Kazuo Mori | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15
“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.
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!
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.