movement, creates a whole person before our very eyes. Anyone wishing to educate themselves on acting could learn a great deal studying Shimura.

Toshiro Mifune in Snow Trail (1947)That is not to diminish Toshiro Mifune, who is positively entertaining in his debut. Granted, the actor, at this point, had yet to fully harness his potential—Kurosawa would help him realize that in Drunken Angel (1948)—so there are a few so-so moments in his performance. But on the whole, for a first-time acting job, he’s quite impressive. Mifune looks fearsome throughout the picture, his hair often a disheveled mess, with a long clump of bangs drooping over one eye; and already he’s showcasing mannerisms he would render iconic in films such as Seven Samurai (1954). He also does a marvelous job interacting with his surroundings: an important element of acting rarely given attention. Decades later, Mifune would speculate why Toho permitted him (a then-inexperienced nobody) the top-billed part in his first motion picture. He concluded it was due to the hazardous shooting location and what he would be required to go through: if the leading man’s going to perish in a real-life avalanche, better it be an unknown rather than a popular, crowd-drawing star. Whatever the reason, the gamble paid off, as demonstrated here and by the remainder of Mifune’s career.

The supporting cast members serve their duties commendably. Setsuko Wakayama, most widely remembered as the heroine from Godzilla Raids Again (1955), is vigorous and charming as the mountain girl. As her grandfather, the always entertaining Kokuten Kodo lends a touch of humor to the picture without warping into an out-of-place self-parody. Akitake Kono is adequate as Honda (and part of me wonders if Taniguchi and Kurosawa christened him after their friend Ishiro, no stranger to the mountains himself). Yoshio Kosugi, despite being offed early on, gives a fine, intentionally nervous performance.

Finally, we arrive to the other person who should be of note to Japanese film connoisseurs: maestro Akira Ifukube. Here, he turns out a terrific inaugurating score that not only serves the picture but provides his enthusiasts with a few “Ah! So that’s where that theme came from!” moments. Just speaking for myself, I was absolutely giddy when the main title theme played and I realized where his incredibly catchy Get Rodan / Get King Ghidorah theme originated. Fans who were ecstatic to discover Ifukube reused his somber Godzilla at the Ocean Floor track—from the underwater finale of Godzilla (1954)—in the score for Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) are bound to be thrilled to discover an even earlier rendition of this theme here.

Snow Trail resides a fair distance beneath the masterpiece tier, and I do think it’s fair to argue the movie’s dominant interest lies in its historical importance as opposed to what artistry it contains. On the other hand, it is very well-acted, boasts some impressive location imagery and a good score, and has a few standout sequences to make it worthy of a recommendation. I’m still unsure whether Senkichi Taniguchi was a neglected master or a mere journeyman who just happened to be friends with two of Japanese cinema’s great talents, but as far as this early-career picture is concerned, one could do a lot worse.