The Tales Of Zatoichi: Vol. 4 (Films 10-12)

 

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 REVENGE (1965) Dir. Akira Inoue
Ed: This column hasn’t focused much on the series’ writers, so I’ll dive into that here with Zatoichi’s Revenge. By this 10th installment, things are flat out formulaic. Again, Ichi wanders into a new town; where, again, a corrupt magistrate and brothel owner have combined forces to wreak havoc on the smallfolk. Perhaps one could fault screenwriter Minoru Inuzuka for this growing sense of formula. But I’m choosing to take a different track with this “middle of the road” Zatoichi adventure. Because while I could accurately predict the moment the epic sword battle climax would commence, I still have to laud Inuzuka for penning characters that I genuinely come to care for. Ichi doesn’t experience much change in this film; he’s an icon by now. But here we meet Denroku “The Sly Weasel”, a dice thrower with a lovely and innocent pre-teen daughter named Itsuru. There is also a tie-in to Zatoichi’s pre-film past, which I was pleased to discover since I find that Ichi adventures that dig into his early life provide the most pathos. Here we find Ichi avenging the recent death of his very own masseur master. Master Hikonoichi’s daughter has become an enslaved prostitute at our villains’ brothel. So the main story involves Ichi righteously seeking the freedom of a trafficked girl whom he knew as a child. There are few surprises, although the writing brings out several touching connections between the young Itsuru and the imprisoned Osayo.

Writer Inuzuka penned a huge number of Ichi’s adventures, including 1-3, 5, 7, this 10th entry… and then we’ll see him again in film 24. Perhaps the rest of the series won’t have as much of Inuzuka’s influence on them, and we’ll see how that shakes out. But the main point I want to draw out is that while the arc of the film is uninspired, the writing is still engaging and I found the “B” story of the shifty and comical Denroku The Sly Weasel to be funny, touching, and even surprising. Can Ichi foster the redemption of this crooked man who, deep down, loves his daughter with a purity that could save him? (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI AND THE DOOMED MAN (1965) Dir. Kazuo Mori
Victor: Zatoichi makes surprisingly casual conversation while being flogged after spending the night in prison. (Why? Could not matter less…) While in jail, he is petitioned by Shimazo, a fellow prisoner (and the Doomed Man of the title) who asks for Ichi’s help in clearing his name. And with that, we’re off to the races.

There’s an interesting tone at play in this eleventh installment, and I’m not sure whether it falls under the category of self-parodic or merely half-assed.
Admittedly, I’m somewhat farther behind on the series, but this is the first time that Shintaro Katsu has seemed less than pleased to be churning these films out. This is the most irritable and unengaged we’ve seen Ichi (in fact, initially he declines to get involved at all, only to have fate drag him into the proceedings), and it’s not a stretch to read it as a bit of weariness on the part of the cast and crew. The plot is more haphazard than usual, jumping from incident to incident with little in the way of logic or sense.

Of course, the villain’s defeat is a foregone conclusion, but I’m not sure it had to be quite THIS foregone. The villains seem to be very much an afterthought here, barely even sketched in (and if Oyone was intended to be another in the long line of thwarted romantic interests, it was handled in an almost laugh out loud perfunctory manner).

And so the pleasures of the movie seem to exist on the margins, then. There is a lyrical sequence where Zatoichi and a small child contemplate the ocean. The obligatory final battle takes place in an evocative mist-shrouded village draped in fishing nets. And the runner about Hyukutaro, a con artist trading on Ichi’s good name, leads to a pretty amusing impression of Katsu’s acting tics.
That all this is done with a light touch mitigates things to a degree, so it was still enjoyable. But I have to wonder: if we’re not even halfway through the series and already the self-satire has kicked in: Where could we possibly go from here? (Victor Pryor)

ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT (1965) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Mike: You have to understand, Otane. The man you’re looking at is dirt. And everyone who comes close to him or touches him, in one way or another gets muddied by that dirt. There’s nothing I can do about being dirt myself, but I don’t want you to get mired in my dirt. – Ichi

It is neither skill nor blade, neither faux aloofness nor keen attention to his surroundings that make Ichi masterful. Instead, it is full ownership of a scoundrel’s lifestyle, as well as empathy for victims, that bring us back time and time again for further adventures of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. Ichi accepts that which many of his western contemporaries do not, that being a scoundrel-hero is a trade-off. When the scoundrel-hero embraces hustling, sake, and slaughtering hordes of yakuza, a happy ending is not in the cards for them. Case in point: Han Solo. After falling in love with Princess Leia he gives up the scoundrel lifestyle. Han even hands over the ultimate scoundrel ride, the Millennium Falcon, to his buddy, Lando Calrissian. Perhaps there is truth to the lore that George Lucas was inspired by Ichi, and his lightning draw, when creating Star Wars.

In Shintaro Katsu’s twelfth outing as Zatoichi, director Kenji Misumi works to keep the series original with a seemingly formidable opponent: the samurai chess expert, Tadasu Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Misumi, director of the first, and finest film in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi, as well as (#8) Fight, Zatoichi, Fight fosters a unique and amiable relationship between Ichi and Jumonji. While Jumonji is memorable, with a signature move of thumbing his nose and then snapping his fingers, his inevitable demise is not. With a rare slaughter-free finale, the biggest surprise of Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is its anti-climactic conclusion. (@MikeOnTheRun79)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: Zatoichi And The Doomed Man: What I identified as “formulaic”, Victor ascribes the label “self parody”. His point is well taken that we’re only half way through this enormous series, so if the formula doesn’t switch up, the back half of these films could start to feel burdensome. But what Victor identified as Ichi’s potential detachment, I choose to see differently. When Ichi initially opts out of helping the Doomed Man, I almost saw it as character growth, or at least some new layer of conflict. And the subsequent implication that fate itself may be pulling Ichi into these adventures? I kind of love that.

Another element I loved and had been looking for in the last several entries? These two little sentences: “I’ve no desire to kill anyone else. Kindly step aside.” Finally, Ichi offers an “out” to the horde of soldiers he is about to mow down. While Ichi is firmly a roguish hero, I sometimes find myself thinking that the soldiers of these corrupt lords might be just as innocent as some of the smallfolk whose cause Ichi is espousing. Men who are doing their jobs and being cut down for the sake of their villainous masters at the righteous hands of Zatoichi. I’m excited he finally offered an out, even if no one takes him up on the offer.

Zatoichi And The Chess Expert: This is a step in the right direction as far as mixing up the structure of these tales. Mike points out that there isn’t a massive battle at the end, and I couldn’t appreciate that more. The various threads here are messy and choppy. But there’s a murder mystery element, and a little ambiguity, which I longed for in our last column entry. Titular chess expert Jumonji is neither friend nor foe, and has a complex morality that doesn’t quite fit in the black and white world Ichi normally populates. He is a foil, and I wish his arc had been a more complete one. Regardless, this entry offers enough new direction to intrigue me. And enough of a sense of hurry to remind you that this was the third film shot in a year.

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: This chapter of The Tales Of Zatoichi finds us viewing three films which all happen to be from 1965. That’s a reminder that they released in rapid succession, but it’s also a step down from the preceding year’s peak (four films in 1964).

Zatoichi’s Revenge and Zatoichi And The Doomed Man
I paired these two together because they share a common new element: comedic sidekicks. This might smack of late-entry gimmickry, but it works. Denroku the “Sly Weasel” is empathic and even antagonistic, but also brings some comic relief. His fight alongside Ichi veers into some silly but inoffensive slapstick. The bumbling con artist Hyukutaro is even more explicitly comedic, and his attempts to pose as Zatoichi (and mooch off his reputation) are genuinely entertaining. Victor suggested that a sense of self-parody might weaken things, but the awareness of tropes also helped shake things up.

Zatoichi And The Chess Player
I didn’t begin this series expecting to identify a favorite director, but Kenji Misumi is emerging as just that. As Mike pointed out, Misumi helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi, as well as my personal favorite Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Here he returns with yet another memorable entry. In a nice throwback to Ichi’s introduction, he again pulls the same dice con… with mixed success. The film is also the first where I was aware of Ichi’s blindness as a hindrance. Up to now he’s been fairly invincible and unchallenged. But what I really loved was Jumonji, the chess-playing swordsman who elevates this film as both friend and foe. He’s one of the strongest characters so far and I can’t help but wish we had some more time with him. Like Mike said, his exit is a bit too abrupt. (@VforVashaw)

Mike’s Final Word
Mike: Shooting three films in a single year is a production schedule more in line with television than film. Like Kane in Kung Fu, or Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, like Knight Rider and The A-Team, Ichi drifts from town to town with little, if any, attachments. His past is sordid, and his future bleak. This bleakness permeates through the series and burdens its audience. It is a bleakness characterized by redundancy. Yet, there is much to be surprised by in Zatoichi and the Chess Expert.

In an effort to come up with money to buy medicine for a wounded girl, collateral damage from an oddly choreographed Three Stooges style fight, Ichi gambles and loses. Ichi’s loss serves several purposes: it surprises both Ichi and the audience, it provides the writers with another opportunity for Ichi to make money, and it reveals that Ichi is not a cheat. After procuring the medicine, Ichi loses it. He crawls on hands and knees, aimlessly patting the ground in search of it. He is helpless and vulnerable, and we are reminded of how costly blindness can be.

Like Ed, Victor, and Austin, I too find the series a bit stale. However, redundancy is often overlooked with television procedurals, in part, because of the demanding production schedule. Do we offer Ichi the same pass on redundancy — the formulaic plots, the greedy bosses and corrupt magistrates, and the arrogant samurai for hire? Should we instead relish in the unique and memorable character that is Ichi? Like Kane, Bruce Banner, and Michael Knight, like Hannibal Smith, and his A-Team, Ichi maintains an invaluable heroic arc; he is a hero with integrity. When was the last time a western hero held themselves accountable to and made amends for collateral damage?

Join us in two weeks 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