Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15
The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.
It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.
Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.
It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.
This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.
And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.
There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.