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

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Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô

2019 #10
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi Challenged

The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.

The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.

Zatoichi and son... just not his son

There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.

Snow fight

The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.

Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

3 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

2018 #181
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.

Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a sea voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, it’s clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.

After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.

Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.

It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count it among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.

Sore loser

But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.

4 out of 5

Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

aka Zatôichi kesshô-tabi

2018 #76
Kenji Misumi | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

It’s a bit ironic that whoever chose the English-language titles* for the Zatoichi films decided to emphasise fighting in the name of this eighth instalment, because it’s perhaps the least concerned with Ichi’s sword skills so far. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of nifty sequences of blade-clashing fun, but they’re not the film’s focus. You might think that’s antithetical to the series’ purpose, and yet Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest instalments, perhaps even the best of all.

It begins, as so many Zatoichi films do, with our hero on the run from some gangsters who want to kill him. Ichi accepts a ride from a pair of passing palanquin carriers, but his would-be assailants spot this and resolve to attack further down the road. Before they make their move, Ichi hears a woman struggling along with her baby, and insists she take the palanquin instead. The assassins don’t see the switch, however, and so attack nonetheless, killing the mother. Her papers reveal she was returning to her husband, the baby’s father, and Ichi, blaming himself for her death, insists he make the 65-mile journey to return the infant personally.

This is where Fight differs from the norm, because it’s at least as concerned with Ichi’s need to care for the child as it is with him fending off the assassins, who naturally pursue him on his way. The impromptu sidestep into de facto fatherhood leads to plenty of goofy comedy, much of it around bodily fluids, like when and where the baby pees, the stench of its used nappies, and also a scene where Ichi tries to get the kid to suckle on him while they wait for actual milk. Another amusing sequence sees Ichi hire a prostitute for the night, but only so she can look after the baby and he can get some sleep. But he keeps waking back up nonetheless, each time insisting on doing just one more thing for the child.

Family unit

You see, Ichi really cares for the kid, and this is where the other side of the equation comes in: as well as comedy, the situation also brings up a good deal of character-driven seriousness, as Ichi is forced to reflect on the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. No one is better than Shintaro Katsu at playing both sides, transitioning between warm humorousness and grim introspection in the blink of an eye.

But it’s not only internally that Ichi has cause to consider his lifestyle. Halfway along their journey, Ichi inadvertently saves the life of a female pickpocket, Ko, who he then employs to be the baby’s nanny — mainly so he can teach her better ways and reform her. But she’s a pretty young lady, so naturally she falls for blind old Ichi, and for the child too, and suddenly they’re a little family unit. Ko wants it to stay that way, for them to raise the baby together; and, despite his protestations to the contrary, Ichi has come to really like the child, and would probably like that life too. But, without spoiling anything, events transpire to make Ichi realise such an existence just isn’t possible for him, and he must do the right thing for the child’s sake. In the end, despite the laughter along the way, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a pretty emotional and sad film, with our hero ending up as he began, and as he always must: alone on the road.

Lest you think it’s too downbeat, let’s talk about the action! Despite being on babysitting duties, there are still some great fight scenes: there’s one where assailants keep bursting into a hut where Ichi’s trying to change the baby’s nappy (now that’s multitasking); and a gambling scene where he catches a cheating boss in the act, with an ensuing fight outside where Ichi keeps shh-ing his attackers because the baby’s asleep. Then the finale lives up to the series’ recent penchant for exciting visuals: the amassed villains surround Ichi with flaming torches in an effort to confuse his hearing, and as our hero slashes away at them even his clothing catches fire. Sure, we know he must prevail, but there’s real jeopardy in this one.

Fiery climax

So, in many respects, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has it all. It’s even got a unity of story and structure that feels almost rare in the series — everything connects up, pays off, has relevance; unlike other films, which often seem to start with a bit of superfluous action or something. But what it has most of all is a storyline that is unique and emotional, and therefore memorable and affecting. It’s easy to see why the film is so often elevated as one of the series’ very best. It’s probably best appreciated as part of the series, rather than as a newcomer’s entry point, because part of its effectiveness lies in it being different from the norm. That said, it stands as an excellent film in its own right.

5 out of 5

(A quick caveat: although this is the first Zatoichi film I’ve given full marks, I would, with hindsight, award the same to the first movie as well.)

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight placed 20th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

* I say “chose” because a literal translation would be something like Zatoichi’s Journey of Blood and Laughter. ^

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

aka Zatôichi monogatari / Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi

2013 #92
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of ZatoichiAdapted from a short story by Kan Shimozawa, The Tale of Zatoichi was a low-key release for its studio, Daiei: despite being helmed by “a topflight director”*, it was shot in black and white, its leading man, Shintarô Katsu, “was not really a huge star”, and his co-star, Shigeru Amachi, “had been one of the main stars at Shintoto studios before it went bankrupt and ceased production” — surely a mixed blessing. And yet it was “a surprise hit… touch[ing] a nerve with Japanese audiences, who loved to root for the underdog.” Despite the fact our hero gives up his sword at the end of the film, Daiei produced a sequel, and… well…

Some things are created as film series (all those ’30s and ’40s Hollywood mysteries; Cubby Broccoli and co always intended to do multiple James Bond movies), others just turn into them. The Tale of Zatoichi was the latter. Far from a low-key one-off, it would go on to be a huge touchstone for Japanese culture, spawning 24 sequels over the next 11 years, followed by a 100-episode TV series in the ’70s, and a revival film in 1989 — all starring Katsu. Although he passed away in 1997, Zatoichi has lived on through several remakes and spin-offs in the past decade. Although the character and series has a cult following in the West (brought into sharper focus by the well-received 2003 remake), added significance has been imbued by the incredible, beautiful, 25-film, 27-disc, dual format Criterion Collection box set released last year.

Blind men get all the girlsBut enough hyperbole — what about The Tale itself? The story sees blind masseuse Zatoichi accepting an old invitation to visit an acquaintance, Sukegorô (Eijirô Yanagi). But Sukegorô is a yakuza boss, and he presses Zatoichi to join his side in a brewing war with rival Shigezô (Ryûzô Shimada) — because although he’s blind, the masseuse has legendary sword skills. On Shigezô’s side is a hired samurai, Hirate (Amachi), who Zatoichi encounters by chance. Despite the mutual respect between these two coerced warriors, the eventual gang battle comes down to a duel between them…

Though Zatoichi is best (or quickest) defined as a series of samurai films, those taking that to mean copious swordplay will leave with their expectations unmet after this first movie (I can’t speak for the others yet). Tale is more of a dramatic piece, exploring the dilemmas faced by Zatoichi and Hirate — honour and what is right vs. money and misplaced promises — as well as the fatal romantic entanglements of a couple of other characters in Sukegorô’s camp. Even at the climax, the final (well, only) confrontation between the two warriors is an ‘action sequence’ more in the vein of Sergio Leone than Michael Bay: the characters face each other, they wait, the tension grows, and then there’s a couple of short bursts of to-the-point violence.

CalmThose prepared for a calmer, more considered film may find much to like, however. Katsu’s understated style holds your attention and makes you want to learn more about the character; not his past, necessarily, but his qualities as a man. The same is true of Amachi, in some ways even more appealing as the doomed ronin. You get a genuine sense that Zatoichi and Hirate would have had a great, long-lasting friendship if they’d met under better circumstances, which makes the manner of their encounter all the more tragic. For all the bluster about a big gang war on the horizon, it’s the relationship between these two men that forms the heart of the film.

Also worthy of note is Misumi’s direction, including some choice angles and compositions. There’s the restraint to not always be showy: at times, the bulk of a scene plays out in one static but immaculately framed take. At others, however, the camera is shifted around into positions that are never distracting but always beneficial to the storytelling or beautiful to the eye. Credit to cinematographer Chishi Makiura too, of course, especially for some magnificent lighting. Many a shot here would challenge the best of film noir for shadow-drenched beauty. (I should say, I picked up on none of this from the crummy old DVD I first saw the film on, but a re-watch from Criterion’s Blu-ray was glorious.)

The cane swordReportedly this opener is “not the best of [the] series”, but remains “a grand introduction to the character and a touchstone for many of the themes and gags presented in the later films”.** To me, that suggests much promise for the 24 further instalments: what The Tale of Zatoichi lacks in action, it more than makes up for in character and, perhaps surprisingly, emotion. I thought it was excellent.

4 out of 5

Reviews of further Zatoichi films will follow next year.

* All quotes in the opening paragraph from Chris D.’s notes in the Criterion booklet. ^
** According to The Digital Bits. ^