THE TALES OF ZATOICHI: Vol. 2 (Films 4-6)

 

THE TALES OF ZATOICHI Column
With 25 adventures of Shintaro Katsu’s famed blind, wandering swordsman Zatoichi recently becoming available through both a remarkable Criterion Collection box set, and digitally via Hulu Plus, our team decided it was time to walk down the dusty roads of adventure and watch and discuss the entire legendary chanbara series. Roughly every other week until we are through, We’ll spend roughly 300 words covering each film specifically, and then we’ll each get a chance to offer another round of thoughts as well. Each post is going to cover three films, and once we finish covering the core 25 films of the original adventures, we’ll even dive in to some of the remakes and reboots! Wander with us as we marvel at The Tales Of Zatoichi.

ZATOICHI THE FUGITIVE (1963) Dir. Tokuzo Tanaka
Ed: Culminating in what I believe to be the most intricate, thrilling, and enormous climax of any of the first six films that I’ve watched thus far, Zatoichi The Fugitive not only continues the high bar of quality from the first three films, but might even be my favorite of the first six. The opening trilogy of films does a remarkable job of building a back story to deepen Ichi dimensionally. We’ve learned of his lost love, seen the tragic end of his estranged brother, and even seen Ichi’s own former swordmaster become corrupted. This fourth film in the series reintroduces a tragic love of Ichi’s from the first two films: Otane. Although Ichi believed Otane to be getting married to a carpenter, she has actually fallen from grace and has been bouncing from man to man, ending up with a mysterious samurai called Tanakura. The remarkably intricate tale of Zatoichi The Fugitive culminates in a showdown between Ichi and this samurai after he has murdered Otane, providing an emotional charge to the whole thing that wouldn’t have been possible without the pre-established relationship from the first several films. The climax involves Ichi being trapped inside a barn with a weak yakuza boss who entrapped him, being shot at by an entire army outside, and becoming aware of Otane’s murder just beyond the army’s troops outside of the barn. Ichi’s ability to cut through the army in order to get to Otane is breathtaking, and his final dispatching of the villainous Tanakura is a showdown for the ages involving a “hidden blade”. There is a powerful emotional beat to close things out, with Ichi dancing into the sunset, acting a fool in order to give peace to the few survivors of this largely tragic adventure. (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI ON THE ROAD (1963) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Victor: Beat or otherwise, there is precious little poetry in Zatoichi On The Road, unless you count the justice type. We begin with Ichi being pampered by his companion Kisuke, who has been dispatched to bring the blind swordsman to his boss Doyama (actually, we begin with Zatoichi teaching a bunch of dice cheaters and an impertinent candle not to mess with him, in the series’ equivalent of a James Bond-styled intro, but that’s neither here nor there). This engenders the ire of a trio of broke thugs who are immediately hired to take him out. This, of course, ends in the way these things always end, which is to say that four people end up dead (Poor Kisuke gets it in the ensuing fracas). But because violence never solves anything, this only ends up causing more problems for our hero, as now he has to deal with Ohisa, the widow of one of the men he slayed, as he winds up protecting Omitsu, the innocent daughter of a merchant whose safety has been valued at 5,000 gold pieces.

The plotting of Zatoichi On The Road is fascinating in the way it mainly consists of stupid bad guys making terrible plans that occasionally succeed in spite of themselves, at which point they immediately find a way to screw it up. There’s something almost Coen Brothers-esque about the way events unfold here, particularly in regards to the patently untrustworthy Ohisa, who, in her very first line of dialogue berates her husband for being broke and then robs her dead husband’s corpse five minutes later; and the boss Doyama, who wants to hire Ichi due to his reputation as a peerless swordsman, but for some reason assumes that he’ll be easy to betray and kill once his services are no longer required.

Meanwhile, Ichi wanders from place to place, trying to do the honorable thing in a world that doesn’t really allow for such concepts…
(Victor’s Cinapse Author Page)

ZATOICHI AND THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964) Dir. Kazuo Ikehiro
Mike: ”The fool. Sees the glint of money and throws all caution to the wind. That’s the problem with men who can see.” – Ichi

Maintaining integrity has been a futile task for many contemporary heroes of western cinema. In Rocky, title character Rocky Balboa exemplified dignity of craft, and vulnerability in love, but by Rocky III our once gentle, yet stalwart hero deflates into an Italian-American stereotype, eager to fight a menacing looking Mr. T because he made a pass at his wife. The John McClane of Die Hard not only embodied the physical vulnerabilities of the everyman, but also acknowledged his own arrogance when speaking about familial mistakes. Fast-forward to the fourth and fifth installments in the series, and while dressed en vogue, the self-aware McClane of part one is gone. If only the Rocky and Die Hard scribes fashioned their sequels in order to retain the authenticity and iconography of these cinematic titans, the dignity and integrity that made Rocky and McClane great would have been more than memories. If only the screenwriters had the prudence to follow the legacy that is Zatoichi, whom, in his sixth feature, remains as steadfast and stoic a hero as when he first drew his blade.

In Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, the titlular character maintains the code of honor first demonstrated in The Tale of Zatoichi (the series’ first installment). While on his way to pay respect at the grave of a man whom he killed in haste, Zatoichi is accused of stealing gold from local farmers. Seizing an opportunity for redemption Zatoichi accepts the charge to retrieve the farmer’s gold. In order to recover the gold Zatoichi must confront bandits, dishonorable and treacherous ronin, an area crime lord, a corrupt magistrate, and square off against one of his most menacing foes to date, Jushiro, a scarred samurai whose as deadly with a whip as with his sword. (@MikeOnTheRun79)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: I’m compelled to take notes as I watch through these films. Following along casually is one thing, but attempting to follow these dense plots filled with a dozen characters to such a degree that you can coherently write about them is another thing entirely. And I can only imagine that 17 films in, the details will grow even murkier. But that observation has no real bearing on my enjoyment of this experience. I still love Ichi, now more than ever.

Some Thoughts On Zatoichi On The Road: For the first time in all six of these films, I felt a noticeable dip in quality. The final showdown, in which Ichi kills all the yakuza bosses rather than fight for one side or the other since they’ve both demonstrated their total lack of honor, just didn’t connect like I wanted it to. Confusing blocking and editing deflated some of the power. And I wholeheartedly agree with Victor that characters make some dumb, scripted decisions that most real humans wouldn’t make. (Like when Ichi lets Otimsu travel alone in the caravan? He’s too smart for that). It felt disjointed and rushed. Which… you’d likely tend to feel when you are on your 3rd Zatoichi film of 1963…

… which brings me to my response to some of Mike’s wonderful thoughts:

Some Thoughts On Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold: I agree with Mike that many of our Western franchise heroes had a more distinct drop off in quality from their first to their sixth films. But I do want to note that, thus far, these Zatoichi films are being cranked out at a breakneck pace. The first film is considered a 1962 picture, and the sixth a 1964 film. So the character hasn’t had a shot at atrophy just yet!

Victor’s Final Word
Victor: I am, perhaps, at a disadvantage here in that I haven’t had the chance to watch the first three movies, and watched the next three movies in the counter-intuitive order of 5-6-4. But I suppose in its way, this was for the best, as it allowed me to finish on a high note.

To be sure, Fugitive wins this round hands down. I can’t speak to Ed’s statement of how powerful this film is as a culmination of certain aspects of the first trilogy, but even divorced from the context of the earlier movies, the reunion between Otane and Ichi worked gangbusters to establish their history. There is a lifetime of regret and subdued passion in those few minutes, one so potent that it almost renders whatever may have come before superfluous.

And to top it off, it leads to that amazing final fight, where Ichi destroys everything in his path in his thirst for vengeance. The reason this achieves top status is patently obvious: unlike the goofy misadventures of On The Run and the (less impressive, but still pretty sweet) showdown of Chest Of Gold, this is a fight with a clear sense of emotional stakes. At the risk of trafficking in cliches, it works so well because this time, it’s personal.

The emotional beats and the complexity of the Zatoichi character get less play in the later two films, which seem to be struggling to figure out the formula that’s going to become the standard for the series going forward. But while five is fun but kind of ridiculous (there is a moment where Ichi tells Matsu to take Mitsu to Matsudo and I don’t think it’s supposed to be a joke), six proves to be very promising, with its slightly more expressionistic style (i.e. the shadow-fueled opening credits and prisoner sentencing scenes and the far more blood-soaked fight scenes). And Jushiro the whip wielding bad-ass is the best foe out of the many, many terrible people to meet their end at the hands of Ichis’ blade.

Finally, I’m quite enamored with Michael’s concept of ‘Heroic Decay’, and the code of honor he alludes to. The often contradictory impulses that drive Ichi make him a fascinating and enigmatic figure, and one I’m looking forward to following wherever he goes.

Mike’s Final Word
Mike: As my colleague Ed previously noted, the climax for Zatoichi The Fugitive is the most ambitious finale in the series thus far. Watching Ichi burst out from the confines of an abandoned estate upon hearing word that Otane had been cut down, slicing through countless hapless yakuza in order to confront the fiend whose sword was still warm with her blood, made for rousing entertainment.

Like Victor, I too found the opening sequence of Zatoichi On The Road synonymous with a James Bond film. In fact, Ichi himself parallels Bond in many ways, while also winking at traditional hero stereotypes. Ichi is dangerous, debonair, and deceitful. Women, young and old, love him, from youthful virgins to gray-haired and toothless grandmothers. He does not expect to pay for casual sex, and in the singular case when he did try to pay for comfort (in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues) the woman refused, stating that his memorable companionship was sufficient compensation.

With Bond, what you see is what you get — a handsome, well-dressed rogue. Where Bond’s identity plays up traditional stereotypes of virility and strength with fast cars and thousand dollar suits, Ichi contradicts them. His drifting, impoverished blind swordsman defies status quo.

Ichi’s great strength is not skill with a blade, but being blind. Regardless of how brilliant a swordsman his opponents see him to be, they consistently believe that they can defeat Ichi because he is blind. In fact, what makes the series so compelling and sustainable is its poke at cultural hubris. Time and time again our hero, the blind swordsman, thwarts adversaries that believe they are better, thus more deserving, because they can see. The series is a bloody and brilliant cautionary tale for us all, and I can’t wait for more of it!

Join us next time for the next three films in the series! We hope you can watch along with us and engage with us on this film-watching adventure. Until next time, Cinapsians!

The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 1 (Films 1-3)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 2 (Films 4-6)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 3 (Films 7-9)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 4 (Films 10-12)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 5 (Films 13-15)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 6 (Films 16-18)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 7 (Films 19-21)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 8 (Films 22-24)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 9 (Films 25-26, The Blind Menace)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 10 (The Remakes)

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis