The Tales Of Zatoichi: Vol. 3 (Films 7-9)

 

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 final 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’S FLASHING SWORD (1964) Dir. Kazuo Ikehiro
Ed: Director Kazuo Ikehiro helmed two back to back Zatoichi installments with Zatoichi and the Chest Of Gold and Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. Both are rock solid and once again I find that the film I’m tasked with writing about is my favorite of this new volume. Like virtually every installment thus far, Flashing Sword finds Ichi wandering to a new town and getting mixed up in a dispute at a river ford between a villainous Lord Yasaguro, and a benevolent Lord Bunkichi, whose daughter Okune paid for Ichi’s recovery after he was shot by a yakuza named Seiroku (who later is revealed to be the prodigal son of Bunkichi) at the opening of the film.

The titles of these films occasionally have a random feel, not always directly applying to the content of their specific film. But here Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword couldn’t be more apt, as I found many “slasher”-like elements; with even the score taking on an ominous tone evoking a horror film. And the grand finale involves a vengeful siege on corrupt Lord Yasaguro’s compound in which Ichi cuts down all the candles and uses the darkness to prey on a host of victims. It is glorious.

Also integral to this film, beyond the unique and interesting “river ford dispute” plot, is the recurring fireworks which are to be a part of Bunkichi’s river festival. As the finale approaches and Ichi’s sword flashes, a long-awaited fireworks display explodes outside. In maybe the greatest shot I’ve yet seen in the series, a high mounted camera tracks Ichi with a continuous overhead shot through an alleyway as he cuts through a line of men… all the while we hear fireworks blasting off in the sky and see their lighting effects amidst the carnage. Ikehiro closes the film with a shot of a serene and blood splattered Ichi “looking” into the sky at the fireworks.

This installment was equal parts poetic and carnally entertaining. (@Ed_Travis)

FIGHT, ZATOICHI, FIGHT (1964) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Austin: Produced at a breakneck pace which often included multiple films per calendar year, the Zatoichi titles cycled through different creators to keep the pace up. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight marks the return of original The Tale Of Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi. I found this one particularly powerful – this is the most offbeat Zatoichi entry so far, yet also the most emotionally resonant.

Poor masseur Ichi is not only always on the move, but constantly being chased by whomever he’s offended lately. When an innocent woman is slaughtered by an assassination strike intended for him, he suddenly finds her infant in his care, and himself set upon a mission to deliver the child to the father.

Along his trek, Ichi comes up with weird and clever ways to care for the child despite his finances and disability, like stealing clothes from a scarecrow to make diapers and hiring a prostitute for the night to act as a babysitter. He also encounters a female pickpocket and recruits her to help care for the baby on the journey, encouraging her to stick to honest work. Their relationship is complicated; chance has thrown them together as a sort of family unit, and both of them grow increasingly attached to the baby.

My favorite moment, though, comes when Ichi discusses his plan to keep the infant with a temple priest, who knows better: his vagrant, violent existence is no proper sort of life for a child.

Amazingly, this film totally would’ve worked even without any sort of fight finale (though it has one of those, too – a thrilling sequence in which the villains use fiery torches to try to disorient him). Ichi’s touching encounter with fatherhood stands complete on its own even without swordplay, and is easily my favorite of the series thus far. (@VforVashaw)

ADVENTURES OF ZATOICHI (1964) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Liam: Adventures of Zatoichi is the first film in the series I did not feel was that great. I think it suffers a bit from what I have called, in the past, the Incredible Hulk syndrome. I pick on the classic ‘70s tv show version of the Hulk, but it is a common problem with these sorts of wandering hero stories. The plot of Adventures of Zatoichi follows a somewhat established pattern by this point. Zatoichi shows up in a town, there he finds corruption, in this case a Yakuza boss and Intendent working together to grift local people. There is corruption, a murder, and folks not making the best decisions because they are the victims of corruption. There are familiar themes that remind us how hard it is for the poor when the system is rigged to take advantage of their vulnerability, how sly and honorable our hero is, and how women and children are all inevitably charmed by him.

For the first time, though, the formula feels… well, formulaic. What does this have to do with the ‘70s wandering Bruce Banner? Well, why is it that heroes so often just happen to wander into bad situations? Granted, every film so far has had some version of this, to a lesser or greater extent. For some reason this was the first one where I found myself thinking “This again?” It is just, why does Zatoichi specifically find himself here so often? In both cases, we have heroic figures with a secret (hulk/sword skills) who do what is right circumstantially. That being said, while it was the weakest so far, it was still a great time, featuring interesting fight scenes and some charming side characters. I just wish for a more direct quest for our wandering swordsman. (@liamrulz)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: While I thought that Flashing Sword was superior to Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, I do agree with Austin that the element of Zatoichi caring for an infant was both emotionally palpable, and heightened the danger of the proceedings. But it also felt gimmicky at times. I enjoyed the sequence I dubbed “And you will know him by the trail of his soiled diapers” in which Ichi is stealing cloth left and right for new diapers for the little pooper. And the final battle here, in which soldiers use torches to throw off Ichi’s hearing and burn him to death, is phenomenal action filmmaking. The visuals of the fire are wonderful and clearly real fire was used on our lovable actor Shintaro Katsu. No Hollywood movie today would light their lead actor on fire.

And while I agree with Liam, in part, that the device of Ichi wandering into a new town and immediately getting embroiled in a conflict MIGHT be wearing a little bit thin by film 9, Adventures Of Zatoichi, I think the problem might really be one of a lack of nuance. I find myself skeptical that these conflicts and battles he stumbles into would actually have such clear cut villains and victims. Ichi is always able to parse out who the cowards, ingrates, and abusers of power are. And there are always peasants on the other side of the coin, valiant long-sufferers. I would love to see Ichi stumble into a situation where there isn’t a clear right and wrong, and where perhaps his sword can’t bring any resolution to the matter. Ichi is ever the champion of the downtrodden, and for that I love him more all the time. But I hope some of his future adventures will be filled in with deeper layers of ambiguity.

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword
I’ve got to heartily agree with Ed about the superb cinematography in this one. From the first overhead ceiling-down shot of a room exactly the same shape as the picture’s aspect ratio, there’s a marvelous visual dexterity at play here. That literal fly’s-eye-view sets up a fun intro of Zatoichi being annoyed by the buzzing of the flies: a quick flash of his sword, and the flies fall to the floor in pieces. By this time, the films are finding a stylistic identity with the opening vignettes, beating James Bond to the punch.

Some new series “firsts” include a big splash of red gore (finally!) and a snazzy summer kimono given to Ichi by a new friend, the first significant costume change from his usual drab rags. Also noteworthy, a style has evolved when Ichi cuts through a gang of baddies: they all stand frozen for a few seconds and then crumple to the ground together simultaneously – a thoroughly badass visual oft-copied in films and video games.

Adventures Of Zatoichi
Like Liam says, this is the weakest film in the series so far, though still great (if you count the Ewok and Clone Wars movies, the Star Wars franchise was ⅔ unwatchable garbage by this point). For one thing, the re-use of actors in different parts is too obvious. It’s got a stellar subplot though, which Liam didn’t mention, perhaps to avoid spoilage. Ichi grew up without a father, having been lost or abandoned at a young age. He encounters a sad old vagrant who lost his son years ago. Though Ichi doesn’t let on, the man’s tale corroborates his own. Is it possible that Ichi has at last found his father?

Liam’s Final Word
Liam: The other two films in this little three-some of violence we are writing about are great, and I think my fellow writers have really covered them well. I am inclined to disagree with my colleague Austin though on the drunken father subplot in Adventures Of Zatoichi. Not to get into too many spoilers, but I found both the introduction and the resolution of that scenario sappy and unnecessary. I guess this is where I do not need Zatoichi, necessarily, to be more human. Not that I want him to be inconsistent, but I am not really interested in his back story beyond what has been revealed to me at this point. I thought the idea that this particular person could be his father to be such an unlikely stretch, and so unnecessary, that it turned me off. I guess the history of the character is not what interests me by the 9th film in the series. I have already accepted him with his vague and unexplained past. That is who he is, and I love it.

Maybe I am limiting the scope of this character. For me Zatoichi has become an iconic figure, from his sly use of others’ prejudice against his blindness, to his almost invincible flashing sword. His background is not necessarily irrelevant, but only to the extent that it deepens and complicates his legend. I want him to have secret former adversaries or lost loves. More than all that I want him to have new and bold challenges. Of course, if done right, perhaps more family relations could be important and even iconic. This felt forced to me, and not very engaging. I agree with Ed, I want some nuance as well. However, I don’t need just moral nuance. As word spreads about his abilities, I would love future adversaries to challenge him in new ways, based upon what they have heard. Still, the evidence of the strength of these films is how excited I am to watch more, even after 9 movies!

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