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.

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Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

aka The Mystery of Mamo / Rupan Sansei / Rupan Sansei: Rupan tai Kurōn

2018 #112
Sôji Yoshikawa | 102 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo

Best known to Western audiences thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin the 3rd is more than just one film in the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s illustrious career — it’s a popular and long-running franchise in Japan, with almost innumerable iterations: starting life as a manga which has run on and off since 1967, it has so far been adapted into six TV series, seven animated films, 26 feature-length TV specials, two live-action movies, and sundry other bits and bobs. Despite all that, this is one of only three Lupin III productions that has been available in the UK since the DVD era (the others being the fourth TV series, titled The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Cagliostro, natch), though that increases by one today with the Blu-ray release of the latest complete TV series, Lupin the 3rd: Part IV.

The Secret of Mamo (more commonly known in English as The Mystery of Mamo, or in Japan as Lupin vs. the Clone) was the first big-screen outing for Lupin III. It was produced while the second TV series was being broadcast, with the intention of making a film that was more similar to the original manga, something Japanese censorship standards prevented the TV series from being. So, the tone is kids’ comedic adventure, but there’s nudity, moderately graphic violence, and a scene of sexy torture. Well, it’s not that graphic really… though it depends on your position on these things, I guess. Anyway, I’m certainly surprised the Americans let it pass as a PG-13, just because of the nudity. She may be a cartoon, but it’s not subtle.

Car chase!

Anyhow, the plot sees master thief Lupin III, along with his regular sidekicks Jigen and Goemon, pilfering the Philosopher’s Stone (I guess Americans would need to call it the Sorcerers Stone) at the request of his on-off love interest Fujiko Mine, who actually wants it for the mysterious Mamo. His nefarious schemes draw Lupin and co into a web that sees them pursued not only by Mamo’s forces, but also the Americans, and Lupin’s regular nemesis, Interpol Inspector Zenigata.

One of the major inspirations behind Lupin the 3rd’s creation was James Bond, and so, appropriately enough, this is a globetrotting adventure that takes in Transylvania, Egypt, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Similarly, it also showcases some great action scenes, particularly an extended car chase through Paris and then the mountains. Unlike Bond, there’s a definite cartoonishness to many of the antics, and the third act takes a turn into outright science-fiction that gets a bit crazy. It’s also not entirely similar to The Castle of Cagliostro, therefore, showing how much Miyazaki brought his own tone and style to that film.

That said, I thought the lead characters’ relationships felt clearer from the start here than they did in Cagliostro, which very much felt like a sequel or spin-off where you were meant to know who everyone was (as I noted in my review). It could just be I’m a little more familiar with them all now, but perhaps the film was indeed made to be more newcomer-friendly — it was the first movie, after all; though it is spun off from a TV series… Well, it’s quite neatly done, nonetheless — this isn’t “Lupin III Begins” with them all meeting for the first time, nor is there a viewer-surrogate being introduced to them all, but it handles how and when each character arrives into the narrative in such a way that it’s kept fairly clear how they relate to one another. It’s subtly done, so, as I say, it could be serendipitous or my own improved awareness.

The mysterious Mamo

It’s also perhaps worthy of note that the film is available with four different English dubs. The 2013 US DVD from Discotek Media includes them all, so lucky you if you have that. Everywhere online will tell you that Manga UK’s 2008 DVD includes the dub Manga produced in 1996, which seems logical, but, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I read up on it myself, and I’m 99% certain it’s actually the 2003 Geneon dub. According to Wikipedia, the Geneon dub “took a liberal approach with translating the Japanese dialogue,” so I compared the dub to the subtitles included for the Japanese audio, and they were totally different. You can see why anime fans hate it when discs only include “dubtitles”. Maybe I should’ve watched it in its original language…

Anyway, the film itself is a very fun adventure, with an entertaining anarchism as well as exciting action and mostly amusing humour. Ever since I watched Cagliostro I’ve been meaning to watch some more Lupin the 3rd because I always hoped I’d enjoy it, and so far I’m being proven right. At least I’ve got the two Blu-ray-released TV series to tuck into next, but I’d like to see more of the extensive back catalogue make it to the UK. I guess that probably depends on how the Part IV release sells…

4 out of 5

Lupin the 3rd: Part IV is released on Blu-ray in the UK today by All the Anime.

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. ^

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

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

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

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

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

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

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

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

Colourful action

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

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

4 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

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

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

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

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

Nighttime meeting

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

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

Bathtime meeting

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

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

4 out of 5

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

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

Zatoichi on the Road

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

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

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

Zatoichi fights

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

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

Zatoichi on a road, literally

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

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

3 out of 5

2017 Statistics

Yesterday I published the full list of my 2017 viewing. Well, I say “full” — I didn’t put my Rewatchathon viewing in there. I’m not going to include it in these stats either (mostly). Maybe I’ll do something differently about that at the end of 2018, but for now this all remains focused on my primary goal: watching at least 100 films every year that I’ve never seen before.

In today’s post we do the fun stuff: look at all sorts of statistics about that viewing. Hurrah!

In the end, I watched 174 new feature films in 2017. That’s my third highest final total, behind 2016’s 195 and 2015’s 200, though it’s quite far ahead of fourth place, 2014’s 136.

I also watched two extended or altered cuts of features I’d seen before. They’ll be included in all the stats that follow (except the running time one we’ll get to in a sec).

However, those 176 films are not the full story. As I mentioned in my introduction, this year I set myself a secondary goal — Rewatchathon — in which I aimed to make myself watch again at least 52 films I’d seen before. Obviously this took viewing time away from my main goal, and I became curious how 2017 would compare to previous years if those rewatches had been main list views. To keep things fair I had to go back and tot up my rewatches from previous years. Fortunately, I have complete records for that as far back as 2009 (I have a little over half of 2008, which suggests it was a good year, but not good enough to challenge the last couple). The number of films I rewatched fluctuated wildly at times (21 in 2013, 4 in 2014, 20 in 2015, etc), but unsurprisingly the biggest overall totals came in the years when 100 Films was also high. The only years that passed 200 were the last two: altogether I watched 206 films in 2016 and 223 in 2015. In 2017, I watched… 228. So, yes, this is officially my most film-filled year on record.

(An additional bit of stats business: in previous years there was the odd rewatch that I also reviewed, meaning it was included in the stats (it’s the “other reviews” bit in the graph above). My Rewatchathon is putting an end to that. I’ve reviewed some stuff from it but certainly not everything, so it would be a bit weird to just count the handful of films I did happen to review. I could count every single film I watched for the Rewatchathon, but that feels somehow against the point. It means my stats for previous years don’t compare with 100% accuracy to these, but I was always inconsistent on which rewatches I counted anyway.)

Additionally to all that, I also watched five short films. They don’t count in any stats… except the one they do, which we’ll get to in half a sec.

The total running time of the 174 new features was 316 hours and 43 minutes, which (as the graph shows) is in line with what you’d expect given the number of films. Add in the two alternate cuts and five shorts and the total running time of all films was 321 hours and 59 minutes.

This year’s most prolific viewing format was streaming for the third year in a row, but it suffered a bit of a drop: it accounted for 76 films, which was 43.2% of my viewing — down from 57% last year, and even below the 47% from the year before. Where did those percentage of views go? Well, a few different places. I’ll get onto those in a sec. Firstly: this year I bothered to count up which streaming services I used. It was all divided between the three main players on this side of the pond: Netflix, Amazon (including both Prime and rentals), and Now TV. Amazon accounted for precisely 50% (38 films), with Netflix on more-or-less 30% (23 films), and Now TV bringing up the rear on 20% (15 films). I’ve mostly used Netflix for series this year, mind, whereas I don’t think I’ve watched more than a couple of episodes of anything on Amazon (and Now TV do TV as a separate subscription).

Second place went to Blu-ray, with 46 films (26.1%) — up from last year, but otherwise my lowest since 2012. As I say every year: I own hundreds of the things, I need to watch them more. (It’s worse for DVD, mind, but we’ll come to that.)

There’s more of an ‘upset’ in third place, however: cinema! It’s been in last place for five of the last six years (the one exception, 2012, it was second-last), and it didn’t have a particular strong showing before that. Indeed, 2017 marks my greatest number of cinema trips in one year since this blog began, with 18 films (10.2%). In fact, that’s more than the last seven years combined. I intend for this to continue in 2018, but I don’t know if it’ll increase — it’s so much more cost effective to wait for films at home these days…

Next, there’s a small increase for downloads, with 14½ films (8.2%) — the half because I had to download City of God when my DVD copy crapped out halfway through. It’s overleaped television, which continues its slide from dominance (it was first from 2009 to 2012) with 13 films (7.4%).

Bringing up the rear is an even more ignominious faller: the humble once-beloved DVD, with 8½ films (4.8%) — actually a slight increase from last year! I mean, it’s up from 8 to 8½ and from 4% to 4.8%, but still…

In amongst all that, I watched 11 films in 3D (a mix of Blu-rays, downloads, a TV rental, and one in the cinema) and 1 in 4K. I have a feeling the latter will increase in 2018, but I’ve no idea by how much.

Which brings me to the HD vs. SD, to which I’ve added that meagre UHD offering this year. HD includes all but one stream, all of Blu-ray and cinema, all but one download, and just under a third of my TV viewings. In the SD camp there’s one streamer and one download (obv.), just over two-thirds of my TV viewing, and the handful of DVDs. The final result is 88.4% in HD, boosted by 0.6% in UHD. It’s slightly up on last year, but not a huge amount.

In terms of the films’ age, the most popular decade was the 2010s (same as since 2012) with 114 films (64.8%). That number’s down on last year, though the percentage went up (I watched about 20 fewer films overall, remember). In second, however, the 2000s saw real gains (albeit small ones), going from 18 up to 21 (11.9%). The only other decade to make double figures was the ’90s, holding steady on 15 (8.5%).

Below that, there were a smattering of films for every decade back to the ’20s: the ’80s clocked eight (4.6%), the ’70s reached seven (3.98%), the ’60s had four (2.3%), the ’50s only two (1.1%), the ’40s a slightly better three (1.7%), and the ’30s and the ’20s netted just one each (0.6%).

Last year, the percentage of films I watched in English dipped below 90% for the first time. This year it was back over it, though only at 90.1%. That’s 160 films wholly or partially in English. However, there were more others than recently: 32 languages were spoken in total (plus one silent film), up from 24 in the 2015 and 2016. Distant second was an uncommonly strong showing for Japanese in 15 films (8.5%), while everything else was in single figures. Of particular note is American Sign Language cropping up in three films, and Ancient Egyptian and Pawnee both putting in appearances for the second year in a row.

It’s the same story in countries of production, with the USA producing 138 films — 78.4%, up from last year’s 73.6%. Distant second was the UK with 42 films — that’s 23.9%, identical to last year. Again mirroring the language stats, Japan had an unusually strong showing with 14 films (7.95%), by far its best result (its previous high on record was six). Just behind were Canada and France on 13 (7.4%) each. Next was China, its nine representing a continuing increase, mostly co-productions as Hollywood continues its interests there, I’d wager. Concurrently, former co-production fave Germany is on the way down, with just six (almost half its figure from last year), which is tied with Australia.

Running down the list, there’s Hong Kong on five (after a big bump last year thanks to a load of Shaw Brothers films, this is back to normal), New Zealand on four, and three each for Denmark and Ireland. Five more countries had two apiece, and 12 countries contributed to a single film each. That’s a total of 29 countries represented, just one down from last year.

A total of 143 directors plus 13 directing partnerships appear on 2017’s main list. Of those, 18 had multiple credits. The man with the most was David Lynch on four — and that doesn’t even include Twin Peaks: The Return (or whatever we’re calling it nowadays). Behind him on three apiece we find Clint Eastwood and Keishi Ōtomo (the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy). Then there’s Taika Waititi, who directed two films himself plus one as co-director; and Michael Bay, who directed two films plus an alternate cut; and George Miller, who only has one main list film to his solo name, but was also behind an alternate cut and a quarter or another film. Keeping things simple with a pure two each there’s Mel Brooks, Paul Feig, Ron Howard, Duncan Jones, Shūsuke Kaneko, David Mackenzie, Penny Marshall, Tokuzô Tanaka, and Adam Wingard. Finally, Wes Anderson and David Leitch both helmed a main list feature and a short, while this blog’s most-featured director of all time, Steven Spielberg, had one new feature and a quarter of another. The rest took one each, although in the shorts we can find Luke Scott, son of Ridley, taking charge of two of the Blade Runner 2049 prequels.

For the past two years I’ve specifically charted the number of female directors whose work I’ve watched. There were just four female directors in 2017’s viewing, with five films between them, which is 2.84%. That’s better than last year, but worse than 2015 — and none of them are very good figures in any case.

On a brighter note (for me), 11 films from the main list currently appear on the IMDb Top 250 (or whatever it’s called nowadays). Their positions ranges from 21st (City of God) to 210th (Thor: Ragnarok). However, because that list is ever-changing, the number I have left to see has only gone down by seven, to 69.

At the end of my annual “top ten” post I always include a list of 50 notable films I missed from that year’s releases, and continue to track my progress at watching those ‘misses’. In 2017, I’ve seen at least one more movie from every year’s list. To rattle through them (including the overall total seen in brackets), this year I watched: one from 2007 (34); four from 2008 (24); three from 2009 (29); three from 2010 (30); one from 2011 (33); two from 2012 (32); one from 2013 (32); five from 2014 (41); and four from 2015 (32).

Finally, in the first year of watching 2016’s 50, I saw 30 of them. That’s the best ‘first year’ ever, just beating the 28 from 2015’s list that I watched during 2016.

In total, I’ve now seen 317 out of 500 of those ‘missed’ movies. That’s 63.4%, up from the 58.4% I’d got through by the end of last year. Basically, I’m watching them faster than I add them — which is a good thing. (As usual, this year’s new 50 will be listed in my next post.)

To finish off 2017’s statistics, then, it’s the climax of every review: the scores.

At the top end of the spectrum, I awarded 32 five-star ratings in 2017. That’s more than last year, even though I watched fewer films, meaning the percentage was well up — 18.2% vs. 2016’s 13.2%. It’s above my all-time five-star average too, which is 16.85%. Am I getting more generous or just picking better films? Such is always the debate. Maybe it’s the latter, though, because my four-star ratings dipped to 78 films — still second place, but at 44.3% it’s well down on last year and below the all-time average of 45.8%. Commensurately, the percentage of three-star ratings were above average: those 49 films equal 27.8%, over the all-time 26.4%. All that said, we’re not talking numbers that massively outside the norm here (as we’ll see shortly).

Rounding things out at the bottom end, there were 15 two-star films (8.5%), which is very much a normal amount, and a mere two one-star films (1.14%), which is also pretty normal (across ten years the average number is 2.1 a year).

And so all of that brings us the average score — the single figure that (arguably) asserts 2017’s quality compared to other years. The short version is 3.7, the same as the last two years, as well as 2007 and 2009. We have to add a few more decimal places to get a precise idea, however (if we don’t, seven out of eleven years score either 3.6 or 3.7). To three decimal places, 2017 scores 3.699. That’s 0.024 higher than 2016, meaning it takes fourth place on the all-time chart, sitting just 0.031 behind 2015 in third. These are tiny margins, as always — I guess that means my scoring is pretty consistent.

And that’s all your numbers and graphs done for another year! It’s OK, you can read them again if you want.


More quality assessments, with my lists of the best and worst films I saw last year.

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