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

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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

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

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

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

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

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

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

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

Sword fights a-go-go

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

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

Shishio and his hench-friends

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

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

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

Rurouni Kenshin

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

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

Kenshin and Kaoru

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

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

Ready for action

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

4 out of 5

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive

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

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

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

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

The bond of lovers

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

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

4 out of 5

Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

aka Desu Nôto: the Last name

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

Death Note: The Last Name

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

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

Figurative chess, literal chess

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

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

Me Light you long time

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

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

3 out of 5

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

Death Note (2006)

aka Desu Nôto

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

Death Note

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

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

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

A little Light reading

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

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

One L of a detective

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

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

Demonic CGI

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

3 out of 5

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

Shin Godzilla (2016)

aka Shin Gojira / Godzilla Resurgence

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

Shin Godzilla

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

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

Alright Dave?

No, it’s Godzilla, obv.

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

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

We can defeat Godzilla with maths!

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5

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

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

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

New Tale of Zatoichi

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

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

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

Family dynamics

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

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

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

4 out of 5