Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

2019 #60
Kihachi Okamoto | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Having released anything up to four films a year for seven years, the Zatoichi series took 1969 off (apparently producer/star Shintaro Katsu had some other projects to focus on). But when it returned in 1970 it was with a big gun: as the title indicates, the main guest star for this film is the lead character from Akira Kurosawa’s films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, played by the great Toshiro Mifune. I don’t know if that was a deliberate move to mark the series’ 20th movie or if they weren’t even conscious of the milestone, but it certainly feels like it was meant to be a special occasion. “Meant to be” being the operative part of that sentence, because the result is sadly one of the least enjoyable entries in the series so far.

The film sees Ichi (Katsu) return to his hometown, which has rather gone to the dogs thanks to a local yakuza gang. Never one to just stand back or move along, Ichi ends up embroiled in the arguments between a powerful merchant (Osamu Takizawa) and his two wayward sons, one a yakuza boss (Masakane Yonekura), the other an employee of the government mint (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), who’s up to some kind of shenanigans with the gold that drives the plot… I think. Mifune’s character factors into all this as a ronin who’s been hired by the yakuza son to protect him, or kill his father, or something along those lines.

As you may have gathered, the plot here is by turns confusing and dull — one of those that loses you so thoroughly you just want to give up on trying to work it out. It has something to do with the people who make gold coins making them less well, and a hidden bar of gold that has something to do with that somehow, and a bunch of spies and stuff who are all looking for the gold bar, and some kind of feud or rivalry or disagreement between the local yakuza and Takizawa’s businessman, which may or may not have nothing to do with all the gold stuff… I think. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film with an underwhelming or unintelligible plot, but it tells it with so little verve, and with so few entertaining distractions (there’s not much action, and even less humour), that there’s nothing to make up for it.

Katsu vs Mifune

And to add insult to injury, the titular concept of the movie is a bait and switch: Mifune is not actually playing the character from Kurosawa’s films. “Yojimbo” means “bodyguard”, so it’s not like, say, casting Sean Connery in a film and calling it Meets James Bond only to have him play some unrelated character, but the promise of the title is clear and unfulfilled. It’s not like Mifune is playing an off-brand knock-off, either: he happens to be fulfilling the same job as bodyguard so that everyone can keep calling him yojimbo, but his actual name is Taisaku Sasa (not Sanjuro, as in Kurosawa’s films) and his character is nothing like his role in Kurosawa’s films (he doesn’t even look the same!) Seeing Zatoichi go head-to-head with the ‘real’ Yojimbo, with all his cunning scheming, could’ve been great. Instead, while Sasa is still a skilled swordsman, he’s a bit pathetic — lovelorn and, it would seem, not actually very good at his real job (which, as it turns out, is spying). Some of the scenes between Katsu and Mifune are good, at least. Not all of them, but some is better than none, I suppose. Ultimately, however, it’s one of the biggest disappointments in a film filled with them.

There’s plenty to be filled, too, because this is by far the longest of the original Zatoichi films: the others average 87 minutes apiece, making Meets Yojimbo a full half-hour longer than normal, and almost 20 minutes longer than even the next longest. There’s quite an extensive supporting cast, bringing with them all the varied subplots that having so many characters entails. Whether that’s what produced the extended running time, or whether an extended running time was desired so they shoved all those extra people in, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, because either way the result is a jumble that I don’t think was a good idea. Few of them have an opportunity to leave a mark — there’s too much going on, and we’re all here for Mifune and Katsu anyway.

Something I could have learned...

Eventually the story comes down to a simple, familiar message: “greed is bad”. The much-desired gold bar turns out to be hidden as gold dust, which ends up blowing away in the wind. It’s almost fitting and symbolic… except it only happens once most of the cast are dead or past it anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily symbolise much. I mean, there’s hardly anyone left to notice it happen. And it’s followed by a final scene that, like most of the rest of the plot, left me slightly confused. The town blacksmith tells yojimbo that Ichi isn’t motivated by gold… then we see Ichi realise his pouch of gold dust has been cut and emptied, so he scrabbles around in the dirt searching for the rest (which has blown away), when Mifune joins him. “You too?” “Just like you,” they say. And then they go their separate ways. So… they are motivated by gold? Or… they’re not, because it’s gone and they… aren’t? I don’t know if I’m being dim, or if the film bungled its own message, or if it just doesn’t have anything to say. It could be no deeper than a straight-up samurai adventure movie, of course. It would be better if it were.

This is the only Zatoichi film for director Kihachi Okamoto, who apparently was a prestige hire. I don’t think he did a particularly good job, to be honest. There’s the muddled plot, as discussed, which unfurls at a slow pace. The action scenes, often such a highlight, aren’t particularly well shot. It’s visually a very dark film, which kinda matches the grim tone, but is arguably taken too far. As Walter Biggins puts it at Quiet Bubble, “murk dominates. People wears blacks and browns. Eyes are cold, haunted, even in daytime[…] Even supposedly well-lit interiors look like homages to Rembrandt. This is a world half-glimpsed, that we squint at”. It was shot by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who worked on numerous Japanese classics and several other Zatoichi movies — I praised his work on Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, for example. It’s not that what he’s done here is bad per se — there are certainly some nice individual shots, particularly around the climax — but, well, there were clearly some choices made about lighting and the colour palette.

Windswept

I knew going in that Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a particularly well regarded film, but I held out hope it was one of those occasions where I’d find the consensus wrong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s arguably the worst film in the series. It’s not just that it’s a poor Zatoichi film (which it is), it’s that it should’ve been a great one, showcasing the meeting of two top samurai heroes and the charismatic actors who play them. There may be outright lesser films in the Zatoichi series than this, but none could equal the crushing disappointment it engenders.

2 out of 5

For what it’s worth, Katsu and Mifune co-starred in another samurai movie the same year, Machibuse, aka Incident at Blood Pass. I’ve heard it’s a lot better, so I’ll endeavour to review it at a later date.

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Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

aka Zatôichi kenka-daiko

2019 #42
Kenji Misumi | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Samaritan Zatoichi

The 19th Zatoichi movie begins with our hero fulfilling some yakuza responsibilities: on the orders of a boss he’s been staying with, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is part of a group who try to collect overdue debts from a man. When he refuses to come peacefully, Ichi is forced to kill him. Only then does his sister, Osode (Yoshiko Mita), turn up, and Ichi learns what’s really going on: the debt was just a pretext for the boss to acquire Osode, who’s wanted by a local government official for, you know, the kind of thing corrupt officials want pretty young women for. Incensed, Ichi vows to protect Osode, although she’s not so keen on palling around with the guy who just murdered her brother…

As opening acts go, it’s a strong setup. Okay, it’s similar to ones the series has played before (see Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage), but it finds its difference in the character of Osode. Where most characters quickly decide Ichi is the good guy and get on his side with no regrets, Osode struggles with her grief and her feelings towards the blind swordsman, swinging back and forth between acceptance and, well, not: at one point she gives serious consideration to murdering him and then committing suicide. It feels like a bit more psychological realism than we often get, especially from characters Ichi has wronged, and it’s realised on screen with some effectively different visuals. For example, when Ichi engages in a show of skill at a fairground ball game, Osode is initially as gleefully impressed as everyone, before she comes to realise it’s these skills that allowed him to murder her brother, an event she imagines in starkly-coloured purple/green ‘flashbacks’ as she looks at Ichi with new eyes. It’s a particularly striking departure from the series’ usual grounded visual style (one echoed when Osode has red/blue ‘flash forwards’ to killing Ichi), although the whole film is very nicely shot. Of course, Osode’s ambivalence can’t go on forever: eventually she forgives Ichi and falls in love with him, because she’s only a woman and, in the world of Zatoichi, nothing is more attractive than a blind, tubby, slovenly, rice-guzzling, depressed-by-his-own-conscience, roaming mass murderer.

Grief

Lest you think Samaritan Zatoichi is one of the series’ heavy instalments, fear not, because there’s some quite broad slapstick-ish comedy in counterbalance. The first half of that ball game, for instance, is definitely played for laughs. A later sequence sees Ichi wrapped in reeds to be dumped in the river, but fate gives him a chance to get to his feet, whereupon he engages in a fight with his would-be killers, stumbling around still wrapped up — despite which he still comes out victorious, of course. Ichi also ends up with a sidekick for part of the film, Shinsuke, played by Takuya Fujioka, who was a friend of Katsu and consequently pops up in a couple of Zatoichi films. Apparently he was mainly known for comic roles, which he brings a dash of here, but Shinsuke isn’t entirely useless, nor just played for comic relief, which makes a nice change for the sidekick role.

Other memorable sequences in this instalment include one where Ichi commandeers a horse to catch up with the villains, in which he takes to riding about as well as you’d expect for a blind man (i.e. not very); a dice gambling scene where, in an about turn from every other one featured thus far, it’s Ichi who’s doing the cheating; and a final one-on-one duel that is another classic in a series absolutely filled with them (I mean, how many times in these reviews have I referred to the climactic scene as “one of the best”? It must be a pretty long list at this point.) What’s different this time is how much of a challenge it is for our hero. According to IMDb trivia, it’s the longest one-on-one duel of the series, lasting 2 minutes 14 seconds, which feels like an eternity next to the mere seconds it usually takes Ichi to defeat a solo foe. It’s set as dawn breaks on a new year, and the drums at a nearby shrine begin to pound to mark the occasion, so loudly that they impair Ichi’s senses and, therefore, abilities. The film’s original title translates as something like Zatoichi Fighting Drums, and here we see why. Combining a duel that’s more protracted than usual with a thumping score courtesy of those drums, the finale feels like an epic confrontation… even if the fight’s happening for very little motivation.

Ichi struggles

And here we reach what’s wrong with Samaritan Zatoichi: despite an initial clean and clear setup, the plot gets a bit scrappy. Much of it is driven by the yakuza boss desperately pursuing Osode to please the government blokey, but it turns out he’s actually not that bothered about her. The boss doesn’t believe that, so he wastes time continuing to pursue Osode; but no, government blokey meant it, and it winds up with him not awarding a contract to the boss. Despite that, the boss continues to pursue Osode… Just Because, I think? Or maybe we’re supposed to take it he’s really after Ichi at that point? Other contrivances occur just to keep the plot rolling, too (at one point Osode sets off without Ichi — again, Just Because — which leads to a whole heap of trouble), and I wasn’t joking when I said the final ronin has little motivation: he seems to decide to pick a fight with Ichi just for shits and giggles.

But if you don’t worry about logical character behaviour too much, there’s an awful lot to enjoy in Samaritan Zatoichi. Such niggles hold it back from being amongst the series’ very best instalments, but there’s much else to recommend it, including likeable supporting characters, great fight scenes, and various other memorable set pieces.

4 out of 5

Sanjuro (1962)

aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô

2018 #139
Akira Kurosawa | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Sanjuro

Yojimbo was such a box office success that the studio requested a sequel. Director Akira Kurosawa obliged by reworking his next project, an adaptation of an unrelated story (Peaceful Days by Shūgorō Yamamoto), so that it featured Toshiro Mifune’s eponymous scheming samurai, Sanjuro. This follow-up came out just nine months later — and, by genuine coincidence, I happened to watch it nine months after I watched Yojimbo; and now, in a mix of tardiness and planning, I am also reviewing nine months after I reviewed Yojimbo. All of which signifies absolutely bugger all, but it happened so I’m noting it.

This time, Mifune’s anti-hero becomes involved with nine young samurai who suspect corruption among the local authorities. The youngsters are well-meaning but naive to a fault, and so Sanjuro decides to help them. That’s a real boon for them, as it turns out, because they’d all die several times over if it weren’t for him stopping them and guiding them in a better direction. As well as showing us what a smart operator Sanjuro is, it’s often quite humorous, something this film feels more inclined to than its predecessor. For instance, there are several great bits of funny business with an enemy guard they capture and stash in a closet, but who keeps being let out after he sort of converts to their side.

Sanjuro's sword

In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD of the film, Michael Sragow writes that “in the Akira Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” I’d certainly agree. It doesn’t feel as significant as Yojimbo, probably because of the lighter tone (in my review, I described the previous film as “almost mercilessly nihilistic”) and a less fiddly story. But I found it more readily enjoyable than Yojimbo. It’s got a straightforward but clever plot, plenty of funny bits that don’t undermine the rest, and some decent bursts of action. It’s also just as well-made, particularly the cinematography, which is beautifully composed and framed by DPs Fukuzô Koizumi and Takao Saitô.

The making-of documentary that accompanies Sanjuro begins with Kurosawa stating that “a truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” I can think of few better quotes to describe Sanjuro, which is a truly good movie.

5 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

aka Zatôichi hatashijô

2019 #20
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi and the Fugitives

Not to be confused with the earlier Zatoichi the Fugitive (no fear in the original Japanese, where that’s titled something like Zatoichi’s Criminal Journey and this is along the lines of Zatoichi, A Letter of Challenge), the series’ 18th instalment pits our favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman against a gang of six remorselessly violent fugitives. Along the way he shacks up with the venerable Dr. Junan and his caring daughter/assistant Oshizu (Kayo Mikimoto), and once again Ichi hopes he may’ve found a place to settle down, only for events to snatch the dream away.

That doctor is played by the great Takashi Shimura, star of Seven Samurai and Ikiru, amongst many, many other classics of Japanese cinema. He brings an effortless class to the role, which initially seems to be just an honourable and wise gentleman, but later has more to it. You see, in a thoroughly unsurprising twist, it turns out one of the fugitives — namely their leader, Genpachiro (Kyôsuke Machida) — is the doctor’s estranged son. When Genpachiro attempts to visit his father and sister, Oshizu is overjoyed to see his return, but the doctor refuses to even acknowledge his son’s presence.

As the gang’s leader and the one with the connection to Ichi’s new friends, naturally it’s Genpachiro who will prove to by Ichi’s nemesis in this film. Writing for The Digital Bits, Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan reckon he’s “one of Zatoichi’s single greatest enemies,” which is certainly a bold claim. They have something of a point, given his intelligence — an early encounter makes him aware of how skilled Ichi is with a sword, so he keeps stopping his hot-headed underlings from tackling Ichi head on — but I didn’t think he was as memorable an individual as several other foes have been.

Zatoichi and the doctor

The fugitives as a group do provide quite the challenge for Ichi, however, almost defeating him at one point. Naturally, our hero comes out on top in the end: spurred by righteous anger, his final-act slaughter is even more brutally efficient than normal. Having been shot and nearly killed in his first attempt at a climactic showdown, Ichi ain’t messing around the second time. Well, they have it coming. They’re a vicious lot, happily slaughtering innocents on practically anyone’s say-so, at one point even coming this close to murdering a baby. Indeed, this is quite a tonally dark instalment of the series. It’s certainly not the only one by this point — it may not even be the darkest, in fact — but it’s still not very cheery, with little of the humour we’re accustomed to from our hero. Even the final defeat of the villains is tinged with sadness. At one point he gets very introspective, as Oshizu asks him about his blindness: “At first I remembered all the colours — green, red, and so forth. I told myself I had to remember them and tried hard not to forget. But they gradually faded away. All that’s left now is darkness.”

Ichi could just as well be talking about his lifestyle, as once again he struggles with being a gangster. When a bunch of yakuza turn up at the doctor’s to pay their respects to Ichi (his reputation having preceded him once again), the truth of his position is exposed to his new potential-family, much to his shame. Again, it’s a point of conflict for the good doctor: he doesn’t like criminals, as we see with his attitude to his own son, but he’s also seen what a kind-hearted fellow Ichi really is. And if Ichi going on an emotional rollercoaster wasn’t bad enough, he’s put through the ringer physically too — I mean, he gets shot, then digs the bullet out by himself with his sword, lest you were in any doubt of his credentials as a badass. And if that doesn’t convinced you, multiple displays of his skill with a blade should.

Bloody Ichi

One of those demonstrations has led to cuts by the BBFC for the UK release. Yes, Criterion have finally bothered to get the films classified — I’ll write a bit more about that when it comes relevant again on a future film, but for now we’re concerned with the four seconds they’ve cut from Fugitives. At one point a snake drops on Ichi and he slices it in half, after which we see the bisected creature writhing on the ground. I guess they did it with a real snake, or real enough to the BBFC’s eyes, because that shot has been cut for animal cruelty. I know some people object on principle to the BBFC censoring anything, but I can’t say cutting that kind of thing bothers me much (though, as I have the US set, I’ve already seen it).

To quote Hunt and Doogan again, they reckon that “if this series were to be compacted into a trilogy, this would be at the tail-end of part two. In other words, this is Ichi’s Empire Strikes Back. No hyperbole”. Eh, I think there might be a bit of hyperbole there. It’s just coincidence that this instalment falls at the two-thirds point of the series (more or less), and I don’t even think it’s the darkest film there’s been — for what it lacks in humour, it has a lot of kindness in Ichi’s relationship with the doctor and his daughter, and some redemption for one of the gang members. Rather than comparing it to the consensus-greatest film of another series, I’m more inclined to Paghat the Ratgirl’s point of view: “After nineteen [sic] feature films, this story is entirely familiar. But great even so.” Zatoichi and the Fugitives is not one of my favourites in the series, but it is a good mid-tier one.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

aka Mononoke-hime

2018 #73
Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

Princess Mononoke

When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

Bloody princess

However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

5 out of 5

Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.

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

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

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

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. ^