Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

2019 #60
Kihachi Okamoto | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Having released anything up to four films a year for seven years, the Zatoichi series took 1969 off (apparently producer/star Shintaro Katsu had some other projects to focus on). But when it returned in 1970 it was with a big gun: as the title indicates, the main guest star for this film is the lead character from Akira Kurosawa’s films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, played by the great Toshiro Mifune. I don’t know if that was a deliberate move to mark the series’ 20th movie or if they weren’t even conscious of the milestone, but it certainly feels like it was meant to be a special occasion. “Meant to be” being the operative part of that sentence, because the result is sadly one of the least enjoyable entries in the series so far.

The film sees Ichi (Katsu) return to his hometown, which has rather gone to the dogs thanks to a local yakuza gang. Never one to just stand back or move along, Ichi ends up embroiled in the arguments between a powerful merchant (Osamu Takizawa) and his two wayward sons, one a yakuza boss (Masakane Yonekura), the other an employee of the government mint (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), who’s up to some kind of shenanigans with the gold that drives the plot… I think. Mifune’s character factors into all this as a ronin who’s been hired by the yakuza son to protect him, or kill his father, or something along those lines.

As you may have gathered, the plot here is by turns confusing and dull — one of those that loses you so thoroughly you just want to give up on trying to work it out. It has something to do with the people who make gold coins making them less well, and a hidden bar of gold that has something to do with that somehow, and a bunch of spies and stuff who are all looking for the gold bar, and some kind of feud or rivalry or disagreement between the local yakuza and Takizawa’s businessman, which may or may not have nothing to do with all the gold stuff… I think. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film with an underwhelming or unintelligible plot, but it tells it with so little verve, and with so few entertaining distractions (there’s not much action, and even less humour), that there’s nothing to make up for it.

Katsu vs Mifune

And to add insult to injury, the titular concept of the movie is a bait and switch: Mifune is not actually playing the character from Kurosawa’s films. “Yojimbo” means “bodyguard”, so it’s not like, say, casting Sean Connery in a film and calling it Meets James Bond only to have him play some unrelated character, but the promise of the title is clear and unfulfilled. It’s not like Mifune is playing an off-brand knock-off, either: he happens to be fulfilling the same job as bodyguard so that everyone can keep calling him yojimbo, but his actual name is Taisaku Sasa (not Sanjuro, as in Kurosawa’s films) and his character is nothing like his role in Kurosawa’s films (he doesn’t even look the same!) Seeing Zatoichi go head-to-head with the ‘real’ Yojimbo, with all his cunning scheming, could’ve been great. Instead, while Sasa is still a skilled swordsman, he’s a bit pathetic — lovelorn and, it would seem, not actually very good at his real job (which, as it turns out, is spying). Some of the scenes between Katsu and Mifune are good, at least. Not all of them, but some is better than none, I suppose. Ultimately, however, it’s one of the biggest disappointments in a film filled with them.

There’s plenty to be filled, too, because this is by far the longest of the original Zatoichi films: the others average 87 minutes apiece, making Meets Yojimbo a full half-hour longer than normal, and almost 20 minutes longer than even the next longest. There’s quite an extensive supporting cast, bringing with them all the varied subplots that having so many characters entails. Whether that’s what produced the extended running time, or whether an extended running time was desired so they shoved all those extra people in, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, because either way the result is a jumble that I don’t think was a good idea. Few of them have an opportunity to leave a mark — there’s too much going on, and we’re all here for Mifune and Katsu anyway.

Something I could have learned...

Eventually the story comes down to a simple, familiar message: “greed is bad”. The much-desired gold bar turns out to be hidden as gold dust, which ends up blowing away in the wind. It’s almost fitting and symbolic… except it only happens once most of the cast are dead or past it anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily symbolise much. I mean, there’s hardly anyone left to notice it happen. And it’s followed by a final scene that, like most of the rest of the plot, left me slightly confused. The town blacksmith tells yojimbo that Ichi isn’t motivated by gold… then we see Ichi realise his pouch of gold dust has been cut and emptied, so he scrabbles around in the dirt searching for the rest (which has blown away), when Mifune joins him. “You too?” “Just like you,” they say. And then they go their separate ways. So… they are motivated by gold? Or… they’re not, because it’s gone and they… aren’t? I don’t know if I’m being dim, or if the film bungled its own message, or if it just doesn’t have anything to say. It could be no deeper than a straight-up samurai adventure movie, of course. It would be better if it were.

This is the only Zatoichi film for director Kihachi Okamoto, who apparently was a prestige hire. I don’t think he did a particularly good job, to be honest. There’s the muddled plot, as discussed, which unfurls at a slow pace. The action scenes, often such a highlight, aren’t particularly well shot. It’s visually a very dark film, which kinda matches the grim tone, but is arguably taken too far. As Walter Biggins puts it at Quiet Bubble, “murk dominates. People wears blacks and browns. Eyes are cold, haunted, even in daytime[…] Even supposedly well-lit interiors look like homages to Rembrandt. This is a world half-glimpsed, that we squint at”. It was shot by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who worked on numerous Japanese classics and several other Zatoichi movies — I praised his work on Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, for example. It’s not that what he’s done here is bad per se — there are certainly some nice individual shots, particularly around the climax — but, well, there were clearly some choices made about lighting and the colour palette.

Windswept

I knew going in that Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a particularly well regarded film, but I held out hope it was one of those occasions where I’d find the consensus wrong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s arguably the worst film in the series. It’s not just that it’s a poor Zatoichi film (which it is), it’s that it should’ve been a great one, showcasing the meeting of two top samurai heroes and the charismatic actors who play them. There may be outright lesser films in the Zatoichi series than this, but none could equal the crushing disappointment it engenders.

2 out of 5

For what it’s worth, Katsu and Mifune co-starred in another samurai movie the same year, Machibuse, aka Incident at Blood Pass. I’ve heard it’s a lot better, so I’ll endeavour to review it at a later date.

Advertisements

Sanjuro (1962)

aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô

2018 #139
Akira Kurosawa | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Sanjuro

Yojimbo was such a box office success that the studio requested a sequel. Director Akira Kurosawa obliged by reworking his next project, an adaptation of an unrelated story (Peaceful Days by Shūgorō Yamamoto), so that it featured Toshiro Mifune’s eponymous scheming samurai, Sanjuro. This follow-up came out just nine months later — and, by genuine coincidence, I happened to watch it nine months after I watched Yojimbo; and now, in a mix of tardiness and planning, I am also reviewing nine months after I reviewed Yojimbo. All of which signifies absolutely bugger all, but it happened so I’m noting it.

This time, Mifune’s anti-hero becomes involved with nine young samurai who suspect corruption among the local authorities. The youngsters are well-meaning but naive to a fault, and so Sanjuro decides to help them. That’s a real boon for them, as it turns out, because they’d all die several times over if it weren’t for him stopping them and guiding them in a better direction. As well as showing us what a smart operator Sanjuro is, it’s often quite humorous, something this film feels more inclined to than its predecessor. For instance, there are several great bits of funny business with an enemy guard they capture and stash in a closet, but who keeps being let out after he sort of converts to their side.

Sanjuro's sword

In the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD of the film, Michael Sragow writes that “in the Akira Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” I’d certainly agree. It doesn’t feel as significant as Yojimbo, probably because of the lighter tone (in my review, I described the previous film as “almost mercilessly nihilistic”) and a less fiddly story. But I found it more readily enjoyable than Yojimbo. It’s got a straightforward but clever plot, plenty of funny bits that don’t undermine the rest, and some decent bursts of action. It’s also just as well-made, particularly the cinematography, which is beautifully composed and framed by DPs Fukuzô Koizumi and Takao Saitô.

The making-of documentary that accompanies Sanjuro begins with Kurosawa stating that “a truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” I can think of few better quotes to describe Sanjuro, which is a truly good movie.

5 out of 5

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.

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.

Rashomon (1950)

2008 #24
Akira Kurosawa | 88 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

RashomonOne has to wonder if Dr. Gregory House was exposed to Rashomon at a young age. House’s universal truth — “everyone lies” — is also the conclusion of Kurosawa’s much-lauded film, in which four witnesses tell different versions of the events surrounding a samurai’s murder.

The “Rashomon” of the title is one of two gates to Kyoto, built in 789 and in disrepair and disrepute by the film’s 12th Century setting, but thanks to this film the word has come to signify a narrative that retells the same event from multiple perspectives. Mentioning it seems unavoidable when writing about a film (or episode of TV, or novel, or…) with such a structure, as reviews of recent thriller Vantage Point would attest. However, most similar tales aren’t quite as radical as this ‘original’ (which is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa), in which the four tales differ wildly.

Justifiably, much has been written about Rashomon, both critically and analytically. As such I’m not going to dig too deeply here, but instead just highlight a couple of reasons why it’s so acclaimed. For one, it looks great. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is exemplary, producing gorgeous rain at the gate, wonderful shadows in the forest, and employing numerous inventive shots and moves, always effective rather than showy. Fumio Hayasaka’s music underscores proceedings beautifully, coming into its own during long dialogue-free sequences. The performances are also accomplished, especially Toshiro Mifune as laughing bandit Tajomaru, but also Masayuki Mori’s largely silent turn as the murdered samurai, and Fumiko Honma’s chillingly freaky medium.

As I said, there’s much more that could be (and has been) written about Rashomon — I’ve not even touched on the intricacies of the plot, the presentation of the courthouse scenes, the significance of the fights, and so on. Certain viewers might be put off by the subtitles, the black and white photography, the film’s age, and its occasional ‘arthouse’-ness — and, I confess, I’m one of the first people to get fed up with films like Tati’s Play Time or Ozu’s Tokyo Story — but, for me, Rashomon was an incredibly enjoyable first encounter with Kurosawa.

5 out of 5

Rashomon placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.