Zatoichi at Large (1972)

aka Zatôichi goyôtabi

2019 #118
Kazuo Mori | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi at Large

I never thought doing a good deed for someone would end up making me a demon.

The 23rd film in the Zatoichi series is also the worst according to Letterboxd users, who rate it below even the ’00s spinoff, Ichi. But as with all things in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, there are those who disagree: The Digital Bits give it a B+, which puts it in the series’ top half (to be precise, it makes it =7th, but with seven other films). You can add me to that (very short) list. It’s not an exceptional Zatoichi film by any means, but it is a middle-of-the-range entry, and a long way from the worst the series has to offer.

Between how reviled it is by Letterboxd users and the cartoonish art Criterion chose for it, I assumed this was going to be another woeful attempt at comedy like Doomed Man (which is, in my opinion, by far one of the series’ worst films). It’s quite the opposite: a tragic film, where good and bad alike are faced with impossible choices, or misinterpret evidence that leads them to make rash, fatal decisions. At one point Ichi is captured, tied up, teased and beaten until he’s bruised and bloody — it’s very unpleasant. If the unpleasantness was why it was so disliked then I could see where people were coming from, but criticism seems to hinge mainly on the familiarity of the plot.

Well, it begins with Ichi stumbling across a dying pregnant woman. He delivers her baby, and her dying wish is that he takes the child to her husband in a nearby village. Naturally, Ichi complies, followed all the way by a young boy who won’t stop throwing stones at him. With the help of the village’s old but honourable constable, Tobei, he locates the baby’s aunt, Oyae. But then the yakuza arrive, demanding taxes from local performers and threatening to force Oyae into prostitution, and once again it’s up to Ichi to save the day.

Saving the day

Yes, anyone familiar with Ichi’s adventures can see how that’s a pretty standard storyline. The devil is in the detail, and At Large offers a few interesting characters and subplots. For starters, there’s Tobei — a non-corrupt official is a rarity in this series, but that doesn’t make him dull. He gains depth from both how he treats Ichi (when he finds out the truth about our hero’s past, he doesn’t arrest him) and his relationship with his wayward son, who’s a conman. Their relationship is quite poignant. It’s only when his father finally hits him that the son realises he cares, which makes him happy… but then things take a turn for the worse, leading the former good-for-nothing to set out as an avenger of honour.

As the villain, yakuza boss Tetsugoro, there’s an interesting performance by Rentarô Mikuni (who previously appeared in Zatoichi the Outlaw, and is also great in the samurai classic Harakiri). He choose to play Tetsugoro as constantly bored, or world-weary, barely interested by or caring about what’s going. For example, he’s been paying everyone 1 ryo to kill Ichi, but when someone demands 50 ryo he does no more than hand-wave his approval. All of which might sound like a criticism, but it’s a surprisingly effective portrayal of disinterested everyday evil. Nothing he does brings him pleasure; nothing that happens causes frustration or surprise — he just exists, doing the only things he knows. Well, that is until he observes Ichi being tortured — then he smiles and laughs. And when he finally kills Tobei — the most moral man around — then he laughs again. Ooh, he’s a nasty piece of work and no mistake!

Zatoichi tortured

There are various other bits and pieces that work nicely. Ichi gets to show off, as usual, but it’s always fun. The filmmaking gets a bit of ’70s verve, with a score that is at times very contemporary-pop, and supplementing the series’ normal visual style with some handheld closeup stuff. And the final one-on-one duel is not the usual big showpiece: oddly exposed, almost silent, flash-edited, and over in seconds, with a hard cut to a “the end” card. Depending on your point of view, this is either “almost comically tacked on” (DVD Talk) or “one of the most badass final thirty seconds of any film in this series” (The Digital Bits). I don’t know if I’d go as far as the latter, but it’s certainly a change of pace.

Zatoichi at Large may just be a remix of various plot bits we’ve seen before, but they’re done with a seriousness and darkness that works. There’s a bit of comedic stuff early on that’s a nonstarter, but once that’s out the way it’s a decent, if fundamentally unoriginal, adventure for Ichi. Indeed, it’s that lack of originality that hurts it most. In itself it’s a perfectly good Zatoichi movie, but we’ve seen almost all of it before. At Large (re)does it all solidly, but it doesn’t do much to improve on previous versions. If more people watched the films out of sequence and came to this earlier, perhaps it would be better liked.

4 out of 5

The Past Months on TV #51

When I mentioned in September’s monthly review that I hadn’t posted a TV column that month, I was intending to get one up within a few days. As it turned out, for various fundamentally unimportant reasons, it’s taken until now — so, really, this one covers two months.

Much like my film viewing, my TV watching hasn’t been as prolific as normal, including some regulars falling by the wayside (no Twilight Zone again). But there are still a few things worth talking about.

Stranger Things 3
Stranger Things 3On what you might unkindly call a superficial level, the third season of Netflix’s signature series was thoroughly entertaining — it’s frequently funny and exciting, with cool moments aplenty (especially in the last couple of episodes), and many enjoyable callbacks to both ’80s pop culture and within the show itself. But dig any deeper and it begins to seem less surefooted, with what felt to me like muddled themes and character arcs, and a sense that the mythology was treading water. I don’t particularly object to the way any characters were treated, nor the destinations any of them reached (especially as a fourth season was inevitable, so wherever this run finished up was only ever temporary), but I didn’t feel like they were being guided anywhere with any real purpose. There’s something to be said for storylines like that, but when you’re trying to play some kind of redemption arc, or a coming-of-age tale about burgeoning independence (or whatever), I feel like you need to be a bit clearer-eyed. But hey, I still enjoyed it a lot — it’s a fun watch, and I imagine even more so if you have nostalgic memories of an ’80s childhood — I just think there’s still some room for finessing.

Watchmen  Season 1 Episode 1
WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen is a seminal work of the form — I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about that at this point. Over the past decade it’s been adapted into a film, and both prequelised and sequelised (I think? I dunno, I stopped paying attention) in comic books, to varying degrees of success and controversy. So when HBO announced they were bringing it to TV, there was much trepidation. Early promises that it wasn’t a remake or prequel or sequel, but instead a ‘remix’, just added to the confusion.

Now it’s finally here, it’s clear that such bold reports were perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Well, I say “clear” — I’ve only watched the first episode (two have aired, out of nine) so there’s plenty of room for things to change, but (so far at least) it seems to be definitively set in the world of the comic book (and not the movie, which made some significant modifications to the climax) and in 2019 (whereas the comic is set in the ’80s). So it is a sequel… but it’s not a direct sequel, because very few of the original characters have a part to play (yet, anyway). So it’s a new story set in the same world… albeit one where the events of the first story have had a massive impact, and some of the same thematic concerns are coming into play — not to mention a load of familiar iconography. Okay, maybe “remix” wasn’t a wholly terribly epithet after all.

Anyway, it’s early days, but there’s a lot of promise and potential here. Reading the original before viewing may not be essential, but it’s going to help a lot (besides which, it’s a damn good book). And if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, be sure to check out the tie-in Peteypedia website, which provides a lot of extra info to help bridge the gap between book and series.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the GreatHBO and Sky Atlantic have teamed up for this lavish four-parter about the life of the famous Russian ruler, conceived by and starring Helen Mirren. The big bucks those broadcasters are known for are all over the screen here — it looks suitable sumptuous, with grand locations that positively shine, especially in UHD. Unfortunately, nothing else about the production is up to scratch. The writing is thoroughly mediocre — it most reminded me of The Tudors, although that seemed to know it was a bit of trashy fun, whereas I think Catherine the Great wants to be taken very seriously. But the dialogue is uninspiring, the characters uninteresting and underdeveloped (we’re told the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin is some great love affair, but they strop around like moody, jealous teenagers), and the flat performances do nothing to elevate any of it — and despite her general acclaim, Mirren is probably the weakest of the lot. Pretty, then, but vacant.

Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes
Dad's Army: The Lost EpisodesThe BBC’s 1970s policy of junking programmes because they supposedly no longer had commercial value is a familiar topic for Doctor Who fans, who’ve spent decades hoping and hunting for copies of missing episodes. But it was an organisation-wide policy, so Who was far from the only show that suffered — Dad’s Army was another. It’s a perennially popular sitcom here (even today repeats land among the most-watched programmes of the week), so you can see why it made commercial sense to invest in recreations of the missing episodes — especially as there’s only three of them.

The pre-broadcast press and ads emphasised heavily that these were intended as a tribute (presumably because that attempt at a feature film revival from a couple of years ago went down so badly). The sense of affection for the original seeps off the screen, from the faithfully recreated set to the performances, which ably tread the fine line between flat impersonation and respectful imitation. By that I mean the cast were clearly trying to play the roles as they were originally performed, but without getting stuck in a rut of mere emulation, instead injecting a reasonable amount of their own interpretation of the characters.

So, taking the project as it was intended — as a loving salute to the original programme, which also plugs a gap in its record — The Lost Episodes should be classed as a success.

Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco Season 1 Episodes 1-4 — ITV’s cancelled period crime drama is revived in this US sequel/spin-off, because it was relatively popular on the other side of the pond. Unfortunately, this iteration does look and feel like cheap US network filler. It’s gently watchable enough, if you don’t mind that sort of thing.
  • Japan with Sue Perkins — The former Bake Off host pops over to Japan for a two-part exploration of modern cultural quirks and fads. Open-minded and consequently insightful, I feel like it could’ve been a longer series to dig in even deeper. Maybe a more indicative title, too — by getting so specific, it was hardly the overview/travelogue of Japan that you might’ve expected.
  • Monty Python Night — BBC Two marked the 50th anniversary of arguably the most influential comedy troupe ever with an evening of archive-derived programming. So, that was two repeats — of documentary Almost the Truth: The BBC Lawyer’s Cut and the first-ever episode of Flying Circus — and one new programme that was compiled from archive interview clips, Python at 50: Silly Talks and Holy Grails. If you missed it… it’s no longer on iPlayer because I’ve been so tardy in posting this column. Sorry.
  • World on Fire Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Now, here’s a good idea: a returning series that follows multiple loosely-connected characters in multiple different countries as they make their way through World War 2. I’m not convinced by the execution so far (it feels remarkably small-scale for a premise that’s all about scope, and visually it looks a bit too “TV” for a major prime-time series in the present climate), but, eh, we’ll see.

    Next month… the golden compass leads us to the northern lights as His Dark Materials is readapted for TV.

  • Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

    aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

    2019 #99
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

    Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

    This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

    After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

    Creating a new one-armed swordsman

    An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

    The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

    The real one-armed swordsman

    Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

    The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

    4 out of 5

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

    aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

    2019 #80
    Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

    No, this isn’t a film about a samurai at a ‘luxury’ music festival (and that’s the extent of Fyre references you’ll get here, because I’ve not watched either documentary and don’t really know much about it). Rather, this 21st entry in the long-running Zatoichi series (once released on UK DVD as Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, and also known by sundry other variations of those words) sees the eponymous blind masseur-cum-swordsman clash with evil underworld boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori). This boss is as blind as Ichi, which he initially uses to claim a kinship with the masseur, but then Yamikubo engages in a series of schemes to kill our hero. Meanwhile, a nameless ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) stalks Ichi too, intending to kill him for an imagined slight.

    More or less business as usual for a Zatoichi adventure, then. The blindness of the villain should really add an extra frisson of something — it’s a clear parallel with Ichi, after all — but I’m not sure it does, in actuality. More striking is that Fire Festival is pretty sex obsessed. Sex has been a factor of Zatoichi films before, but I’m not sure any other is as consumed by it as this one. It starts with a mistress auction and teases of nudity; the mystery ronin’s quest is to kill everyone who slept with his wife, which he thinks includes Ichi; the major set-piece is a fight in a bathhouse between Ichi and an army of assassins, all of whom are stark naked; Ichi spends an evening with five prostitutes; the villains decide the best way to kill our hero is with a honey trap (who winds up genuinely falling for Ichi, of course); there’s the roadhouse owners we randomly come across, who are casually perverse… and that’s all before the one-hour mark. Though if you’re expecting to see flashes of flesh, the nude scenes feature almost Austin Powers-level endeavours to make sure nothing explicit is shown.

    A sweet transvestite?

    There’s also an androgynous fellow called Umeji, who’s played be Peter, aka Pītā, aka Shinnosuke Ikehata — to quote his Wikipedia page, “one of Japan’s most famous gay entertainers, Peter’s androgynous appearance has enabled him to often play transvestite characters and he often appears on stage in women’s clothing.” He first gained attention the year before, as the lead in Funeral Parade of Roses, and later would have a supporting role in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Here he’s the pimp of those aforementioned five prostitutes, part of an attempt to prove he’s a “real man”. That doesn’t really work out, so his next attempt is to try seducing Ichi. It’s a startling, unexpected sequence in a genre film of this era, especially as he seems to get quite far — I mean, they end up under a bedsheet where we can’t see exactly what’s going on… until a knife slips out, anyway, with which Umeji was trying to kill Ichi. Naturally Ichi’s not impressed by that murder attempt, although he has nothing to say about the apparent homosexuality.

    Peter isn’t the only noteworthy face here. Easily missed by Western audiences are Utae and Reiji Shoji as that roadhouse couple I mentioned — apparently they came from family of famous comedians, which perhaps explains all the screen time they’re given. More recognisable is Nakadai, who would also later star in Ran, and also appeared in Yojimbo and The Human Condition trilogy, amongst many more. One of those others is another samurai movie, The Sword of Doom, in which he reportedly plays a very similar character to his role here — I’ve not seen it so can’t vouch for that myself, but many other reviews cite the comparison. Depending which of those you listen to, he’s either “comically bad” (DVD Talk) or “puts in a stellar performance” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises). His character is a bit of an odd one — his motivation is thin and decisions border on nonsensical — but Nakadai brings immense presence to the role nonetheless.

    Is that a katana or are you just happy to see me?

    Mind, most of the rest of the film’s plot is similarly confounding. It starts with a title sequence in which Ichi tries to run away from a little barking dog, ends with an out-of-nowhere scene where Ichi turns down a horse ride, and in between is almost as odd and randomly constructed as those two extremes. And yet it does tick most of the regular Zatoichi boxes, especially in terms of the action scenes. They’re as slickly choreographed and staged as ever, continuing to come up with fresh ideas even after all these movies. The nude bathhouse fight is the obvious standout, but there’s also a finale where Ichi faces down an army and a cunning foe with a hostage, but has a trick up his sleeve… literally! (Ho ho ho.)

    If you’re wondering where the titular festival has got to in all this, well, it never really turns up. The climax does begin with Ichi stranded in the middle of a lake that’s then set alight, but that’s not really a “fire festival”, is it? But it is a visually arresting sequence, just one of several throughout the film. This is the last contribution to the Zatoichi films from director Kenji Misumi, who directed the first and would end up tied for the title of the series’ most prolific director; and also for cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot six of the films for various directors; and they both go out on a visual high with their work here. (I don’t like to over-clutter my reviews with pictures, so here are just a few additional memorable shots I grabbed. And this is really in a class of its own for images that evoke a sense of smell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

    The film’s story, as I said, is less commendable. Altogether, it makes for a movie that I wouldn’t rank among the Zatoichi series’ finest achievements, but nonetheless has its share of entertainment value for fans.

    4 out of 5

    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.

    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.