Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

2017 #155
Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

Spot the period-accurate boom mic

The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

3 out of 5

Advertisements

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Kyôto taika-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno

2017 #149
Keishi Ōtomo | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin film was such a success that they followed it with a two-part sequel, filmed back-to-back and originally released six weeks apart over the same summer. This is the first half.

After the events of the first film, former assassin Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with his newfound friends, until he’s summoned by the government to take on a mission. Turns out one of Kenshin’s former assassin colleagues, the vicious Shishio (Battle Royale and Death Note’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), is amassing an army to take down the government that left him for dead. Well, less left him for dead, more killed him after they won the war because he was too nasty to let stick around. Previous efforts to stop Shishio have failed, so now they want Kenshin to sort him out. Our peace-loving hero initially turns the job down, but events conspire to convince him he must act, and so he sets off alone to once again face the demons of his past.

Kyoto Inferno is one of those sequels that benefits from the its predecessor establishing the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it, meaning it can launch off on its own grander scale. Partly we see this in a material sense: it looks even more expensive than the first one, right from a fabulous fire-strewn opening location, and keeps up the visual impressiveness throughout. But it’s also in the scope of the story and the way it stretches the characters, both old and new. It really puts Kenshin through the ringer, testing and questioning his beliefs and principles, and his fighting skills too. As a film it finds power in that — whereas the first movie established his persona and gave it a bit of a work out, here he’s stretched to breaking point.

Sword fights a-go-go

Despite being only the first half of a four-and-a-half-hour epic, when compared to the original film the story here feels more streamlined, focussed, and pointed. It’s not perfect in this respect — at one point Kenshin’s mate Sanosuke sets off to help him, only to disappear from the movie until he suddenly appears during the final battle — but such lapses are few and do little to impact the overall flow. As a villain, Shishio is more of a force and a challenge for our hero, not least because he has an army of henchmen, as well as a literal army, on his side. The fights are even more accomplished, spectacular, and epically staged than in the first movie, not least the huge climax that sees a pair of armies duke it out in the streets of the titular city.

Kyoto Inferno is unquestionably a first half — it ends on a handful of cliffhangers. That kind of thing sometimes irritates me, but it can work when done well, and I think this will turn out to be one of those good two-parters. It feels like a well-shaped movie in its own right, starting and paying off some of its own subplots rather than just leaving everything hanging. Some of these conclude in a way that is both an ending and indicates where the story will go next, which is a most deft bit of structure. The whole affair builds to a significant climax (the aforementioned battle) and a major turning point in the narrative, rather than just pausing events at the halfway point as lesser two-part movies do.

Shishio and his hench-friends

I enjoyed the first Rurouni Kenshin a lot, but this follow-up is even better. It expands the world of the story and deepens the characters, making for a more rounded and exciting movie. As mid-parts of trilogies (and/or first halves of two-parters) go, it’s more of a Dark Knight than a Matrix Reloaded; more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Dead Man’s Chest; more of a Two Towers than a Desolation of Smaug. Hopefully the next film can stick the landing…

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

2017 #143
Keishi Ōtomo | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin

Based on a manga series that was previously adapted into an anime known in the West as Samurai X, this live-action adaptation was first brought to my attention by Total Film’s list of “50 amazing films you’ve probably never seen”, which cited its “stunning action sequences” and “beautifully choreographed sword-scraps”.

Set in the late 19th century, the film is the story of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), who ten years ago went by the name Battosai and was a renowned fighter in the successful rebellion that brought Japan into a modern new age. Disgusted with his actions, he vowed never to kill again, becoming a wanderer (the rurouni part of the title) helping those in need, fighting with a blunted sword. When he arrives back in Tokyo, Kenshin finds that a murderer has adopted the name Battosai, whose killings are likely connected to powerful businessman Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) to protect his illegal activities. Kenshin falls in with Kaoru (Emi Takei), the young owner of a fencing dojo under threat from Kanryu’s plans, and eventually teams up with acquaintances old and new to stop Kanryu and co.

Kenshin and Kaoru

I’ve never read or seen a version of Rurouni Kenshin before, so I don’t know how faithful this is as an adaption, but they’ve certainly crammed plenty of plot into its two hours. Viewers need to be a bit attentive to keep track of who’s who, and who’s working for who, and what their motivations are — for example, characters who initially appear to be villains, both because of their actions and our expectations of the story, are revealed to be good guys in short order. Having two characters called Battosai, one of whom has since changed his name but is primarily known by his old moniker to some characters, doesn’t help matters.

It’s worth the small effort though, because, a few languorous patches aside, Rurouni Kenshin is a very entertaining movie. The heroes are a likeable bunch, even if Satoh looks too fresh-faced to have been a hardened warrior a decade earlier. I guess everywhere likes their pretty-boy leads. He also carries a little too great a sense of naïveté for that persona, but maybe that’s just faithful to the character as written. At least he seems to know his way around a fight scene. On the other hand, the villainous Kanryu is a delightful addition to the proud line of scenery-munching nemeses, his quirks underlined by a jaunty theme from composer Naoki Satō. He employs a couple of physically intimidating henchman too, which naturally serves to fuel the action sequences. As promised, these are excitingly staged, full of quick choreography and slick stunts. Couple their impressiveness with the large cast and varied period locations, and it gives the whole thing a glossy, big-budget feel.

Ready for action

In the years since it appeared on Total Film’s list with the note “worth importing”, Rurouni Kenshin has become much more widely available: in the UK it’s been available to stream and buy on disc for a couple of years now, and it even made it to the US in 2016. It still deserves more attention, I’d say, especially for anyone who likes a good bit of sword-based duelling.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow and Monday: reviews of the two-part sequel.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

2017 #159
Tokuzô Tanaka | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi the Fugitive

His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut in this whole wide world is oil and the bond of lovers.

The fourth film in the Zatoichi series finds the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) with a bounty on his head, which only increases when he kills the first person who tries to claim it. Travelling to a nearby village to apologise to the guy’s mother, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a yakuza scheme to grab territory from a young boss. There’s also the small matter of a ronin (Jutarô Hôjô) and his companion, Ichi’s old love Otane (Masayo Banri).

That’s the straightforward version — much of the plot is an overly complex account of yakuza plotting that, frankly, I sometimes struggled to follow. Especially at the start, there are so many bosses to keep track of, with broadly similar names, all of whom are more often referred to in dialogue than established on screen. I got my head round it eventually, but it took some work. It makes stretches of the film a bit dry and awkward, however.

Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. Otane is back from films one and two, but she’s different to how Ichi remembers her. Rather than just bringing back a familiar face for the sake of it, the film uses her to make a point about how people aren’t always who we think they are — a bit like Ichi himself, in fact. I imagine this would be even more effective if I’d watched The Fugitive closer to when I watched her previous two appearances, but there’s enough information recapped within the film to get the gist. It also continues what seems to be a definite theme of the Zatoichi films (at least so far) about past people and actions coming back to haunt our hero.

The bond of lovers

However, the best part of the film is the final 20 minutes, a tour de force of emotion and action that sees Ichi surrounded and, enraged into action, taking down an army that stands between him and vengeance. Said vengeance comes in the form of a one-on-one sword duel, of course. Obviously we know our hero will triumph, but it’s still a tense scene, especially as it seems to be a rare occasion when Ichi’s been out-fought. This third act elevates the whole movie, its very existence justifying everything that came before.

Reading other reviews, I’ve seen The Fugitive described as both “one of the weaker installments in the series” and “thus far the best [of the series,] a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much.” I think this stems to which you weigh heavier between the first-rate climax (plus a few choice sequences before that) and the occasionally dry plotting earlier in the movie. For me, the way it eventually comes together and concludes makes it all worth it.

4 out of 5

Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

aka Desu Nôto: the Last name

2017 #112
Shūsuke Kaneko | 135 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Death Note: The Last Name

Picking up immediately after the first movie, this sequel — part two of two — sees Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the owner of a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing their name, join the team of detectives searching for him. Although he had supposedly proven his innocence, Light is still the prime suspect of genius detective ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama). Light aims to discover L’s real name and write it in his Death Note. He’s aided by the emergence of a second Death Note, wielded by TV host Misa Amane (Erika Toda), who has a crush on Light and agrees to help him. They’re observed and aided by their respective shinigami (death-gods), Ryuk (Shidô Nakamura) and Rem (Shinnosuke Ikehata) — but can supernatural beings be relied on in the end?

Fundamentally, The Last Name resumes Light and L’s cat-and-mouse game in the same style as the first movie — in case you didn’t get it, near the start of the film their figurative chess game is represented by a literal chess game. This time there are the added complications of Light being on L’s team and the second Death Note being in play, which at least adds some variety. Light continues to manipulate the book’s rules to help prove his innocence and achieve his goals, which is perhaps where the films are at their most inventive — for example, you forget about the Death Note if you lose possession of it, but regain those memories if you touch it again, so what if you could find a way to give it up, prove your innocence conclusively, and get it back later? The endless games and counter-games begin to get a bit tiresome after a while (together the duology pushes four-and-a-half hours), but they do eventually make for quite a surprising climax.

Figurative chess, literal chess

Produced hot on the heels of its predecessor (see my previous review for how ridiculously tight the production schedule was), it’s no wonder that The Last Name feels very much of a piece with the last movie. The major downside of this is L’s alleged genius-level intellect, which was quite ridiculous last time but is now off the charts as he frequently makes entirely unfounded leaps of logic. All of his ‘deductions’ are correct, of course, because the story wants him to be a genius, but he has no reason to be. No other character ever calls him out on it. Even when events would seem to prove him wrong, other characters, who should know better and stop him, let him keep going. He has a starting hypothesis (“Light is Kira”) and, whenever something disproves it, he pulls a reason out of thin air to keep himself being correct. He guesses right every time, but for no good reason. He should’ve been kicked off the case for being loony several times over.

Something else that’s more noticeable in The Last Name is how this series treats its female characters terribly. (Spoilers for the first film follow.) At the end of the first movie, it’s revealed that Light murdered his girlfriend in cold blood and feels absolutely no remorse, but he’s still positioned as the hero. In this film, every woman that turns up loves either him or his Kira alter ego. When they’re not working to help him, they prance around in schoolgirl outfits, or lounge about showing off their legs, or are chained up in revealing rags. They’re all a bit dippy, too, happy to do whatever Light/Kira says just because he’s deigned to interact with them. Conversely, almost all the menfolk are positioned as geniuses. It’s not outright distasteful, but you don’t have to think too hard to find it a bit eye-roll-worthy at the very least.

Me Light you long time

Although The Last Name seems to conclusively end its story, that hasn’t stopped the live-action incarnation of the franchise rolling on: a couple of years later there was a spin-off movie starring L (I have it on DVD and was going to review it this week, but, frankly, I couldn’t stomach anymore of the brat right now), and in 2016 it was revived with a miniseries that led into a fourth movie (no sign of a UK release for either of those, though).

As I said at the end of my review of part one, it seems clear these Death Note films were hampered by their hurried production — greater thought at the writing stage could iron out some of the issues I’ve outlined. Conversely, as it’s adapted from an existing work, it’s equally possible the problems are inherent to the material and more time wouldn’t’ve made any difference. Maybe the imminent US version will have reworked it to positive effect…

3 out of 5

The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix tomorrow.

Death Note (2006)

aka Desu Nôto

2017 #110
Shūsuke Kaneko | 121 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Death Note

Something of a worldwide phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga and is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, but it was also adapted into a series of live-action films, the first of which actually predates the anime.

In case the whole thing passed you by, it’s the story of student Light Yagami (Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara) who discovers a supernatural notebook, the titular Death Note, that was dropped by death-god Ryuk (voiced by Shidou Nakamura). Whenever a name is written in the Death Note, that person drops dead. Light begins to use it to execute criminals who’ve escaped justice, a pattern of killings that is quickly noticed by the police and the media, who dub the mysterious murderer “Kira”. While much of the public agree with his actions, the police are stumped in their investigations. Also on the case is a reclusive genius detective known only as ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama), who quickly suspects Light of being Kira, initiating a game of cat and mouse between the pair.

It’s a good setup for a story, a premise that invites moral conundrums and “what would you do?” questions. I can see why it appealed to young people, too — what youth hasn’t wished certain annoying people would just drop dead? (Some places banned the manga because its popularity was leading to kids making their own Death Note books, writing in names of classmates and teachers. Obviously they didn’t actually work, but it was a “psychological health” thing.)

A little Light reading

There’s not much plot in that idea, mind: the Death Note is so all-powerful that there’s little drama in Light using it, especially as he isn’t morally conflicted himself — he’s sure he’s doing the right thing, despite people around him voicing their disagreement with Kira. The story therefore comes to focus on the battle between Light and L, a pair of self-proclaimed geniuses who work to constantly outwit each other. This is where the film begins to falter, because a lot of their supposed intelligence comes from leaps of logic designed to make them look clever.

It’ll also be a problem for any viewers who need a likeable protagonist: although Light starts out aiming to do good, he’s gradually led to be a right evil bastard; on the other side, L is an irritating brat, walking around barefoot, weirdly crouching on chairs, always stuffing his face with sugary treats, and speaking cryptically to the level-headed coppers forced to work with him. I’ve said before that I don’t think a film necessarily needs a likeable hero to work, but it does feel odd that there’s no one to root for here. Partly I don’t think the film’s sure whose side we should be on. It’s made to feel like it should be Light’s, but the film also knows he’s not got the strongest moral compass.

One L of a detective

This “duel of the geniuses” eventually comes to a head in a neatly-conceived climax, but one which doesn’t wrap everything up — the film ends on a very “end of part one” note. Although this film is simply called Death Note and the second was released here as Death Note 2, in Japan they were marketed as a “two-part event” and released just months apart. So I guess the cliffhanger ending is fair enough — it’s not an attempt at launching a franchise (an annoying trend when sequels aren’t produced), but is instead no different than The Matrix sequels, or Kill Bill, or so on.

That said, the production schedule to make that happen is somewhat interesting, especially as it clearly had an influence over the film’s quality. The duology was produced at extraordinary speed. The concept of a two-film adaptation was greenlit in November 2005, Shūsuke Kaneko signed on as director in December, and they were shooting by the start of February 2006. Film 1 was shot in February and March, then came out in the middle of June, just three months later. Film 2 was still being written during Film 1’s post-production, before shooting in June and July, and was released at the start of November, just two months later. There were six assistant directors, including people who’d already graduated to helming their own films, just to handle the volume of work required to fit in the tight schedule — two major movies from script to screen in under 12 months. It’s no wonder the production looks a bit TV-ish at times, with somewhat dull cinematography and Ryuk realised through cheap and cheerful CGI. More vitally, the script or edit probably could’ve done with greater attention, to iron out some of those logic leaps and improve the pace in the middle.

Demonic CGI

The final work still manages to be an enjoyable thriller with a supernatural conceit — a film which definitely has its moments, especially as Light begins to work with the Death Note’s rules to creative effect — but it needed more polish, the legacy of its speedy production resulting in an array of niggles.

3 out of 5

The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix this Friday.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

aka Shin Gojira / Godzilla Resurgence

2017 #108
Hideaki Anno | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese, English & German | 12A

Shin Godzilla

To the best of my knowledge, the Godzilla movies have never been particularly well treated in the UK. With the obvious exceptions of the two US studio movies and the revered 1954 original (which, similar to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection in the US, has been released by the BFI over here), I think the only Godzilla movie to make it to UK DVD is King Kong vs. Godzilla, and that’s clearly thanks to the Kong connection. Contrast that with the US, or Australia, or Germany, or I expect others, where numerous individual and box set releases exist, not only on DVD but also Blu-ray. There were some put out on VHS back in the ’90s (I owned one, though I can’t remember which), but other than that… Well, maybe we’ll be lucky and the tide will now change, because the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie — the first produced by the monster’s homeland in over a decade — is getting a one-night release in UK cinemas this evening. It’s well worth checking out.

Firstly, don’t worry about it being the 29th Japanese Godzilla film, because it’s also the first full reboot in the series’ 62-year history (previous reboots in 1984 and 1999 still took the ’54 original as canon). The movie opens with some kind of natural disaster taking place in Tokyo Bay, to which the Japanese government struggle to formulate a response. But it quickly becomes clear the event is actually caused by a giant creature, which then moves on to land, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Ambitious government secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is put in charge of a special task force to research the creature. Soon, the Americans are muscling in, contributing a dossier they’d previously covered up, which gives the creature its name: Dave.

Alright Dave?

No, it’s Godzilla, obv.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame (and fans of that franchise will recognise many music cues throughout the film), Shin Godzilla is not just a film about a giant beastie stomping on things. Most obviously, it pitches itself as a kind of political thriller, as an intrepid gang of semi-outsiders battle establishment red tape to get anything done. In this respect it’s something of a satire, though not an overtly comedic one. It also seems to be taking on Japanese society, with the in-built deference to age or rank being an obstacle to problem-solving when it’s the young who have the outside-the-box ideas to tackle such an unforeseen occurrence. There’s also the problem of the Americans sticking their oar in, being both a help and a hindrance. Clearly the Japanese feel broadly the same way towards the U.S. of A. as do… well, all the rest of us.

Anno takes a montage-driven, almost portmanteau approach to the storytelling, flitting about to different locations, organisations, departments, and characters as they come into play. This lends a veracity to the “as if it happened for real” feel of the film: rather than take the usual movie route of having a handful of characters represent would would be the roles of many people in real life, Anno just throws dozens of people at us — the film has 328 credited actors, in fact. It means there’s something of an information overload when watching it as a non-Japanese-speaker: as well as the subtitled dialogue, there are constant surtitles describing locations, names, job titles, types of tech being deployed, etc, etc. In the end I wound up having to ignore them, which is a shame because I think there was some worthwhile stuff slipped in there (possibly including more satire about people’s promotions throughout the film).

We can defeat Godzilla with maths!

I’d be amazed if anyone can follow both, to be honest, because the dialogue flies at a rate of knots. Anno reportedly instructed the actors to speak faster than normal, aiming for their performances to resemble how actual politicians and bureaucrats speak. Apparently he cited The Social Network as the kind of vibe he was after, though a more appropriate comparison might be that other famous work from the same screenwriter, The West Wing. Either way, I think he achieved his goal, further contributing to the film’s “real” feel and the (geo)political thriller atmosphere — even if it’s a nightmare to follow in subtitled form.

Letting the side down, sadly, is actress Satomi Ishihara, who plays an American diplomat of Japanese descent. Apparently she found out she was playing an American after being cast, and was shocked to see how much English dialogue she had to speak. It shows. There’s nothing wrong with her performance on the whole, but casting a Japanese actress as a supposed American is a really obvious mistake to English-speaking ears. All of the English speech in the film is subtitled, which isn’t necessary for American generals and the like, but for her… well, I didn’t always realise she was no longer speaking Japanese. Poor lass, it’s not her fault, but it does take you out of the film occasionally.

On another level from the politics, Shin Godzilla is also about wider issues of humanity and the planet. The ’54 film was famously an analogy about nuclear weapons, and Anno updates that theme to be about nuclear waste and its effect on the environment, inevitably calling to mind the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima power plant disaster. This is less front-and-centre than the thriller stuff — the actions of the humans are what drives the film’s plot, whereas the nuclear/environmental stuff is more thematic subtext. Put another way, I wouldn’t say the film gets too bogged down by this — it’s still about a giant monster blowing shit up with his laser breath.

Either that or the purple goo he ate earlier really disagreed with him

Said giant monster is realised in CGI, some of it derived from motion capture, presumably as a tribute and/or reference to the old man-in-a-suit way of creating him. This is not a Hollywood budgeted movie and consequently anyone after slavishly photo-real CGI will be disappointed, but that’s not really the point. It still creates mightily effective imagery, and for every shot that’s less than ideal there’s another that gives the titular creature impressive heft and scale. He’s also the largest Godzilla there’s ever been, incidentally.

If you come to Shin Godzilla expecting to see a skyscraper-sized monster destroy stuff and be shot at and whatnot for two hours straight, you’re going to leave dissatisfied. There are scenes of that, to be sure, but it’s not the whole movie. If a thriller about a bunch of tech guys and gals fighting bureaucracy while analysing data that will eventually lead to a way to effectively shoot (and whatnot) the monster, this is the film for you. It was for me. I have to mark it down for some of the niggles I’ve mentioned, but I enjoyed it immensely. (You can make you own size-of-Godzilla pun there.)

4 out of 5

Shin Godzilla is in UK cinemas tonight only. For a list of screenings, visit shingodzillamovie.co.uk.

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

2017 #75
Tokuzô Tanaka | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

New Tale of Zatoichi

With studio Daiei apparently realising they had a potential long-running series on their hands, blind masseur cum roving wrong-righter Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) makes his colour debut in this third film. Despite the obvious visual change, New Tale picks up on plot threads from the previous film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that spans the series’ first three instalments.

Two strands from Ichi’s past come forth to challenge him this time: as he’s hunted by the brother of a villain he killed in the previous film, Ichi runs into the master who trained him to be a sword fighter, Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu). Desperate for money, Banno has fallen in with a criminal gang, while also trying to marry his younger sister, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), to a respectable samurai — but Yayoi has feelings for Ichi.

Where the first Zatoichi sequel was faster and more action orientated, New Tale takes a slower, character-driven tone. Ichi is pulled in multiple emotional directions, most of which he keeps stoically buried, but we can still interpret them from Katsu’s nuanced performance. The most forefront theme is violence and the honour of it: Ichi vows to renounce those ways to marry Yayoi, while Banno is betraying them with his greedy actions — and naturally those two are going to come into conflict. It makes for a sombre film, that doesn’t come to a happy conclusion.

Family dynamics

Although this is the first colour Zatoichi, director Tokuzô Tanaka keeps the palette muted throughout, but this is particularly obvious at the end: after Ichi gives in to his old ways, the final shot is practically in black and white, like the previous two films — perhaps a visual indicator of our hero’s return to, or acceptance of, his previous position. Although this dull colour scheme means New Tale isn’t the most vibrantly exciting film visually, it’s compositionally strong, making appropriate use of the wide frame. It’s interesting to note that Tanaka was previously an assistant director on such acclaimed masterpieces as Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Sanshô Dayû, so I guess he picked up a thing or two.

As Ichi hits the road again at the end (I don’t think it counts as a spoiler that he doesn’t ultimately settle down), it feels a little like an origin story has been completed, setting Ichi off on a path ready for standalone adventures. That said, according to the liner notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release, audiences “became increasingly starved” for details of Ichi’s past as the series went on, so I guess some people weren’t satiated.

I don’t think New Tale is quite the equal of the first film, which seems the purest execution of the character as yet, but its thoughtfulness in engaging with the emotional effects of a violent life mark it out as a step above the second movie.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2016 #149
Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

Tokyo Tribe

Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5