Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô

2019 #10
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi Challenged

The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.

The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.

Zatoichi and son... just not his son

There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.

Snow fight

The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.

Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

3 out of 5

Advertisements

Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

aka Zatôichi rôyaburi

2018 #257
Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi the Outlaw

The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.

It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.

Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.

Hot stuff

It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.

This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.

Violent delights have violent ends

And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.

There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.

4 out of 5

Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018)

aka Gojira: Hoshi o Kuu Mono

2019 #3
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | 12

Godzilla: The Planet Eater

Picking up where the previous film left off, this concluding instalment in the anime Godzilla trilogy (which also doubles as the 32nd official Godzilla movie) sees the eponymous kaiju lying dormant while plans swing into action to bring Ghidorah, a being from another dimension who’s worshipped as a god by some, into our dimension, where it will eat Godzilla and then Earth itself.

Yeeeaaah.

But before we get to the headline monster mash, there’s an attempt at a plot. By the end of the last film, the alliance between humans and a couple of alien raced who’d helped us out was looking a bit shaky. What once looked like it might make for a Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5-style conflict has turned out to be nothing so developed, and in this final film it noodles along, driven by minor supporting characters we have zero attachment to; a something-and-nothing plot line that kills time until it’s summarily wiped away. Meanwhile, down on Earth, we’re treated to dozens of scenes in which the trilogy’s equally unmemorable lead characters wander around waffling Religious Studies 101-level stuff about religion as propaganda and a manipulation tool. At one point a character talks about soup as an analogy for, like, society or something, coming to the observation that “unlike the soup, we have free will.” It’s a deep philosophical movie, man. About as deep as a bowl of soup.

All the while, we’re made to wait for the guy we came to see to wake up. Yes, Godzilla literally sleeps through the first half of the movie. Well, I can’t say I blame him.

Godzilla vs Ghidorah

On the bright side, it does eventually get to some good bits (that’s more than I’d say about the preceding instalment). There’s a sequence where the alien death cult religion summons Ghidorah, who initially manifests as some kind of shadow-demon that begins massacring everyone in the room, which is all quite creepy. It’s followed by a large-scale sequence where Ghidorah’s glowing energy snake-dragon form emerges from a space-time singularity and destroys the humans’ spaceship in some kind of temporally-messed-up way, which is also quite striking. You have to appreciate these individual sequences almost in isolation, because the plot they’re part of is a load of muddly claptrap.

Then there’s the climax, in which we get to witness a mountain-sized dinosaur-ish monster with atomic breath (Godzilla) battle an interdimensional three-headed dragon-snake apparently made of glowing yellow light (the trilogy’s take on Ghidorah). It has its moments, but it’s overlong and mixes in a bunch of the cod-scientific wannabe-philosophical gubbins too, which takes the wind out of its sails somewhat.

There have been some interesting ideas tucked away in this trilogy, both in how it reimagined the kaiju and their mythologies, and in the brand-new stuff it attempted to introduce with the alien races and their beliefs. Unfortunately, that promise has been lost under unengaging characters, poorly defined relationships, and the kind of philosophising you might expect from a Sixth Form student. It was bold to try to take the Godzilla franchise in a new direction, but that boldness feels squandered.

2 out of 5

Godzilla: The Planet Eater is available on Netflix now.

Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

    aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

    2018 #241
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Cane Sword

    The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

    Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

    Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

    Zatoichi and his sword

    I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

    Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

    4 out of 5

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

    aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

    2018 #253
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

    Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

    The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

    The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

    Sartana locked up

    A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

    Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

    Greed

    Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970)

    aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana / “Have a nice funeral on me, Amigo” …Sartana

    2018 #229
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 12

    Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay

    Gianni Garko’s back in the saddle as the titular roguish hero for the fourth official Sartana movie, which is apparently regarded as the best one — that’s what the guys on Arrow’s commentary track say, anyway, and it’s borne out by viewer ratings on websites like IMDb. I can’t say I felt similarly, though after listening to that audio commentary, their enthusiasm and highlighting of the good stuff did help increase my enjoyment.

    The plot this time sees Sartana arrive at a remote shack just after its occupants have been massacred. Turns out one of the victims owned the land, previously thought to be worthless but now revealed to contain a gold mine, and everyone in the nearby town is eager to acquire it. As the deceased landowner’s daughter arrives to claim the property, Sartana sets about investigating who was really behind the slaughter, and possibly get involved in the land purchase himself.

    That’s more or less the basis of the story, anyway. The plot has a “made up as it goes along” feel — it’s basically an endless series of “twists” where every character is revealed to be involved somehow, one by one, and there’s always something happening. I mean, at one point a whole gang of outlaws turn up merely to instigate another shoot-out and extend the running time by about five minutes. If you were to stop and unpick the plot, there’s actually quite a neat twist at the end, but it’s easy to miss its significance when there are so many other double-crosses and reversals going on. On the audio commentary they argue that, although people accuse these films of being badly plotted, they actually fit together and abide by their own rules, they just don’t unfold in the way you might normally expect. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

    Sartana so cool

    The affair is at least enlivened by some inventive and fun moments, which do eventually begin to mount up in such a way that the film seems to improve as it goes on. Highlights include Sartana using playing cards as a weapon, and one of the villains having a trick gun so ingenious even Sartana pauses to admire it.

    Another member of the guest cast is a Chinese casino owner, played by Gordon Wang, who’s a bit of a “yellow peril” Orientalist cliché: a scheming gangster who always quotes Confucius and unleashes a barrage of kung fu at the end. Whether you find this offensive or let it slide (or even enjoy it) as being part of the era when the film was made is up to you. I think it could be worse: the guy isn’t a total villain, nor totally stupid (no more so than any of the white characters, certainly), and he does get some solid verbal sparring with Sartana (as well as the more literal sparring of the kung fu climax). At least he’s memorable.

    Also memorable is a great Morricone-esque score by Bruno Nicolai (a friend and long-time collaborator of Morricone’s, so that explains that). There’s decent direction from Giuliano Carnimeo, though it’s not as immediately striking as in his two previous Sartana films. There are still a few well put-together sequences, not least the pre-titles massacre. According to Garko (quoted in Arrow’s booklet), cinematographer Stelvio Massi “had a significant weight in the direction of the ensuing Sartana films. It can almost be said that those films were made by two directors, Carnimeo and Massi. Carnimeo had a great sense of humour […] But, as regards the technical part, the camera movements were conceived almost entirely by Stelvio Massi.” One particular example of Massi’s superb camerawork comes in a scene highlighted by the commentary: it’s just a simple three-way dialogue exchange, but Massi lenses it in a single take that uses zooms, pans, and reflections in a mirror to create different close-ups and two shots, all within one take.

    Sartana about to pay for more funerals

    Maybe Have a Good Funeral is an above-average Sartana film after all. Or maybe the whole series exists within quite a narrow quality range and so it’s swings and roundabouts which you say is better than the others. At least the film’s extravagant title has direct relevance for once: a running gag sees Sartana pay for lavish funerals for everyone he kills — and, naturally, he kills a lot of people. At the other end of the film, the print used for Arrow’s Blu-ray concludes with the word “fine” appearing on screen, which about sums it up.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

    aka Zatôichi umi o wataru

    2018 #214
    Kazuo Ikehiro | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Pilgrimage

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is the ‘lost’ Zatoichi movie: at some point the Weinsteins bought the rights to it because Quentin Tarantino was considering a remake, with the side effect of making it unavailable legally for years — while all the other Zatoichi films appeared on DVD in the US, Pilgrimage remained AWOL.* Its legal release finally came in 2013 as part of Criterion’s Blu-ray box set (which, coincidentally enough, is out in the UK this week). Clearly it was felt to be worth the wait, because it’s a highly-regarded instalment in the series. That might cause a newcomer to wonder if said wait led to some bias — that “hurrah, a new one!” feeling. Well, if it did it was entirely justified, because Pilgrimage is superb.

    I’ve often written in my Zatoichi reviews about the inaccuracies of the English-language title “translations”. Pilgrimage is another one… but, for once, the English title seems more apt. The original translates along the lines of Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage, and while the film does begin with Ichi going on a voyage across the ocean, that’s the extent of its relevance — after that, he’s on his pilgrimage. Well, until he kills a guy and is followed by the chap’s horse, who then leads Ichi to the man’s home. Maybe Zatoichi and the Horse would be the most accurate title… but he’s sort of on a metaphorical pilgrimage even after he abandons his official one, so that’s okay. What develops could pithily be described as Seven Samurai meets High Noon: a group of humble farmers need protection from a violent gang, but, despite Ichi’s efforts to recruit them to defend themselves, they cowardly leave him as their sole protector.

    Zatoichi and the horse

    We’re up to the 14th film in the series now, and in a bid for something different star Shintaro Katsu and director Kazuo Ikehiro tapped Kaneto Shindo (director of Masters of Cinema/Criterion-friendly films Onibaba and Kuroneko) to write a screenplay focused on Ichi doing penance for all his killing, hence the titular pilgrimage. But by this point the Zatoichi series was a reliable money-spinner for studio Daiei, so the head of the studio ensured they didn’t let things stray too far from the formula. They got away with enough, I think. Ichi’s early attempts at atonement set the tone for the piece, and the final many-on-Ichi fight is more of a struggle for our hero than usual.

    Indeed, the way Ikehiro and Shindo build up to the finale — Ichi’s late-night heart-to-heart with latest love interest Okichi, then slowly walking out alone as the villagers hide away in their houses — actually creates a bit of tension and suspense before the battle, something rarely felt as we know Ichi’s always going to win. In the fight itself, Ichi actually seems overwhelmed by the onslaught of so many opponents. It’s a (slightly) more realistic take on the character: we’ve seen him take on this many with ease before now, but it wouldn’t really be easy; here we feel his struggle to come out on top, which makes the action more tense and exciting. The series’ other big final fights have marked themselves out with gimmicks or trickery (fire, drums, bird’s-eye camerawork, etc), but with this one it’s just how hard-won it is, how tough it is. Plus, as noted, it also recalls High Noon quite effectively: Ichi stands alone in the middle of the empty village, ready to face the attackers, while Okichi runs from house to house, begging the villagers to help, and we see them cowering inside.

    Oh, Okichi

    Ah, Okichi. Ichi has had many female admirers before (one per film, more or less), but most of the time their interest in him isn’t reciprocated; or, if it is in Ichi’s heart, he never lets his head get in the way and always leaves. Here, though, this feels genuinely like a romance. A lot of credit for this surely belongs to actress Michiyo Yasuda — as Walter Biggins lays out at Quiet Bubble, she “gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic […] rather than crazed.”

    There’s quality throughout Pilgrimage’s supporting cast. Isao Yamagata makes for a top-drawer villain as ‘smelly’ Tohachi, the local boss and horse trader (hence why he smells of horse manure). He gets a lot of good screen time alongside Ichi himself, trading veiled threats as much as physical assaults. His confidence makes for a nice change from the recent bad guys, who generally cower from Ichi’s reputation. Also, his weapon of choice is a bow and arrow, an unusual armament for this sword-focused series, but it leads to a couple of fun demonstrations of Ichi’s skill. Equally great is Masao Mishima as village headman Gonbei, jovially smiling and laughing while he’s threatened, or while discussing the conquering of their village, or while scheming and plotting to let Ichi fight on their behalf but without their backing. The villagers’ hiding is partly cowardice, but also a cunning scheme that, basically, gives them plausible deniability. Sneaky so-and-so.

    Tis but a scratch!

    The skilfulness extends behind the camera, too. I’ve already discussed screenwriter Shindo, but fans of the Zatoichi series will have good reason to recognise the name of director Kazuo Ikehiro: he previously helmed Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, two of the best-directed Zatoichi films, and Pilgrimage can comfortably join their ranks. The whole film is nicely directed, with beautiful shot choices and framing, but particular standout sequences include an underwater sword fight (it’s only brief, but it’s effective), and a fantastic opening scene where Ichi punishes a brazen purse snatcher (credit to Shindo, again, for setting up some of the film’s themes and mirroring its finale as Ichi steps up from a crowd of do-nothings to bring justice). Some bad news, though: this is Ikehiro’s final contribution to the series, sadly.

    At least he goes out on a high. As Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits put it, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is “one of the crown jewels of the series.” It’s little wonder Tarantino was considering a remake.

    5 out of 5

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage placed 13th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is available in the UK as of this week.

    * If you purchased a UK DVD titled Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage back in the ’00s, it wasn’t this film. For reasons unknown, a company called Artsmagic released the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large, under the wrong title. There’s more information about that here. ^

    The Hunt (2012)

    aka Jagten

    2018 #195
    Thomas Vinterberg | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark & Sweden / Danish, English & Polish | 15 / R

    The Hunt

    Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a preschool teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing a child in his class, in this hard-hitting drama directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, one of the co-founders of Dogme 95. That filmmaking movement is pretty firmly relegated to the past at this point, but its goals — to focus on story, acting, and theme — live on somewhat in powerful films like this.

    In this case, primarily, one of the film’s great strengths is how plausibly the matter is handled. There are no screaming histrionics and no raging against the world from Mikkelsen, as slowly the entire town turns against him based on a few misguided and poorly-understood words from a confused child. Instead, he mainly conveys a lot of quiet desperation — a man who knows he’s innocent but can’t work out how to prove it, and is increasingly hurt as people he called friends almost all turn against him. And that, I suspect, is how a real-life version of this would go down, despite what some of the film’s few critics would prefer to think: most people would hunker down and hope the law would come through to prove innocence, not go on some screaming rampage.

    Nonetheless, it’s quite a damning film in its view of society. Most of what happens is due to adults getting carried away, misspeaking, and jumping to assumptions. It begins with a lie told by a child, but the intent is not truly malicious, but then things spiral out of her control. It’s also, naturally, even more pertinent now than it would’ve been when it came out, with allegations and denials of sexual abuse ever more often in the news. Fortunately, The Hunt is a mature and considered film, with something to say for audiences to consider, rather than hysterically coming down on one ‘side’ of an argument.

    With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    That said, I’m not sure some viewers are mature enough to take the film in. I’ve come across more than a couple of reviews that didn’t like it just because it was a difficult film full of unlikeable people. Sorry, but that’s life — there are annoying, stupid people out there just like the ones depicted here. Yeah, it’d be better if these morons didn’t exist, but they do, and that’s how shit like this happens in real life. Just because dickheads are real, and many of the characters in this film are inspired by those dickheads, doesn’t make this a badly-made film for depicting them.

    Obviously this is in the writing, by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, and the way the former has translated it to the screen, but also the performances. Mikkelsen is fantastic, of course, offering a restrained and unassuming performance characterised by inner desperation that only occasionally leaks out, which makes the injustices against him feel all the more hurtful — it is, in the most literal way, not his fault. Even more incredible, however, is Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl who first accuses Lucas. I mean, with a child that young it’s as much the skill of the direction as the actress, but they’ve given real depth and nuance to her character. You can actually see and feel the conflicting emotions she’s struggling with written across her face, most of all in an extended scene where she’s first interviewed about her accusations, as she’s visibly torn between wanting to back out of the lie but also not wanting to be thought a liar.

    It's okay, that's his son

    It all comes together to make a movie that is plausible, powerful, and pertinent — and kinda depressing for it, to be frank. I don’t want to spoil the ending (though I will say: dog lovers beware), but however it turns out legally for Lucas, the film suggests the reality of such situations: that some people will always follow the maxim “there’s no smoke without fire”. Once accusations have been made, is there ever really any going back?

    5 out of 5

    The Hunt is on BBC Two tonight at 12:25am, and will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards.

    It was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

    Persepolis (2007)

    2018 #27
    Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13

    Persepolis

    Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

    Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

    Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

    Punk is probably ded in Iran

    I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

    Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

    4 out of 5