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

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

aka Zatôichi sakate-giri

2018 #157
Kazuo Mori | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man

The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series is perhaps the first one that could legitimately be described as bad. It’s not outright terrible, but the plot doesn’t hold together very well, and there are only a couple of redeeming scenes.

The first of these is at the very start, when the film opens on the striking image of Ichi receiving lashes as punishment for an initially-unspecified crime. They seem almost a minor inconvenience to our hero, however, who is more concerned with questions he has for his punisher about this cellmate of the previous night. It turns out he was the eponymous “doomed man”: a fellow who’s been incarcerated on a murder charge, but claims he’s innocent, and urges Ichi to track down the gang bosses who can vouch for him. Uncharacteristically, Ichi resolves not to help, but fate has other plans…

That reliance on fate to marshal Ichi around led me to dub this Zatoichi and the Coincidental Coincidences of Coincidence. He’s constantly stumbling back onto the film’s plot even when he tries to avoid it, or bumping into the people he needs to find, or bumping into people who happen to be connected to other people he happens to know. It’s easily the most poorly-constructed story of the series so far. That’s not limited to its dependence on coincidence, either: half the stuff it sets up doesn’t even pay off or come together in a reasonable fashion. Although the initial “wrong man” setup is enticing, rather than do anything interesting or different with that, it just turns out to be the series’ usual: some bosses have betrayed the chap as part of a scheme to control the area. And to rub salt in the wound, we learn about this in a scene where one conspirator explains what they’ve already done to his co-conspirator. Oh dear.

Shenanigans

It’s a very slight story — not even enough to sustain the brief sub-80-minute running time, it would seem, as we’re ‘treated’ to an array of unrelated shenanigans. The primary one is a young man who starts following Ichi around, then later impersonates the famed blind masseur for financial gain — and, supposedly, for comic effect. He’s played by Kanbi Fujiyama, who (according to Chris D. in his notes accompanying Criterion’s release) “was a noted funnyman in mid-to-late-sixties Japan, appearing in sidekick roles in many of Toei studios’ ninkyo (chivalrous) yakuza films.” Reading other reviews, a lot of people seem to find his schtick hilarious, but I thought he was the most irritating comic relief character the series has yet foisted upon us — and he’s basically the co-lead of this instalment, so we get to see far too much of him. He eventually turns out to have a connection to the main plot too, which is emblematic of the whole movie: the connection is a complete coincidence, dumped on us via random exposition late in the game, and then not paid off in any way. It’s entirely pointless. At one point he disappears from the film entirely. Due to how it was handled, I began to wonder if we were meant to infer he’d died off screen. But then he turns up again in the epilogue, as it merely to confirm that wasn’t the case.

That stands in opposition to the film’s main plot — you know, the titular one about the “doomed man” — which is resolved offscreen while Ichi’s already going on his merry way. It’s just one aspect that feels rushed (despite the short running time and ‘comedy’ distractions), or as if scenes were deleted. This is particularly noticeable as it pertains to the female interest, Oyone (Eiko Taki). Ichi rescues her thanks to a little trick she pulls, but then she seems ungratefully indifferent to him… until she’s suddenly hanging around near the end, hoping (as the women in these films always do) that he won’t run off while her back’s turned. Which is exactly what he does, of course.

Zatoichi with the doomed man

You may remember I said there were some good bits. One is the pre-titles, which I already partly discussed. They’re effective thanks to some strong photography from Hiroshi Imai and the way they flip around with our expectations to create mystery (even if the reason Ichi’s receiving those lashings is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film). The other is the finale. As usual, the movie climaxes with Ichi having to take on an army of goons single-handed, but this one adds some spice with a seaside location, strewn with fishing nets (which get brought into the action) and covered with an early morning sea mist. It’s also beautifully shot, and there’s nicely choreographed combat. It’s easily the highlight of the film.

Other reviewers are not so harsh on The Doomed Man, going so far as to call it a “fine entry” in the series, or “thoughtful [and] hilarious”. And yet, those reviews can’t seem to help spotting the flaws in spite of themselves. Walter Biggins’ review at Quiet Bubble is a series of questions about why the film is so poor, with the last query being the most baffling of all: “why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?” I’ve no idea, mate. Several other reviews make comments along the lines of, “Ichi behaves uncharacteristically here, but there must be a good reason for that” — or it’s just crappy, inconsistent writing. At least Letterboxd users agree with me: it’s ranked 24th out of the main series’ 25 films (the only one lower is the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large — which, incidentally, is by the same director).

“Here's the end of the plot — go give it to someone and get this over with!”

For me, The Doomed Man is by a clear margin the weakest Zatoichi film so far. As nowadays I very much look forward to my regular appointments with Ichi, being so underwhelmed left me feeling disappointed: it wasn’t worth the wait since the last film, nor was it really enough to tide me over until the next one. For those reasons I considered giving it a lowly two stars, but that felt a bit harsh: it certainly isn’t without merit (the climactic fight is a stunner), and it’s always nice to spend time in Ichi’s company, even if he is being inconsistently written. Nonetheless, it only earns that third star by the skin of its teeth. This is a “for completists only” instalment.

3 out of 5

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5