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

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Seven Samurai (1954)

aka Shichinin no samurai

2013 #110
Akira Kurosawa | 207 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai used to be a striking anomaly amongst the top ten of IMDb’s user-voted Top 250: it’s a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. These days it sits at #21, presumably through a mixture of IMDb tweaking the voting rules and it being rated lowly by people keen to see all of the Top 250 but who don’t typically like three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white films. Nonetheless, it has a claim to wide popularity (alongside its critical renown) that is rarely achieved by three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movies.

In 16th Century Japan, rural communities are terrorised by gangs of bandits stealing their crops, raping their women, and all that other nasty to-do. One village has had enough and, knowing they can’t defend themselves, sets out to employ a band of samurai to defend them when the bandits come again the next year. Samurai aren’t cheap, but the villagers have no money, so they’ll have to make do with what they can get. Managing to snag Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to lead the defenders, he assembles a team, including wannabe Kikuchiyuo (Toshiro Mifune) and five others (Daisuke Katō, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, and Yoshio Inaba), who then set about preparing the villagers for battle…

Despite its epic running time, Seven Samurai isn’t really an epic film — this isn’t the story of a war, or even a battle, but of a skirmish to defend one village. How does it merit such length, then? By going into immense detail, by having plenty of characters to fuel its narrative and its subplots (and if you think there’d be plenty of time to explore seven characters in over three hours, turns out you’d be wrong), and by using the time to familiarise us with these people, so that when the final fight comes — and that’s a fair old chunk of the film too — we care what happens. Plenty of other films make us care in a shorter period of time, of course, but here we feel truly invested in the outcome.

The titular seven (well, six of them)It’s also unhurried. As Kenneth Turan explains in his essay “The Hours and Times: Kurosawa and the Art of Epic Storytelling” (in the booklet for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, and available online here), the film “unrolls naturally and pleasurably… luxuriating in its elongation — it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven.” As a viewer, I think you have to be mentally prepared for that pace, in a way. Most other films would use a snappy montage to collate the team, with key scenes or moments later on being used to highlight their personalities — witness any number of Hollywood (and Hollywood-esque) ‘men on a mission’ movies that do exactly that. Kurosawa’s expanded version makes the film more a marathon than a sprint, with only some of the negative connotations describing something as “a marathon” entails.

In truth, this is not the most fascinating portion of the film, but nor is it without merit. As discussed, it’s establishing these characters in full so that we are more attached to them later, but it’s also commenting on, perhaps even deconstructing, the image and role of the samurai. In “A Time of Honor: Seven Samurai and Sixteenth-Century Japan” (again in Criterion’s booklet, and available online here), Philip Kemp explains how Kurosawa’s depiction of the samurai overthrows some simplistic ideals that had become associated with them, and shows them instead as normal human beings, more likely to run away to save their own skin than pointlessly fight to their death. The villagers have indeed managed to employ professional combatants, but they’re not so different to the villagers themselves, just better trained.

The rain in Japan falls mainly on the actionThe length ensures our investment in the village, too, just as it does for the samurai. They’re not being paid a fortune — in fact, they’re just being paid food and lodging — so why do they care? Well, food and lodging are better than no food and lodging, for starters; and then, having been in the village so long in preparation, they care for it too. It is, at least for the time being, their home. You can tell an audience this, of course, but one of the few ways to make them feel it is to put them there too — and that’s what the length does. To quote from Turan again,

The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. … When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats — we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.

It can seem like a blind alley to go on about a film’s length — many an epic is long just because it has a long, or large, story to tell — but in Seven Samurai, the sheer size, and the way it uses that, are almost part of the point.

The film ends with a melancholic note. That “eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers” comes to an end — with victory won, the surviving samurai are no longer required. The farmers return to farming, the samurai return to… what? They are not really at home in the village, they were just guests; nor are they rich, because there was no pay — so what have they got out of the conflict? As Alain Silver notes in “The Rains Came: Kurosawa’s Pictorial Approach to Seven Samurai” (in Criterion’s booklet, of course, but not online), The final shotthe final scene, the way it’s edited and framed, ties the remaining samurai to their deceased comrades, the living and thriving farmers a distant and separate group. Fighting is the way of the past, perhaps, and peaceful farming the future. Or is the samurai’s only purpose to be found in death, because other than that they are redundant?

Even if you don’t want to get into the film’s philosophical underpinnings, there are plenty of other, more visceral thrills to enjoy. The characters provide humour as well as emotional depth; there are scattered “action sequences” throughout; and the big climax may technically only be a skirmish, but it’s one played out in detail, to epic effect. There’s not the choreography that viewers used to modern blockbusters or Hong Kong fisticuffs might expect, but that doesn’t meant the rough and realistic fighting isn’t exciting or well-constructed. Drenched in rain and covered in mud, it’s messy and, in its own way, beautiful. The whole film is visually stunning, as you’d expect from a Kurosawa picture. You may not realise it at the time, but many a familiar type of shot actually originated here, and then was copied down the ages.

It might seem difficult to credit now, but Seven Samurai was only fairly well received in Japan on its initial release: as Stuart Galbraith IV reveals in “A Magnificent Year” (also in Criterion’s booklet (where else?)), most of the awards for Best Picture went elsewhere, and at the box office it was comedies and romances that were the big crowd-pleasers. 'I can't believe Toho cut our movie'And it wasn’t as if it was overseas viewers who hit on the magic: as Turan reveals, “Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length.” The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose — how many Great Films from Hollywood are ignored by awards bodies and audiences, only to endure in other ways?

Seven Samurai is definitely a case of the latter. Its standing on the IMDb list may have slipped with time (and rule changes, no doubt), but it’s still a trend-bucker — a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white film that can appeal, if not to the masses, then to some people who wouldn’t normally go in for that kind of thing. A marathon but not a slog, requiring investment rather than passive absorption, Kurosawa’s epic rewards the viewer with one of cinema’s most enthralling, gorgeous, and vital experiences.

5 out of 5

Seven Samurai placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.