The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 5 (Films 13-15)

 

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 VENGEANCE (1966) Dir. Tokuzo Tanaka
Michael: “You’re not at home among blind people nor among normal people. You’re an in-betweener… a strange creature who belongs to neither world.” — Blind Biwa Priest To Ichi

Zatoichi’s Vengeance is a nearly flawless film. Director Tokuzo Tanaka returns to the series bringing with him the cleanly shot wide angled fight sequences from New Tale of Zatoichi and Zatoichi the Fugitive. There is much to praise in Shintaro Katsu’s thirteenth outing as The Blind Swordsman; yet, his comfort with the character, as well as Tanaka’s confident filmmaking, stands out. Vengeance spends time developing many of the secondary characters in lieu of Ichi hustling with dice or fighting countless Yakuza again and again and again. While the villains are familiar — there is the standard Yakuza gangster, Boss Gonzo (Kel Sato), who terrorizes a once peaceful village, hordes of his henchmen, and a rogue, disgraced samurai turned assassin for hire (Shigeru Amachi) — these villains, although arrogant, are more clever than your average portly boss Ichi continually thwarts.

Vengeance is self-aware. The plot, setting, and structure of the film are familiar. While ideas such as isolation and providence are not new to the series, these themes play more of a central role in the narrative than in previous sequels. By introducing a blind Biwa priest (Jun Hamamura) to befriend Ichi, screenwriters Kan Shimozawa (story) and Hajime Takaiwa (scenario) openly question whether or not violence can ever be righteous. When an impressionable boy watches to see how Ichi will resolve conflict, our hero sheaths his sword, taking a brutal and humiliating beating instead of cutting down dozens before the boy.

By film thirteen in the James Bond series, the title character had gone from taut and violent in Dr. No, to bloated and silly in Octopussy. With Zatoichi’s Vengeance, Ichi’s legacy, like each town he travels to, is secure. (@MikeOnTheRun79)

ZATOICHI’S PILGRIMAGE (1966) Dir. Kazuo Ikehiro
Austin: Like Zatoichi And The Chess Expert, we begin a new journey with Zatoichi traveling by boat, on the move as always to some new sojourn. After landing, he slowly ascends a long stairway of countless stone steps which lead up a mountainside to a high temple. Arriving at the shrine, he prays, expressing his guilt for the many people he has slain, and promises: “To pray for the repose of their souls, I am going on a pilgrimage to the 88 Temples of Shikoka. So I ask you, O Konpira, to keep me from having to kill anyone on my journey.”

To my utter dismay, this amazing premise is immediately forsaken as if to remind us that no such peace exists for Ichi. He’s attacked by a crazed yakuza and lays him low in self defense. Now, what follows is actually great stuff, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that the film switched tracks.

In town, Ichi encounters the fallen man’s sister Okichi, who is originally enraged at his presence but softens he is not the brutish sort of man she expected. Okichi explains that her brother’s unprovoked attack was the manipulation of local gang boss Tohachi’s trickery. There have been a lot of supporting ladies in the series (most of whom fall in love with Ichi), and Okichi may be the best yet. Sweet, passionate, and adorable, she’s the full package.

The townsfolk look to Ichi as a defender but none are willing to fight with him. He tries to rally the people but they just want him to solve their problem for them. It took me awhile to realize… this is High Noon in Nihon! Tohachi is an expert archer, creating a fresh challenge for Ichi who is more vulnerable to projectile attacks (but you’d better believe he splits an arrow in half).

So despite my initial disappointment and a misleading title, this is actually a great Zatoichi entry. The untapped promise of Ichi’s prayer had filled me with visions of watching him dodging bandits and cleverly trapping and maiming his attackers before announcing in Terminator-style approval, “They’ll live”. I’d still love to see that movie, but this one’s not so bad, itself: solid characters, a plot that echoes a Western classic, and keep an eye out for Zatoichi getting a note from Tohachi – my favorite comedic moment of the series so far. (@VforVashaw)

ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD (1967) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Ed: When the initial setup was feeling frustratingly similar to an earlier entry in the series, I looked it up to find that not only was film 9, Adventures Of Zatoichi, very similar to Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, but that they were both directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda. Fortunately, the similar setups fade quickly as Zatoichi’s Cane Sword begins to actually focus on… his cane sword. But I’ll get to that in a second. I can’t let this installment totally off the hook for having an amazing back half, because the set up really was frustratingly familiar, clunky with exposition, and seemed to be disregarding a lot of the pleasant shake-ups that the last two films had introduced into the overarching story, namely that Ichi is attempting to turn away from the path of violence… questioning all of his prior actions.

But soon Ichi meets former swordsmith Senzo, who informs him that his beloved cane sword is on its last leg, and will surely crack upon its next use. In a profound moment of change, Ichi gives the sword to Senzo and takes on a permanent job as a masseur at a local, and very respectable, Inn. Unsurprisingly corrupt and powerful politicians try to subvert the Inn into a brothel and deal a huge amount of damage to an innocent young woman named Oshizu. So despite Ichi having given his sword away, and swearing off his involvement in the lives of others… one knows that he will deal death to those who have ruined Oshizu’s life. And when he finds Senzo dead, and the sword he had spent his lifetime crafting stolen, he breaks out the cane sword for its final mission. And when it turns out that Senzo swapped blades, and Ichi’s cane now contains a master swordsmith’s greatest work… he will cut through barrels, floor mats, stair rails, and anything else in his path. Ichi gets an upgrade. And the payoff is wonderfully delivered. (@Ed_Travis)

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: Zatoichi’s Vengeance
How awesome is the drum battle of this film’s finale? SO VERY. This is not a musical drum battle (although we learned in Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold that our hero can drop a mad beat on the taiko with ease), but rather a carefully hatched plan in which the baddies deprive Ichi of his keen hearing by banging noisy drums all around him as swordsmen try to get their licks in. The battle takes place on a bridge in silhouette, a gorgeous and memorable visual.

The blind priest who befriends Ichi is another great touch. Ichi is usually able to project an enigmatic and strong persona that awes the average person, but the priest seems to intuitively know or pick up on everything about Ichi’s person, without being fooled by such outward displays of bravado. It is his input which causes Ichi to be truly introspective about the path of destruction that he has tread for so long – a concern which is woven into the events of the next film, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword
The Zatoichi franchise is great at a lot of things, but having meaningful titles (at least in English) is not one of them. But as Ed points out, this is one of the few in which the film’s name is actually pretty relevant (though I might’ve been tempted to call it Zatoichi Gets A Job). Ichi’s aging sword comes to the forefront in this tale, as the town blacksmith recognizes it as the work of his sensei, and realizes the blade will soon snap. Despite not having crafted a weapon in many years, he is inspired to replace it – the result will be his crowning achievement. If this particular development sounds a bit familiar, recall that Kill Bill’s Hattori Hanzo broke retirement to perform a similar task for The Bride.

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: So much same-ness had set in by films 10-12 that I was calling for more subtlety, or perhaps a morally complex victimized villager who wasn’t also entirely noble. Films 13-15 largely seem to have heard my cries. (Even though, as mentioned, film 15 discards some of 13 and 14’s departures before adopting another new angle that I found satisfying).

Zatoichi’s Vengeance
The blind, Biwa-playing priest acts as a prophet to Ichi, pulling off the impossible: making me question how the end of the film would turn out! The priest convicts Ichi that perhaps he has shed too much blood, and that his gambling and swordplay tricks serve to bring about the confrontations he ultimately gets into. The priest is almost a meta-element… speaking frustrations to Ichi that some of the audience has been feeling all along. And when Ichi seems to have a change of heart and allows himself to be bullied and beaten, I felt the drama unfolding.

Aside from that awesome drum bridge finale, when Ichi directly confronts the yakuza boss in his own compound, he kills as few men as possible and utters a badass “Drop your swords”, to which the men comply. More character nuance is layered on as well. In spite of Ichi’s best efforts, a forlorn prostitute continues in her wayward ways. And when Ichi walks off into the sunset, there’s a meaning once again.

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage
And so to my delight, film 14 finds Ichi on a continued spiritual quest. And as Austin mentioned… that quest quickly seems to be abandoned. Frustratingly. However, when a bow-wielding big boss threatens a town and Ichi must stand in the gap… this time the cowardice of the townsfolk is played up, and I sighed with relief at this new angle. A well-meaning but duplicitous and cowardly town headman! And Ichi’s fight with the bowman and his army yields much movie magic, splitting arrows in mid-air. Ichi seems clearly shaken by the experience of the cowardly townsfolk who wouldn’t lift a finger to help him save their lives… he seems changed… something most installments aren’t even attempting any longer.

Mike’s Final Word
Mike: Villainy 101: Strong villains make for strong sequels. While the first film in a series often focuses on its hero’s journey, the second film relies on the charisma of its villain to pull audiences back into the narrative. Christopher Nolan followed this structured with The Dark Knight Trilogy, whereas Tim Burton did not with 1989’s Batman. Bruce Wayne, and his hero’s journey, was the centerpiece of Batman Begins, preparing the way for The Joker to take center stage in The Dark Knight. The Burton Batman told two dueling narratives: the hero’s journey and a villain’s origin, leaving nothing new for the sequel, Batman Returns, just more villain origins.

Villainy 102: Memorable villains have memorable demises. Joining the likes of Zod (Terence Stamp, not Michael Shannon), Hans Gruber, and Clarence Boddicker, is Vengeance‘s Gonzo. The village that Gonzo terrorizes is an exceptionally peaceful one, so much so that the governing authorities rarely policed it. Like all memorable villains, Gonzo takes from the villagers without remorse, threatening to kill the elderly, and underhandedly plotting against Ichi. Using drums at dusk to further handicap, alarm, and disarm our blind hero took wit, as Austin duly noted. However, Gonzo’s greatest gift to the viewer is not his cunning, but his memorable demise.

Like the samurai that drowns in his own battle armor in The Tale of Zatoichi, Gonzo’s death is humiliating. It is fitting that Gonzo is first humiliated before falling. His henchmen watch in terror as Ichi strips all power from Gonzo in his last moments. He is left bare, yet still breathing. Will he yield or will he make one last ditch effort for power? Will Gonzo accept Ichi’s conditions for penance, or will he, like many before him, fall by way of Ichi’s unsheathed cane sword?

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