As a masterless samurai, or ronin, Yojimbo (Toshirô Mifune) cannot afford to be picky when taking a job. Which is why he accepts a strange assignment from a mysterious clan to travel to a mountain pass and wait for further instructions. En route, Yojimbo steps in to save Okuni (Ruriko Asaoka), a beautiful woman escaping her abusive husband. At the mountain they shelter at an inn run by feisty young Oyuki (Mita Kitagawa) whose guests including a cocky gambler named Yataro (J-pop icon Yujiro Ishihara) and former doctor Gentetsu (Shintarô Katsu, of Zatoichi fame). Rascally rogue Gentetsu takes an immediate shine to Okuni. He tries to have his wicked way with her in the hayloft but eventually proves he is a good egg using his medical skills to save Ibuki (Kinnosuke Nakamura), an injured police officer who stumbles in with a captive prisoner, Tatsu the Monkey (Ryunosuke Yamazaki). Unfortunately Yojimbo deduces Tatsu's fellow bandits are preparing a revenge attack, but just as he prepares to protect the group he receives a message that finally reveals his shocking secret mission.
Japan's two biggest stars, Toshirô Mifune and Shintarô Katsu, made a pact to co-star in two films made by each other's production companies. After Mifune guest starred in Katsu's Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1969), the latter repaid the favour in this Mifune production. Ambush: Incident At Blood Pass marked the fourth and final time Toshirô Mifune played his famous Yojimbo character and the second time he did so for a director other than Akira Kurosawa, something that sadly deepened the rift between these two titans of Japanese cinema. Ambush is also significant for being the last film directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, who worked almost as many times with Mifune as Kurosawa had. Their collaborations included the Academy Award-winning Samurai trilogy (1954-56) about the exploits of celebrated swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, grandiose historical fantasy The Three Treasures (1959), which was Japan's equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and award-winning drama Rickshaw Man (1958).
Inagaki began his career as a child actor in silent films then later as a screenwriter working with producer Mansaku Itami (father of future acclaimed director Juzo Itami) and short-lived director Sadao Yamanaka embarked on a series of jidaigeki eiga (period dramas) that had a huge influence upon other Japanese filmmakers, notably Kenji Mizoguchi. Alas, come the rise of the New Wave in the Sixties and the conservative climate of the Seventies, Inagaki's style of film fell out of favour. In spite of an immense box office hit, Samurai Banners (1969) also produced by and starring Mifune, of which Inagaki was most proud he grew increasingly frustrated with the way he was treated by Toho studios ending his career as an embittered alcoholic. There is an air of frustration about Ambush which is a film of half-baked ideas that don't hang together. It lurches along on the strength of a charismatic ensemble.
Aside from Mifune and Katsu this is is something of an all-star affair with committed turns from the lovely Asaoka ("What a babe!" gasps Gentatsu. Did they use words like that back then?), Ishihara (very much Japan's equivalent of Elvis Presley, he also starred in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)), a scene-stealing Kitagawa and Nakamura who has the most challenging role and was a samurai film star in his own right. Yet it is one of those films with scenes focused on character quirks that actors love to sink their teeth into but which don't necessarily forward the story. Katsu's character who goes from affable bumpkin to rapist to misunderstood hero then something else entirely proves wildly inconsistent while the constrictive plot gives Mifune almost no chance to demonstrate his bad-ass credentials save for the very last scene. Indeed the sloppy swordplay is staged in semi-comic fashion with combatants slipping, tripping and cracking up suggesting that like Kurosawa's original Yojimbo (1961) this was at least part intended to be a comedy.
Interestingly some critics claim the film is indebted to The Petrified Forest (1936), the classic crime film with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart where characters are stranded at a desert inn. Which is not too much of a stretch given Kurosawa drew from western film and literature too. Yet it is a plot that is also prevalent in countless Hong Kong wu xia films, notably King Hu's seminal Dragon Gate Inn (1967). In fact Kitagawa's vivacious, slightly mercenary young innkeeper foreshadows Maggie Cheung's role in Tsui Hark's outstanding remake New Dragon Gate Inn (1992). The film also echoes John Ford's seminal western Stagecoach (1939) to a degree what with constraining its characters to a claustrophobic location where they are forced to set aside social prejudice and class difference and rely on each other to get out of a dangerous situation. Again like Kurosawa, Ambush has a humanist message at its core even if rather clumsily articulated. In that regard the key character is actually Ibuki, the self-righteous policeman who perceives everyone of lower stature as a potential criminal until Yojimbo teaches him the value of seeing people as people. Even so this is a rambling, unsatisfying, rather sorry send-off for the Yojimbo character.