The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 6 (Films 16-18)

 

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 THE OUTLAW (1967) Dir. Satsuo Yamamoto
Ed: Starting out with such a familiar setup that I spent the first act of this film actively disappointed and bordering on angry, two yakuza bosses are strangling a town, Ichi does some gambling tricks, encounters a pure woman and a young man who loves her but is headed down the wrong path. Clearly Ichi hates Boss Tomizo for the oppression he doles out on the peasants. There is even a noble character named Ohara, a swordless ronin who preaches a moral life to the peasants and seems a stand up guy who causes Ichi to question his own life of violence, much like the blind Biwa priest from a few films back.

But then things get kind of weird, and Zatoichi The Outlaw becomes, more or less, two Ichi films in one. As Ichi starts to find encouragement in the noble Yakuza code of Boss Asagoro, he sides with that man and chooses to cut down the rival boss. It feels like the end of every other Ichi movie, and then a bizarre interlude happens where a full year passes and Ichi wanders in montage and even has a few scenes in another town which amount to nothing. He then comes across that same young yakuza from earlier and learns that Asagoro fooled Ichi and that he is terrorizing the villagers worse than his rival boss ever did.

A scenario in which Ichi himself seems to have caused the very oppressive circumstances that he as a character generally stumbles upon and promptly seeks to resolve is an interesting twist indeed. And the way it works as a screenplay is basically to have two mini-Zatoichi movies all in one film, with increased pathos because Ichi is partly to blame.

The opening credits also say this was the first film from “Katsu Productions”. Shintaro Katsu being the star of the entire series, I wonder if he wasn’t pulling his weight a little to gain more influence. This film features a gory beheading, spraying blood, and a slightly more bloodthirsty feel to proceedings, so I wonder if “Katsu Productions” might signify a turning point in the content of these films. I frankly wouldn’t mind a little blood and guts here by film 16. (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI CHALLENGED (1967) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Austin: This was exactly what I needed to reignite the fire after the woeful misstep that was Zatoichi The Outlaw (more on that later). Once again, Kenji Misumi demonstrates why he’s my favorite Zatoichi director. This is a return to form for the series, hopefully one that will last.

The plot has been criticized as a rehash of Misumi’s own Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. In broad strokes, it certainly could be said so: when a mother dies, Ichi is again saddled with a young child with the mission of delivering the tyke to his father. This kid is a few years older, though, and unlike the earlier infant who was functionally more of a prop than a character, young Ryota’s own relationship with Ichi becomes an important emotional element. This is a two-way bond.

Ryota’s father Shokichi is found, but he has his own problems. The local boss Gonzo (heh, the pornographer’s name is Gonzo) has him under house-arrest, forcing him to use his art skills to paint naughty pictures to sell illegally on the black market. We also get a pretty intriguing foe in Akazuka, who represents the “lawful neutral” character sheet. He’s a death-dealing supercop who’s out to stop the porn ring, and will kill everyone involved to squash it – including the artist, Shokichi.

Stylistically, the film rejects the ugly high-contrast, high-grain look of Zatoichi The Outlaw in favor of a more typical, natural palette. It does carry over a major new change from the last film, though – the use of more contemporary pop music, both in carrying over the new theme song and a musical interlude when Ichi and Ryoko meet a singer. It’s anachronistic to be sure, but catchy stuff all the same.

I watch a lot of movies, and get a lot of enjoyment out of a rousing battle sequence or well-executed stunt, but very rarely does an action sequence just absolutely, totally floor me in a gut punch, heart-stopping, holy shit sort of way. Every now and then it happens – Point Break did it when Johnny Utah throws caution to the wind and jumps out of a plane without a chute, and Zatoichi Challenged does it in the final battle when Ichi and Akatsuka cross swords. Man, that’s all I’m going to say about it but this was absolutely my favorite fight scene in the series so far. (@VforVashaw)

ZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES (1968) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Victor: So the first of these films that I watched was Zatoichi The Fugitive, the fourth in the series. And now, fourteen installments later, here we are, at Zatoichi And The Fugitives.

Let us all take a moment to pay homage to progress…

The virtue of this installment in the never-ending misadventures benefits from the relative directness of the story. There are some bad dudes hiding out with a corrupt boss; Ichi eventually does what Ichi does best.

And on that score, I’m wondering if it’s a sign of character progression or character flattening in the early sequence wherein Ichi kills two dudes for (basically) fucking with his lunch. It’s badass in its own right, but it’s also a far cry from the affecting scene in Fugitive where Ichi begged for forgiveness from the mother of one of his victims. Is this alarming moral decay an inevitable consequence of a life spent soaked in blood; or is it mere violence for the sake of violence?

Gratuitous violence aside, Katsu’s performance continues to entertain and impress. Not only does he get a lovely little speech about remembering the colors of things here, he also gets to do some delightful, pre-First Blood self-surgery, which is always fun to see.

But ultimately, such a formulaic format means the series lives or dies on the strength of its villains. On this score, the film passes with flying colors. The Fugitives of the title are a gleefully nasty (if one-dimensional) lot, more than deserving of their bloody reckoning. The only character among them given more than cursory personality is their leader (never given a name in the version I saw, so let’s just call him “Shizu’s Brother”) who is saddled with some cursory family issues, but, hilariously, is forced to spend most of his time making sure his reckless buddies don’t get themselves killed before the inevitable third act showdown.

And when it comes it’s dynamic as always, terminating in Ichi’s fast blade once again ruining any chance he has of settling down. All of which is deftly handled, but at this point no longer has the tragic pull it used to… (Victor’s Author Page)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: The last set of three films we covered seemed to try pretty hard to provide changes to Ichi’s character. They were more spiritual quests. This set of films said “screw all that” and went back to basics. And while the formula feels… formulaic by now, that doesn’t mean satisfying films can’t emerge from that pattern. All three of this week’s films were mixed-to-solid in my book. Revolutionizing nothing and never reaching the dramatic heights of the earliest entries, nor stumbling in monotony like some of the middle entries.

Zatoichi Challenged: While I do agree with Austin that the rapport between Ichi and his young charge Ryota was humorous and touching, and that the climax featuring a duel between noble Samurai Akatsuka and Ichi was spectacular, I don’t feel like it stood out significantly from some of the pathos-filled final battles of earlier adventures. As snow falls, Akatsuka’s official sense of duty as a samurai on a holy task clashes with Ichi’s yakuza code. The battle is one of ideology that happens to be settled with swords. And the final moments where Ichi must separate himself from young Ryota are touching.

Zatoichi And The Fugitives: Of extreme importance here is: HOLY poop the noble Dr. Junan is played by none other than Takashi Shimura, legendary actor of such films as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Godzilla. And his character here is a giving and caring man who is too stubborn to welcome his bad seed son back home. That tragic flaw will haunt him, and provides the catalyst for Ichi to walk off into the countryside amidst tragedy rather than triumph once again. This entry perhaps feels more like a modern day action film than any previous one, as Victor mentioned Ichi does action hero self-surgery after being shot and the fugitives feel a bit like super-villains as they pack a pistol and throwing knives and seriously bad attitudes.

As we head into the final stretch of these films, I find myself looking forward to the inevitable gimmickry of meeting up with famous heroes from other franchises, and maybe seeing elder-statesman Ichi. Still one of my all time favorite cinematic heroes, I don’t believe any of these later entries can top what has already come before. But I hope to be proven wrong.

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: We all knew, or at least guessed, that at some point the series would evolve from a classically-styled chanbara drama to more exploitative action. With the introduction of Katsu Productions, this change seems to be happening rather more abruptly than I had expected.

Zatoichi The Outlaw
Clearly, none of us were too enthused with this entry – in my opinion, probably the worst of the series so far. On the one hand, you can see that they’re trying to do some new things, like introducing a change in music and experimenting with the pacing, visuals, and violence, but the film still falls flat. Embarrassing for Katsu Productions’ debut is the fact that the production values are an all-time low for the series. Stylistically, the high-contrast, high-grain look is not pleasing at all, and makes Ichi look like a… Goth hobo? I’ll work on that metaphor but basically he looks like he’s wearing dark eye shadow, and a good deal grimier and greasier than usual. And while in the previous entries we could occasionally identify the seams and hairpieces in the costuming, in this film it’s blatantly obvious on many characters. The film does end well with a bloody finale that finds some bad guys relieved of body parts they didn’t need, which is the one trend that I hope continues.

Zatoichi And The Fugitives
As Victor stated, the titular gang of baddies are a fearsome bunch, and include among them a stoic leader, knife thrower, pistol wielder, and perhaps most unusually, a lady.

But the highlight for me was the same as Ed: the inclusion of character actor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura in a major role as the civically-minded community doctor who befriends Ichi. We learn early on that he is also the father of the leader of the villains, which means there’s going to be some family drama before this is over. In all, a satisfying entry that helps right the ship after Zatoichi The Outlaw.

Victor’s Final Word
Victor: With respect to my esteemed colleague Mr. Travis, I think he’s grasping at straws when he makes his half-hearted defense of Zatoichi The Outlaw. And even more puzzling, they’re the wrong straws. Obviously the two redeeming moments are when Ichi plays the shamisen like a boss; and when the peasants literally carry the wounded Ichi to his next battle (which is a bit of a dick move on their part, but whatever; it’s a rousing moment.)

Other than that, this was interminable. Even with the limited amount of installments I’ve watched (a little over ⅓), I’d seen all of this before, most of it twice over. I was confused by the plotting, bored by the villains, and (most shocking of all) unimpressed by an honest to goodness beheading. That’s never happened to me before, and I don’t like it one bit…

Zatoichi Challenged is a damn sight better, if still suffering from the problem of generally uninteresting or undercooked supporting characters. The theater troupe stuff went exactly nowhere and I don’t buy for a minute that Ichi was heartbroken to see that kid go. And frankly, the constant attempts at wringing pathos from his inability to settle down is wearing incredibly thin by now. Still, the pastoral domesticity of it all was fairly charming, and the low stakes of a conspiracy that heavily involves x-rated home furnishings was pleasingly absurd. Apparently I much prefer that kind of thing to trying to figure out which Yakuza boss is the good Yakuza boss and which Yakuza boss is the bad Yakuza boss (spoiler alert: they’re both bad. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.)

The other thing I’ve realized I prefer is a nice one-on-one battle to finish things off. the Akatsuka sword duel was a much needed change from the relentless “one man against an army” showdowns and its resolution was unexpected.

In conclusion, I’m pissed that I got this set and not the one with Yojimbo and a Fire Festival. That’s some serious bullshit.

Also, I’m hanging my head in shame because I didn’t make the ‘Gonzo’- porno connection… well played, Austin. Well played, indeed.

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