Yojimbo (1961)

aka Yôjinbô

2017 #126
Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Yojimbo

Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

Observing the conflict

Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

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Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

aka Zatôichi sekisho-yaburi

2018 #108
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Adventures of Zatoichi

Another Zatoichi film (the ninth now), another super-generic title. Only in English, mind: best I can work out, the Japanese title translates as something like Zatoichi Breaks Through the Barrier or (considering what happens in the final act) possibly Zatoichi Guard Station Break-In. Even if you can’t translate it in a way that sounds reasonable in English, why not go for something like Zatoichi’s New Year? (That’s when the film’s set, and is referenced many times.) Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound super exciting, but at least it’s more distinctive than Adventures of Zatoichi, which could be literally any of the films.

Anyway, titling issues aside, the fourth and final Zatoichi film put out in 1964 (which I guess made the New Year thing even more appropriate on its original release) sees Ichi arrive in a village near Mount Myogi, where he intends to be for the first light of the new year. Lots of merchants have also gathered there for the festival, but the local yakuza are demanding an unreasonably high percentage of the takings as tax. Although this subplot facilitates some comic relief in the complaining of a pair of travelling performers, Ichi has other concerns on his mind: there are a couple of good-hearted young women who each need Ichi’s help defending them from the murderous stupidity of men. One, her brother has escaped prison and returned to town; the other, her father, a village elder, has gone missing and she’s looking for him. Both have something to do with the yakuza. In a slight twist on the usual formula, Ichi’s prodigious reputation means the gangsters are afraid of him (rather than assuming they can beat him), but he’s still got his work cut out getting to the bottom of a conspiracy between the gang’s boss and the local magistrate. That’s not to mention the intriguing connection Ichi finds with the village’s old drunkard…

Z boys

Everyone else seems to rate Adventures of Zatoichi somewhat poorly. It’s ranked 20th out of 25 by Letterboxd users, the lowest of the series so far, and below some of the post-series Zatoichi films. The Digital Bits go even further, placing it in their bottom three (they haven’t ranked the films, but I checked all their ratings and they only gave three Cs). Other reviews include comments like “a workmanlike but satisfying episode” (Paghat the Ratgirl), “the quality level dips a notch after the outstanding original eight” (D. Trull), and “one of the more ordinary run-of-the-mill Zatoichi films” (Jacob Olsen). Not outright condemnation then, but definite damning with faint praise.

Conversely, I thought it was rather brilliant. It has a nice, clear, well-connected narrative (something I haven’t always found in previous instalments). There’s a great cast of supporting characters, lots of small roles who all make their mark. It creates almost an ensemble around Ichi, which is a nice change of pace — it really feels like it’s set in a bustling village, rather than a half-empty town where Ichi only encounters three or four people. Tonally the film displays an effective mix of humour, action, drama, and emotion, making for an all-round entertainment. It may not have a unique setup to mark it out like Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, or the flashy direction of Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, but it’s an above-average example of “standard” Zatoichi. It even boasts another top-drawer climax, with a well-shot and precisely-performed one-on-one duel in gently falling first snow, followed by Ichi taking out a small army to get at the men responsible. Again, it’s not as exceptionally striking visually as some of the recent big finales, but it’s superbly done nonetheless.

Live by the sword, pretend to die by the sword

Also, the film contains one of my favourite moments of the series so far, which is both amusing and encapsulates the character of our hero. In it, Ichi slashes his way through four assailants, then pauses… a moment later, three of them drop dead. Seeing this, the fourth just… lies down beside them. Despite being blind, Ichi can tell the chap’s still alive; but rather than finish him off, Ichi simply motions for him to leave. It’s both funny and shows Ichi’s compassion: he kills because he has to, when people attack, not for the sake of it, or even for a grudge. Similar to this is his badass summation of what just happened near the end: “I only came here to worship the first light of the new year. I expected a quiet journey, with no need to draw the blade in this cane. You brought this all on yourselves.”

In fairness, the film is not without its problems. The early story about the merchants and the tax rate doesn’t really go anywhere. It establishes the magistrate and boss are bad folk, but then it disappears underneath the other storylines. Also, I didn’t get wholly invested in the conflict between Ichi and the gang’s yojimbo. These kinds of subplots always feel like a do-over of the first film to me, so maybe that’s why more time isn’t spent on it. It makes for a couple of impressive bursts of swordplay and one heart-to-heart chat, but no more than that.

Adventures of Zatoichi may not be the very best movie this series has to offer, but in revelling in its formula, and doing so much of it so well, it’s one of the films I’ve enjoyed the most. In fact, this would probably be a really good one to introduce people to the series: it’s got most of the key elements, all done really well. It doesn’t deserve to be as overlooked as it seems to be.

4 out of 5

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 the road 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 hired 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 baby.

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. And 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.)

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

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

2017 #155
Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

Spot the period-accurate boom mic

The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

3 out of 5

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

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

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

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

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

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

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

Sword fights a-go-go

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

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

Shishio and his hench-friends

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

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

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

Rurouni Kenshin

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

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

Kenshin and Kaoru

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

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

Ready for action

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

4 out of 5

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

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

Zatoichi the Fugitive

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

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

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

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

The bond of lovers

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

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

4 out of 5