Tokuzô Tanaka | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese
Not to be confused with the series’ similarly-titled tenth film, Zatoichi’s Revenge (not a problem with the original Japanese titles, where the former translates as something like Zatoichi’s Two-Stage Sword and this is something along the lines of Zatoichi Hears the Song — I’m just using online translators to guess at these, so those translations may well be too literal), Zatoichi’s Vengeance marks the exact halfway point of the series — both chronologically and, according to Letterboxd users, for quality, too.
After encountering a dying man whose last wish is for Ichi to deliver a moneybag to someone called Taichi, our blind hero bumps into an equally blind priest and accompanies him to the village of Ichinomiya for their “thunder drum” festival. Once a quiet, peaceful place (er, despite all that drumming), that very calm has led a nearby yakuza boss to move in and take advantage, setting up a brothel and demanding protection payments from local businesses. One of the last holdouts is, it turns out, the dying man’s mother, along with her young grandson — Taichi. Naturally, Ichi’s sense of justice compels him to stop the yakuza, but he’s mindful of being a negative influence on the boy’s impressionable young mind.
Vengeance starts out as a quieter, more dramatic Zatoichi film than many, at times marked by Ichi’s deliberate refusal to engage in combat… until he starts cutting everyone down in a flurry of second-half action sequences, anyway. There’s a couple of the requisite scenes of Ichi killing hordes of enemies, the best being an encounter on a bridge where the yakuza employ those thunder drums to frustrate Ichi’s hearing. It’s a beautifully staged sequence, shot in an almost-silhouetted manner.
But the action is the lesser element here, with some of it feeling almost perfunctory alongside the interesting ideas presented by the plot. It engages on multiple fronts. Firstly, there’s Taichi and Ichi’s potential influence on him. There’s a good explanation of the effect of this plot thread by Walter Biggins at Quiet Bubble. Biggins writes that “Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is — the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. [Zatoichi] allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. [Taichi’s story] ends the film on an ambiguous note — we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique.” (I’ve chopped that up somewhat from the original because I didn’t want to rip it off by quoting too extensively, but the full piece is even more insightful on this aspect of the film.)
Connected to this is the blind priest, a wise man who seems to see into Ichi’s very soul, and advises him on his interactions with the boy and, well, his lifestyle in general. This is one part of the film I wasn’t wholly convinced by, because I’m not sure how well the film pays it off. For one thing, he advises Ichi to be a good influence on Taichi, which leads Ichi to attempt to reason with the boss and get a beating for his trouble; but rather than pursue that diplomatic tack, it’s only a few minutes before he whips out his sword and gives them a good thrashing — once again setting a bad example. The priest reassures Ichi that sometimes violence is the only way. Um, you what? Well, the priest is presented as wise and insightful — almost too wise, because the film admits this advice seems contradictory, and Ichi can’t quite process that contradiction either. The priest also warns Ichi not to rely so much on his sword of he’ll die, which seems to pay off at the climax: when Ichi enters the yakuza’s lair, they’re all afraid of him, standing back to allow him to enter, take their money, and shut down their operation. But the reason they’re afraid of him is the awesome sword skills he demonstrated earlier, and when they attempt a last-minute stealth attack, he cuts them down.
While both of these characters and their associated views of Ichi’s methods provide food for thought, perhaps my favourite part of the film is the subplot about a prostitute, Ocho, who Ichi encounters at that recently-opened brothel. She’s a kindhearted woman — almost the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold” — who’s revealed to have a tragic backstory when the samurai husband she ran away from arrives. He’s been searching for her for three years, but she doesn’t want him or his help, even as he’s desperate to win her back — so desperate that he agrees to take on Ichi for money, even though he’d had a good relationship with our hero. But the real success here is the beautiful portrayal of Ocho by Mayumi Ogawa, which makes her one of my favourite characters in the series: the way she’s so kind and generous at first, but then her personal tragedies are revealed, and her bleak ending… As the film goes on, Ogawa peels back the layers of who Ocho is and how she’s ended up this way, transcending any fears of a stereotypical character to instead reveal a sympathetic figure with a poignant ending.
Indeed, the whole film comes to a kinda melancholic, kinda bleak conclusion (spoilers here, naturally). Ichi ostensibly wins, of course — the boss is defeated, the town freed from his influence, no one (currently) out to kill him — but there are no real happy endings: Taichi’s father is still dead, the young boy in limbo about where his life will go; Ocho’s life has been ruined beyond repair (we last see her sprawled drunk on the floor, no longer caring that she finally has enough money to free herself from prostitution); and her samurai husband, the man who killed Taichi’s father and was only after Ichi because he was desperate for the money to free his lover, even though she didn’t love him, lies dead by Ichi’s reluctant hand, a fate he both deserved and didn’t. As Paghat the Ratgirl describes it, this is an “important element of Ichi’s most compelling adventures: the tragedy of victoriousness. He has won. He lives. But he has killed someone who was by no means a villain. […] Discovering himself to be a menace even to those he loves, he realizes he is undeserving even of little Taichi’s affection, and avoids the boy in order to flee the village toward his next horrific adventure”.
My original conclusion to this review described it as a film of mixed success. It has some really nice ideas and spins on the usual Zatoichi formula, but I also felt like it didn’t carry some of them all the way to fruition. I wanted to love it, because I so liked some of what it did, but felt it didn’t all come together well enough. On reflection, and after reading some other reviews, like the ones I’ve quoted, I’m no longer sure it comes up so short. These Zatoichi films may just look like brief action flicks about an almost-supernaturally-gifted swordsman and righter-of-wrongs, but sometimes they leave you with a surprising amount to chew on.
Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is released in the UK next month.