I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

aka Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino / Sartana the Gravedigger

2018 #169
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death

The second official movie to star Western antihero Sartana is, according to the blurb on Arrow’s Blu-ray release, “a more playful film than its predecessor, possessing an inventive visual style and developing its central character into a more creative and resourceful figure.” That’s bang on — and it’s a better film for it.

It starts with a bang, too: a bank robbery that turns into an action-packed shoot-out. The leader of the gang is posing as Sartana, which puts a price on our hero’s head. He sets about trying to prove his innocence and get his revenge, while three fellow bounty hunters set about trying to kill him.

Your Angel of Death is a lot slower paced than the non-stop action-fest of the first film, but that has its benefits: the plot is a lot clearer, and there’s more time invested in characters and non-violent set pieces (like Sartana’s card tricks), which I thought made for a more enjoyable watch overall. The storyline gives the film a “whodunnit” element, as the guy who framed Sartana is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. The film develops Sartana into a more interesting character, too, because his resourcefulness really comes out here. He doesn’t just shoot fast — he plans his strategy, uses objects as weapons in cunning ways, sometimes coming up with such things on the fly.

Sartana takes aim

Of the three men after Sartana, only the one played by Klaus Kinski gets any serious screen time. Kinski was a bankable actor in these kind of movies at the time, and so after his cameo-sized appearance in the first film he’s back here with a bigger role, as a somewhat camp bounty hunter. There’s a sort of running gag where he’s terrible at cards, and knows it, but can’t help playing anyway, which is quite fun. As for the other two hunters, one is used for a decent shootout-cum-chase sequence early on, but the third is introduced alongside the other two only to disappear entirely until the final duel, which makes the finale somewhat anticlimactic. One nice touch, though: Sartana clearly has a longstanding professional relationship with all three men — comrades in the bounty hunter game, or something like that — which adds an extra dimension to their encounters.

The other standout in the supporting cast is Frank Wolff as Buddy Ben. Sartana initially thinks Ben might’ve set him up, but he was in prison at the time. From there he takes on the role of Sartana’s sidekick, kinda — we’re still not quite sure if he’s to be trusted, which is a nice dynamic.

Barrel to barrel

Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction is less remarkable than Gianfranco Parolini’s work on the first film… or so I’m told: every review seems to mention it, as does Arrow’s booklet. There are some nice flourishes, however, with the most obvious being that almost anytime someone is shot the camera dramatically tips over sideways, mimicking their death. Apparently the film’s more humorous and ironic tone is in keeping with Carnimeo’s style, in contrast to the more straightforward action of Parolini, and that’s a positive in my book.

Your Angel of Death was a more enjoyable experience than the previous film, which was very welcome because (as I mentioned in my previous review) I’d been slightly concerned that taking a punt on this box set would turn out to be a mistake. (Well, there are still three more films to go, so we’ll see!) That said, although there’s a lot of inventiveness and fun, it’s to the film’s detriment that it often feels a little slow. My score errs on the harsh side, then, but to go the other way would be generous.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

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Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

aka Zatôichi sakate-giri

2018 #157
Kazuo Mori | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man

The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series is perhaps the first one that could legitimately be described as bad. It’s not outright terrible, but the plot doesn’t hold together very well, and there are only a couple of redeeming scenes.

The first of these is at the very start, when the film opens on the striking image of Ichi receiving lashes as punishment for an initially-unspecified crime. They seem almost a minor inconvenience to our hero, however, who is more concerned with questions he has for his punisher about this cellmate of the previous night. It turns out he was the eponymous “doomed man”: a fellow who’s been incarcerated on a murder charge, but claims he’s innocent, and urges Ichi to track down the gang bosses who can vouch for him. Uncharacteristically, Ichi resolves not to help, but fate has other plans…

That reliance on fate to marshal Ichi around led me to dub this Zatoichi and the Coincidental Coincidences of Coincidence. He’s constantly stumbling back onto the film’s plot even when he tries to avoid it, or bumping into the people he needs to find, or bumping into people who happen to be connected to other people he happens to know. It’s easily the most poorly-constructed story of the series so far. That’s not limited to its dependence on coincidence, either: half the stuff it sets up doesn’t even pay off or come together in a reasonable fashion. Although the initial “wrong man” setup is enticing, rather than do anything interesting or different with that, it just turns out to be the series’ usual: some bosses have betrayed the chap as part of a scheme to control the area. And to rub salt in the wound, we learn about this in a scene where one conspirator explains what they’ve already done to his co-conspirator. Oh dear.

Shenanigans

It’s a very slight story — not even enough to sustain the brief sub-80-minute running time, it would seem, as we’re ‘treated’ to an array of unrelated shenanigans. The primary one is a young man who starts following Ichi around, then later impersonates the famed blind masseur for financial gain — and, supposedly, for comic effect. He’s played by Kanbi Fujiyama, who (according to Chris D. in his notes accompanying Criterion’s release) “was a noted funnyman in mid-to-late-sixties Japan, appearing in sidekick roles in many of Toei studios’ ninkyo (chivalrous) yakuza films.” Reading other reviews, a lot of people seem to find his schtick hilarious, but I thought he was the most irritating comic relief character the series has yet foisted upon us — and he’s basically the co-lead of this instalment, so we get to see far too much of him. He eventually turns out to have a connection to the main plot too, which is emblematic of the whole movie: the connection is a complete coincidence, dumped on us via random exposition late in the game, and then not paid off in any way. It’s entirely pointless. At one point he disappears from the film entirely. Due to how it was handled, I began to wonder if we were meant to infer he’d died off screen. But then he turns up again in the epilogue, as it merely to confirm that wasn’t the case.

That stands in opposition to the film’s main plot — you know, the titular one about the “doomed man” — which is resolved offscreen while Ichi’s already going on his merry way. It’s just one aspect that feels rushed (despite the short running time and ‘comedy’ distractions), or as if scenes were deleted. This is particularly noticeable as it pertains to the female interest, Oyone (Eiko Taki). Ichi rescues her thanks to a little trick she pulls, but then she seems ungratefully indifferent to him… until she’s suddenly hanging around near the end, hoping (as the women in these films always do) that he won’t run off while her back’s turned. Which is exactly what he does, of course.

Zatoichi with the doomed man

You may remember I said there were some good bits. One is the pre-titles, which I already partly discussed. They’re effective thanks to some strong photography from Hiroshi Imai and the way they flip around with our expectations to create mystery (even if the reason Ichi’s receiving those lashings is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film). The other is the finale. As usual, the movie climaxes with Ichi having to take on an army of goons single-handed, but this one adds some spice with a seaside location, strewn with fishing nets (which get brought into the action) and covered with an early morning sea mist. It’s also beautifully shot, and there’s nicely choreographed combat. It’s easily the highlight of the film.

Other reviewers are not so harsh on The Doomed Man, going so far as to call it a “fine entry” in the series, or “thoughtful [and] hilarious”. And yet, those reviews can’t seem to help spotting the flaws in spite of themselves. Walter Biggins’ review at Quiet Bubble is a series of questions about why the film is so poor, with the last query being the most baffling of all: “why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?” I’ve no idea, mate. Several other reviews make comments along the lines of, “Ichi behaves uncharacteristically here, but there must be a good reason for that” — or it’s just crappy, inconsistent writing. At least Letterboxd users agree with me: it’s ranked 24th out of the main series’ 25 films (the only one lower is the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large — which, incidentally, is by the same director).

“Here's the end of the plot — go give it to someone and get this over with!”

For me, The Doomed Man is by a clear margin the weakest Zatoichi film so far. As nowadays I very much look forward to my regular appointments with Ichi, being so underwhelmed left me feeling disappointed: it wasn’t worth the wait since the last film, nor was it really enough to tide me over until the next one. For those reasons I considered giving it a lowly two stars, but that felt a bit harsh: it certainly isn’t without merit (the climactic fight is a stunner), and it’s always nice to spend time in Ichi’s company, even if he is being inconsistently written. Nonetheless, it only earns that third star by the skin of its teeth. This is a “for completists only” instalment.

3 out of 5

Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

aka Zatôichi nidan-giri

2018 #135
Akira Inoue | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Revenge

In the series’ tenth instalment, our favourite blind masseur-cum-master swordsman, Zatoichi, arrives back at the village where he was trained as a masseur, and decides to pop in to see his old sensei, Hikonoichi. Much to his dismay, Ichi discovers that Hikonoichi was slain by an unknown murderer some months ago, and his daughter has been sold into prostitution to repay his debts. She’s not the only one, though: the local gang boss has basically tricked everyone he can into giving their daughters to his brothel, mainly so the corrupt magistrate has a supply of virgins to deflower. It’ll come as a surprise to no one that they had a hand in Hikonoichi’s murder too. Naturally, Ichi is not impressed by any of this, and his revenge is twofold: for his old master they callously murdered, and for what they’ve tried to do to his daughter since.

Said revenge is more than the series’ usual slashathon, though that does come in the end. First, though, Ichi methodically and coldly humiliates the cowardly villains, which is no less than they deserve. When they manage to give Ichi the slip and put their army of goons in front of him, he kills as many as he must to get back to the bosses. Then, he escorts the villainous pair in front of their victims… before wordlessly cutting them down. Revenge indeed.

Caged girl

As all the above should make clear, it’s a very dark film thematically. There’s some of the usual comedy sprinkled in now and then, almost as a respite from the seriousness of the main plot. Ichi gets up to some of his other regular antics as well, such as exposing a cheating dice game. This one’s a bit different, however, as he’s already befriended the dice roller, Denroku “the Weasel”. It’s a nice twist on the usual format to have Ichi being chummy with the guy he’d usually expose, and Denroku has a bigger role to play than just that, almost becoming Ichi’s sidekick at times. He’s just one of a strong supporting cast, another standout of which is Denroku’s cheery young daughter, Otsuru, one of the few people who gets one over on Ichi (however briefly).

Director Akira Inoue makes his series debut (it’s the only one he did, though he later helmed six episodes of the TV series), and he makes a mark. It’s a classily directed instalment, but with some visual exuberance (overexposed-looking flashbacks; wild handheld camerawork when a good inspector searches the bad magistrate’s office), as well as some other scenes that are more simply but nicely staged (like when Ichi and Otsuru are suddenly attacked from behind and Ichi cuts down the assailant without even looking).

A dicey situation

Revenge isn’t perfect: there’s a “seen it all before” aspect to Ichi being surrounded by dozens of faceless goons who he proceeds to slaughter while trying to get to his real target, not to mention the series’ other repeated scenes and plot points. This aspect hasn’t gone unnoticed by other reviewers: J. Doyle Willis at DVD Talk accuses it of having “dips where the formula is a bit too tired and predictable”, though notes that “the obviousness of similarity/repetition strikes you more if, like me, you were watching the films back to back.” Paghat the Ratgirl puts it thus: “we have to decide if on the given day it all seems like the same Ichi film we’ve already seen time & again, or if every variation of the same story isn’t as satisfying as any other sort of ritual event.” Ritual event is quite a good way of describing it, I think. Remember, these films were made in an era before home video, so you couldn’t just watch the previous ones again on DVD. Therefore I would guess it’s probably quite deliberate that it repeats some of the same tropes and scenes — it’s a conscious “you know what you’re getting” device. Other series, like Bond, do the same thing. It’s part of the joy for fans to tick off the expected elements.

(Incidentally, for some reason this particular film seems to have inspired some particularly good writing about the series as a whole (perhaps because it’s the tenth movie). The pieces from Weird Wild Realm and Quiet Bubble are worth a read for their general view of the whole series as much as for their opinions on this particular instalment.)

A dish best served cold

Repetitious or not, there’s a lot of really great stuff in Zatoichi’s Revenge to mark it out as another superb entry in the series. I feel like I say something along those lines in almost every review, but the series is on a real winning streak at this point — by example: I’ve placed the last five films from #2 to #6 on my running ranking (with the first film seemingly unassailable as the series’ best). Long may it continue… though if Letterboxd users’ rankings are anything to go by, the next film is where the bubble bursts.

4 out of 5

If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death (1968)

aka Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte / Sartana

2018 #143
Gianfranco Parolini
(as Frank Kramer) | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Italy, France & West Germany / English | 15

If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death

Arrow Video have a way of tempting me to buy films I never knew I wanted, often because I’ve never even heard of them before Arrow’s release is announced. The latest such purchase is a box set of Spaghetti Westerns starring the character Sartana, which collects all five of the ‘official’ movies (as with other popular Spaghetti Western characters, like Django, many unofficial sequels were produced), all of which have amusingly verbose titles in the same vein as this one — which, I must confess, was half of what convinced me the aforementioned purchase was necessary. The other was how the eponymous hero is described in the set’s blurb:

a mysterious figure, he has a spectral quality, aided by his Count Dracula-like cloak which also nods towards comic strip figure Mandrake the Magician, with whom he shares a penchant for card tricks. He takes pride in his appearance unlike Eastwood’s dusty wanderer or Nero’s mud-caked drifter. And there’s a dose of James Bond too in his fondness for gadgetry and the droll sense of humour.

This first movie only hints at that persona, because it’s busy being occupied with two other things: delivering as much action as it possibly can (there are shoot-outs galore, leading to a phenomenal body count), and an overly complicated plot, both of which are rolled out at a breakneck pace. The story has something to do with an insurance scam by a provincial bank, which involves having their gold stolen by some Mexicans, then re-stolen by some bandits. Quite why it needed to be stolen twice I couldn’t figure out.

“Give me your money!” “You're, er, already holding it...”

The same goes for why everyone seems immensely concerned about where the original money is, rather than waiting for the insurance payout, which is surely the primary point of such a scam. Okay, you would need both sets of dough to turn a profit, but everyone just seems to want to make off with the original loot. Unless I misunderstood something, which I might have, because goodness knows what’s going on half the time — there’s plenty of to-ing and fro-ing of allegiances, which is equally as baffling. It gets particularly ludicrous in the final fifteen minutes, when everyone keeps double-crossing everyone else until only Sartana and one villain are left standing, ready for the final duel.

Is the “story” just a big ol’ excuse for plenty of shoot-outs and horseback chases? Quite possibly. At least much of the action is rather good — well staged, with the occasional neat idea on display. The whole film looks pretty nice, too. The print used for the Blu-ray is a bit ropey, with some spots of very bad damage, but I presume it must’ve been the best available. Nonetheless, the film underneath those issues is quite well shot. There are splashes of humour (deliberate or otherwise, like the Mexican leader who insists on calling himself Excellentisimo Señor Jose Manuel Francisco Mendoza Montezuma de la Plata Perez Rodriguez, aka El Tampico), and some stylistic flourishes as well. Particular highlights including the use of a pocket-watch’s tune to scare one of the villains, and Sartana’s favoured gun, a little four-barrelled pistol that he seems to be able to draw as if by magic, which gets even cooler when it reveals a hidden trick at the climax.

Sartana, the classy bandit

Sartana himself delivers on the promise of the blurb: in contrast to the rough, dusty Spaghetti Western heroes we’re used to, he cuts quite the dash, smartly dressed in a black suit replete with red-lined cape. He may be an out-for-himself money-centric gunslinger just like the rest, but he’s also a cardsharp for variety, which is revealed in a fun sequence when he joins a poker game shortly after arriving in town. Him pulling a fast one on the other players leads to a stand-off and shoot-out, because what doesn’t in this movie?

In his chatty audio commentary, fan and expert Mike Siegel acknowledges that the plot is incoherent and, for that reason, it’s not his favourite film of the series. I found that rather heartening to hear, because by the end of this first film I was beginning to wonder if I’d let myself in for a less-than-satisfactory time with this acquisition. Not that If You Meet Sartana is a bad movie, so long as you focus in the right places: the action is suitably exciting, even as its undermined by the frustrations of a confusing storyline.

3 out of 5

Yojimbo (1961)

aka Yôjinbô

2017 #126
Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Yojimbo

Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

Observing the conflict

Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

aka Zatôichi sekisho-yaburi

2018 #108
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Adventures of Zatoichi

Another Zatoichi film (the ninth now), another super-generic title. Only in English, mind: best I can work out, the Japanese title translates as something like Zatoichi Breaks Through the Barrier or (considering what happens in the final act) possibly Zatoichi Guard Station Break-In. Even if you can’t translate it in a way that sounds reasonable in English, why not go for something like Zatoichi’s New Year? (That’s when the film’s set, and is referenced many times.) Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound super exciting, but at least it’s more distinctive than Adventures of Zatoichi, which could be literally any of the films.

Anyway, titling issues aside, the fourth and final Zatoichi film put out in 1964 (which I guess made the New Year thing even more appropriate on its original release) sees Ichi arrive in a village near Mount Myogi, where he intends to be for the first light of the new year. Lots of merchants have also gathered there for the festival, but the local yakuza are demanding an unreasonably high percentage of the takings as tax. Although this subplot facilitates some comic relief in the complaining of a pair of travelling performers, Ichi has other concerns on his mind: there are a couple of good-hearted young women who each need Ichi’s help defending them from the murderous stupidity of men. One, her brother has escaped prison and returned to town; the other, her father, a village elder, has gone missing and she’s looking for him. Both have something to do with the yakuza. In a slight twist on the usual formula, Ichi’s prodigious reputation means the gangsters are afraid of him (rather than assuming they can beat him), but he’s still got his work cut out getting to the bottom of a conspiracy between the gang’s boss and the local magistrate. That’s not to mention the intriguing connection Ichi finds with the village’s old drunkard…

Z boys

Everyone else seems to rate Adventures of Zatoichi somewhat poorly. It’s ranked 20th out of 25 by Letterboxd users, the lowest of the series so far, and below some of the post-series Zatoichi films. The Digital Bits go even further, placing it in their bottom three (they haven’t ranked the films, but I checked all their ratings and they only gave three Cs). Other reviews include comments like “a workmanlike but satisfying episode” (Paghat the Ratgirl), “the quality level dips a notch after the outstanding original eight” (D. Trull), and “one of the more ordinary run-of-the-mill Zatoichi films” (Jacob Olsen). Not outright condemnation then, but definite damning with faint praise.

Conversely, I thought it was rather brilliant. It has a nice, clear, well-connected narrative (something I haven’t always found in previous instalments). There’s a great cast of supporting characters, lots of small roles who all make their mark. It creates almost an ensemble around Ichi, which is a nice change of pace — it really feels like it’s set in a bustling village, rather than a half-empty town where Ichi only encounters three or four people. Tonally the film displays an effective mix of humour, action, drama, and emotion, making for an all-round entertainment. It may not have a unique setup to mark it out like Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, or the flashy direction of Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, but it’s an above-average example of “standard” Zatoichi. It even boasts another top-drawer climax, with a well-shot and precisely-performed one-on-one duel in gently falling first snow, followed by Ichi taking out a small army to get at the men responsible. Again, it’s not as exceptionally striking visually as some of the recent big finales, but it’s superbly done nonetheless.

Live by the sword, pretend to die by the sword

Also, the film contains one of my favourite moments of the series so far, which is both amusing and encapsulates the character of our hero. In it, Ichi slashes his way through four assailants, then pauses… a moment later, three of them drop dead. Seeing this, the fourth just… lies down beside them. Despite being blind, Ichi can tell the chap’s still alive; but rather than finish him off, Ichi simply motions for him to leave. It’s both funny and shows Ichi’s compassion: he kills because he has to, when people attack, not for the sake of it, or even for a grudge. Similar to this is his badass summation of what just happened near the end: “I only came here to worship the first light of the new year. I expected a quiet journey, with no need to draw the blade in this cane. You brought this all on yourselves.”

In fairness, the film is not without its problems. The early story about the merchants and the tax rate doesn’t really go anywhere. It establishes the magistrate and boss are bad folk, but then it disappears underneath the other storylines. Also, I didn’t get wholly invested in the conflict between Ichi and the gang’s yojimbo. These kinds of subplots always feel like a do-over of the first film to me, so maybe that’s why more time isn’t spent on it. It makes for a couple of impressive bursts of swordplay and one heart-to-heart chat, but no more than that.

Adventures of Zatoichi may not be the very best movie this series has to offer, but in revelling in its formula, and doing so much of it so well, it’s one of the films I’ve enjoyed the most. In fact, this would probably be a really good one to introduce people to the series: it’s got most of the key elements, all done really well. It doesn’t deserve to be as overlooked as it seems to be.

4 out of 5

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

aka Zatôichi kesshô-tabi

2018 #76
Kenji Misumi | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

It’s a bit ironic that whoever chose the English-language titles* for the Zatoichi films decided to emphasise fighting in the name of this eighth instalment, because it’s perhaps the least concerned with Ichi’s sword skills so far. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of nifty sequences of blade-clashing fun, but they’re not the film’s focus. You might think that’s antithetical to the series’ purpose, and yet Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest instalments, perhaps even the best of all.

It begins, as so many Zatoichi films do, with our hero on the run from some gangsters who want to kill him. Ichi accepts a ride from a pair of passing palanquin carriers, but his would-be assailants spot this and resolve to attack further down the road. Before they make their move, Ichi hears a woman struggling along the road with her baby, and insists she take the palanquin instead. The assassins don’t see the switch, however, and so attack nonetheless, killing the mother. Her papers reveal she was returning to her husband, the baby’s father, and Ichi, blaming himself for her death, insists he make the 65-mile journey to return the infant personally.

This is where Fight differs from the norm, because it’s at least as concerned with Ichi’s need to care for the child as it is with him fending off the assassins, who naturally pursue him on his way. The impromptu sidestep into de facto fatherhood leads to plenty of goofy comedy, much of it around bodily fluids, like when and where the baby pees, the stench of its used nappies, and also a scene where Ichi tries to get the kid to suckle on him while they wait for actual milk. Another amusing sequence sees Ichi hired a prostitute for the night, but only so she can look after the baby and he can get some sleep. But he keeps waking back up nonetheless, each time insisting on doing just one more thing for the baby.

Family unit

You see, Ichi really cares for the kid, and this is where the other side of the equation comes in: as well as comedy, the situation also brings up a good deal of character-driven seriousness, as Ichi is forced to reflect on the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. No one is better than Shintaro Katsu at playing both sides, transitioning between warm humorousness and grim introspection in the blink of an eye.

But it’s not only internally that Ichi has cause to consider his lifestyle. Halfway along their journey, Ichi inadvertently saves the life of a female pickpocket, Ko, who he then employs to be the baby’s nanny — mainly so he can teach her better ways and reform her. But she’s a pretty young lady, so naturally she falls for blind old Ichi, and for the child too, and suddenly they’re a little family unit. And Ko wants it to stay that way, for them to raise the baby together; and, despite his protestations to the contrary, Ichi has come to really like the child, and would probably like that life too. But, without spoiling anything, events transpire to make Ichi realise such an existence just isn’t possible for him, and he must do the right thing for the child’s sake. In the end, despite the laughter along the way, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a pretty emotional and sad film, with our hero ending up as he began, and as he always must: alone on the road.

Lest you think it’s too downbeat, let’s talk about the action! Despite being on babysitting duties, there are still some great fight scenes: there’s one where assailants keep bursting into a hut where Ichi’s trying to change the baby’s nappy (now that’s multitasking); and a gambling scene where he catches a cheating boss in the act, with an ensuing fight outside where Ichi keeps shh-ing his attackers because the baby’s asleep. Then the finale lives up to the series’ recent penchant for exciting visuals: the amassed villains surround Ichi with flaming torches in an effort to confuse his hearing, and as our hero slashes away at them even his clothing catches fire. Sure, we know he must prevail, but there’s real jeopardy in this one.

Fiery climax

So, in many respects, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has it all. It’s even got a unity of story and structure that feels almost rare in the series — everything connects up, pays off, has relevance; unlike other films, which often seem to start with a bit of superfluous action or something. But what it has most of all is a storyline that is unique and emotional, and therefore memorable and affecting. It’s easy to see why the film is so often elevated as one of the series’ very best. It’s probably best appreciated as part of the series, rather than as a newcomer’s entry point, because part of its effectiveness lies in it being different from the norm. That said, it stands as an excellent film in its own right.

5 out of 5

(A quick caveat: although this is the first Zatoichi film I’ve given full marks, I would, with hindsight, award the same to the first movie as well.)

* I say “chose” because a literal translation would be something like Zatoichi’s Journey of Blood and Laughter. ^

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5