Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

aka Zatôichi no uta ga kikoeru

2018 #199
Tokuzô Tanaka | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Vengeance

Not to be confused with the series’ similarly-titled tenth film, Zatoichi’s Revenge (not a problem with the original Japanese titles, where the former translates as something like Zatoichi’s Two-Stage Sword and this is something along the lines of Zatoichi Hears the Song — I’m just using online translators to guess at these, so those translations may well be too literal), Zatoichi’s Vengeance marks the exact halfway point of the series — both chronologically and, according to Letterboxd users, for quality, too.

After encountering a dying man whose last wish is for Ichi to deliver a moneybag to someone called Taichi, our blind hero bumps into an equally blind priest and accompanies him to the village of Ichinomiya for their “thunder drum” festival. Once a quiet, peaceful place (er, despite all that drumming), that very calm has led a nearby yakuza boss to move in and take advantage, setting up a brothel and demanding protection payments from local businesses. One of the last holdouts is, it turns out, the dying man’s mother, along with her young grandson — Taichi. Naturally, Ichi’s sense of justice compels him to stop the yakuza, but he’s mindful of being a negative influence on the boy’s impressionable young mind.

Vengeance starts out as a quieter, more dramatic Zatoichi film than many, at times marked by Ichi’s deliberate refusal to engage in combat… until he starts cutting everyone down in a flurry of second-half action sequences, anyway. There’s a couple of the requisite scenes of Ichi killing hordes of enemies, the best being an encounter on a bridge where the yakuza employ those thunder drums to frustrate Ichi’s hearing. It’s a beautifully staged sequence, shot in an almost-silhouetted manner.

Silhouette attack

But the action is the lesser element here, with some of it feeling almost perfunctory alongside the interesting ideas presented by the plot. It engages on multiple fronts. Firstly, there’s Taichi and Ichi’s potential influence on him. There’s a good explanation of the effect of this plot thread by Walter Biggins at Quiet Bubble. Biggins writes that “Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is — the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. [Zatoichi] allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. [Taichi’s story] ends the film on an ambiguous note — we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique.” (I’ve chopped that up somewhat from the original because I didn’t want to rip it off by quoting too extensively, but the full piece is even more insightful on this aspect of the film.)

Connected to this is the blind priest, a wise man who seems to see into Ichi’s very soul, and advises him on his interactions with the boy and, well, his lifestyle in general. This is one part of the film I wasn’t wholly convinced by, because I’m not sure how well the film pays it off. For one thing, he advises Ichi to be a good influence on Taichi, which leads Ichi to attempt to reason with the boss and get a beating for his trouble; but rather than pursue that diplomatic tack, it’s only a few minutes before he whips out his sword and gives them a good thrashing — once again setting a bad example. The priest reassures Ichi that sometimes violence is the only way. Um, you what? Well, the priest is presented as wise and insightful — almost too wise, because the film admits this advice seems contradictory, and Ichi can’t quite process that contradiction either. The priest also warns Ichi not to rely so much on his sword of he’ll die, which seems to pay off at the climax: when Ichi enters the yakuza’s lair, they’re all afraid of him, standing back to allow him to enter, take their money, and shut down their operation. But the reason they’re afraid of him is the awesome sword skills he demonstrated earlier, and when they attempt a last-minute stealth attack, he cuts them down.

Uh-oh, Ocho

While both of these characters and their associated views of Ichi’s methods provide food for thought, perhaps my favourite part of the film is the subplot about a prostitute, Ocho, who Ichi encounters at that recently-opened brothel. She’s a kindhearted woman — almost the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold” — who’s revealed to have a tragic backstory when the samurai husband she ran away from arrives. He’s been searching for her for three years, but she doesn’t want him or his help, even as he’s desperate to win her back — so desperate that he agrees to take on Ichi for money, even though he’d had a good relationship with our hero. But the real success here is the beautiful portrayal of Ocho by Mayumi Ogawa, which makes her one of my favourite characters in the series: the way she’s so kind and generous at first, but then her personal tragedies are revealed, and her bleak ending… As the film goes on, Ogawa peels back the layers of who Ocho is and how she’s ended up this way, transcending any fears of a stereotypical character to instead reveal a sympathetic figure with a poignant ending.

Indeed, the whole film comes to a kinda melancholic, kinda bleak conclusion (spoilers here, naturally). Ichi ostensibly wins, of course — the boss is defeated, the town freed from his influence, no one (currently) out to kill him — but there are no real happy endings: Taichi’s father is still dead, the young boy in limbo about where his life will go; Ocho’s life has been ruined beyond repair (we last see her sprawled drunk on the floor, no longer caring that she finally has enough money to free herself from prostitution); and her samurai husband, the man who killed Taichi’s father and was only after Ichi because he was desperate for the money to free his lover, even though she didn’t love him, lies dead by Ichi’s reluctant hand, a fate he both deserved and didn’t. As Paghat the Ratgirl describes it, this is an “important element of Ichi’s most compelling adventures: the tragedy of victoriousness. He has won. He lives. But he has killed someone who was by no means a villain. […] Discovering himself to be a menace even to those he loves, he realizes he is undeserving even of little Taichi’s affection, and avoids the boy in order to flee the village toward his next horrific adventure”.

Ichi gets knocked down, but he'll get up again

My original conclusion to this review described it as a film of mixed success. It has some really nice ideas and spins on the usual Zatoichi formula, but I also felt like it didn’t carry some of them all the way to fruition. I wanted to love it, because I so liked some of what it did, but felt it didn’t all come together well enough. On reflection, and after reading some other reviews, like the ones I’ve quoted, I’m no longer sure it comes up so short. These Zatoichi films may just look like brief action flicks about an almost-supernaturally-gifted swordsman and righter-of-wrongs, but sometimes they leave you with a surprising amount to chew on.

4 out of 5

Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is released in the UK next month.

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

2018 #153
Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

4 out of 5

The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

2018 #181
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.

Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, its clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t it he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.

After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.

Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.

It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.

Sore loser

But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.

4 out of 5

Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.

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. ^

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. ^