The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 7 (Films 19-21)

 

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.

SAMARITAN ZATOICHI (1968) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Ed: One might like to think that a movie called Samaritan Zatoichi would feature a largely peaceful and benevolent Ichi who won’t cut down yet another horde of yakuza (“But they were all bad”). That is not the case, however, and this may be the closest the series has ever skated the line of Zatoichi simply being a straight up murderer. Granted, by film 19 Ichi has amassed a body count greater than possibly any other hero in screen history, but…

The very inciting incident of this tale involves Ichi cutting down a man on a yakuza boss’ orders. Granted, Ichi warns the man of his intentions, verbalizes that he has no ill will, but still cuts the man down. He doesn’t immobilize him or stun him. Nope, he kills the guy outright. Immediately the man’s sister returns home with the money that they owed Ichi’s yakuza boss, and it is revealed that all along this new generic evil Boss wanted the girl for nefarious purposes. Ichi’s righteous indignation flares and he and the woman hit the road together, forming a tenuous bond complicated by, you know, the fact that Ichi killed her brother.

Also sprinkled generously throughout this morally dubious entry are broad comedic beats that, while bizarrely funny, are quite incongruous with this more hardened and flawed version of Ichi. At one point, for reasons I either missed or was too disappointed to comprehend, Ichi gambles his sword away, cheats at throwing dice, and is then placed inside a constrictive basket to be drowned. (What?!) He magically hops around in this basket and fights off his attackers. It is comedic, out of place for our beloved character, and just generally ill-advised.

Last time, my assigned entry was Zatoichi The Outlaw, which neither Austin, Victor, nor myself particularly enjoyed, though there were elements of interest. Here in Samaritan, there are some differences to Ichi’s character and tone… and they are all bad. Easily my least favorite film in the series thus far, which is all the more a bummer as it comes from Austin’s favorite director in the series, Kenji Misumi. Maybe they’ll feel differently about this entry than I did? (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO (1970) Dir. Kihachi Okamoto
Austin: For anyone familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), the matchup between Zatoichi and the famous ronin played by Toshiro Mifune is doubtless a highly anticipated treat while making one’s way through the entire Zatoichi franchise. By this time, Katsu and Mifune had wrested control of these characters, and I wonder if their input hurt rather than helped the end result.

This wintry tale falls a bit on the dark side and finds Ichi returning to a town he is fond of after a couple of years away, only to find that the once bustling and welcoming village is now a quiet place of sadness and tension, and those friends that he had made previously now seem to either be missing or refuse to acknowledge remembering him.

Unlike previous entries which were made at a rate of 2 or more a year, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo came after a brief hiatus (no Zatoichi films were released in 1969). With a nearly 2 hour running time, it is the longest of the original 25-film series, and only a couple minutes shorter than the 1989 revival film (which was ultimately the last film with Shintro Katsu in the role). This was probably to ensure that stars Mifune and Katsu each get plenty of screentime, but with a somewhat underwhelming meeting of these two characters, it feels a bit overlong.

Mifune reprises his role here, and would again for Machibuse (Incident at Blood Pass), but unfortunately something is lost in the portrayal of the yojimbo character (named Sanjuro in the other films). Previously, he has always been completely honorable and good-hearted despite his aggressive manner and disdain for weakness. Here, he comes off as drunken, cold and antagonistic. If these movies follow the same character in sequence (they may not), then the character seems to be regressing instead of growing. To summarize, if it’s the same character, it’s a disappointment, and if not, it’s a cheat. Simply dropping the Yojimbo reference and calling this Zatoichi Versus The Ronin would have made this a better film because of the extra baggage that comes with a crossover.

On the plus side, Ichi and the yojimbo have an interesting and uneasy “friend or foe” relationship, and the mystery involving a gold-minters’ skimming con comes to a surprising conclusion. (@VforVashaw)

ZATOICHI GOES TO THE FIRE FESTIVAL (1970) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Michael: It was bound to happen. Thankfully, it took 8 years and 20 pictures, though Ed would argue 17, before the cheesiness of late 60s/early 70s western cinema, exemplified by Roger Moore’s stint as James Bond, infected the Zatoichi series. Western cinematic proclivities for sexual violence, displaying images of the bare, vulnerable female body, and using violent language in reference to women have invaded the series. Yet, the invasion is only a mild breach, and one hopes it will not grow. Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival embraces the absurd: from the opening credits, which features a freeze-framed cut-up montage of Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) being chased by a dog, to an erotic, but memorable naked sword fight in a bathhouse — choreographed to a tune riffed from the Adam West Batman series — to yet another duel by a river bank. In spite of embracing the absurd, Fire Festival still has its moments of tension building excitement, memorable scenes, and one of the series’ most brilliant villain deaths.

Even though seasoned Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi infuses western absurdity into Ichi’s 21st adventure, he still maintains patience when shooting death. While countless henchmen meet Ichi’s blade, and fall indistinguishably from one another, more innocent lives are taken in Fire Festival than in the series’ previous adventures. In fact, when confronting the primary antagonist Boss Yamikubo (Ryunosuke Kaneda), who, like Ichi, is blind, Ichi speaks to Yamikubo’s sins. Like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Ichi moves closer and closer to Yamikubo like an unstoppable force, slicing through henchmen, condemning and sentencing him to imminent death by way of proclamation. Fire blazes throughout this climactic scene. It is meant to defeat Ichi; instead it fuels his indignation. At the close of film 21 the servicing of justice still entertains. (@MikeOnTheRun79)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed:Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo:
Much like Austin, I had been anticipating the meeting of two of Japanese cinema’s greatest action heroes, Toshiro Mifune’s “Yojimbo”, a wandering ronin with a penchant for playing all sides of a conflict and coming out on top, with our series hero Zatoichi. And also like Austin, I found myself disappointed at the lengths gone to to portray Yojimbo as an unmitigated bastard early in the film. I was confused by the whole endeavor at first, but slowly came to see this entry as a fun melding of the Zatoichi formula with the Yojimbo one. Filled with espionage, hidden gold, and countless betrayals and personal agendas, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo deftly brings in the gamesmanship of the Yojimbo films to a formula that had grown decisively stale by Samaritan. This is the Zatoichi series’ The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly; a quest for gold or simply victory that keeps us guessing all the way until the end. It feels somewhat out of place from the other films in the series, but offers a real meeting of these two characters, unlike so many other failed “versus” films.

Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival:
Samaritan was the lowest point of the series by a country mile, and a break in 1969 was much needed. But after the gimmick of meeting up with Yojimbo, Fire Festival, as Mike rightly points out, charges headlong into exploitation. Nudity and gallons of blood are frankly a welcome shake up if you ask me, and since the filmmakers seem to be swinging for the fences, everything feels re-invigorated here. The set up builds up Big Boss Yamikubo as a mega-villain who has combined dozens of yakuza clans and become “Shogun Of The Underworld”, and that he is. Himself a blind man, Big Boss Yamikubo provides a mirror for what Ichi could have been, and also devises one of the greatest traps ever set for Ichi, which becomes one of the greatest climaxes the series has seen in a long time. Ducking in and out of shadows, Ichi cuts through all the bosses of all the territories until he dispatches Big Boss brilliantly. This was the first time I’ve found myself cheering since some of the earliest entries.

Austin’s Final Word
Austin:Samaritan Zatoichi
Now approaching twenty films in the franchise, we’ve reached a point where changes in Zatoichi’s character or personality feel less like revelations and more like betrayals. Such is the case here when Ichi cheats at dice – the first time we’ve seen him do this. His intentions for raising money are noble (to pay for Osode’s doctor), and we’ve seen him resort to trickery before, but he’s never outright cheated, and like Ed I found it ill-fitting that he’d do it now. However, I’m on the other side of the fence when it comes to the scene where he’s bound in a wicker mat – that made me laugh hard.

The film does some weird things with Ichi’s character, and is overall a disappointment for my favorite Zatoichi director, but at least it’s pretty. As I mentioned in the last series, the films are now switching between natural looking colors and an ugly high-grain, high-contrast look. Of the three, this is the only with the natural color palette.

Especially iconic, though, is a scene in which Ichi blindly rides a horse at full speed in pursuit of Osode, who has been kidnapped. This is the Ichi we know, abandoning self-preservation to do good.

Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival
The 70s are probably my favorite era of film; movies took on more darkness and realism, and opened up a whole new exploitative element. With this wave of films, the series takes a turn into that kind of world. This film’s highlight, as well as its weirdest scene, is a naked bathhouse fight in which Ichi defends himself against a bunch of Yakuzas, turning the bathwater red with blood.

The film also serves up an interesting foil in the form of a top-level Yakuza boss who is likewise blind, and shares Ichi’s enhanced senses. Unlike Ichi though, he uses his frightening presence for evil, and he plots to end Ichi’s life. The film ends with an elaborate battle in which the Yakuzas ensnare him in the center of a pool of fire, a trap devised by the wily blind boss to exploit Ichi’s weaknesses. It’s a thrilling ending to a pretty satisfying film.

One thing I could never quite figure out though, was why an angry samurai spends the film tracking Ichi in a quest for vengeance. If this was ever explained, I must’ve missed it.

Michael’s Final Word
Michael: Samaritan Zatoichi reminds audiences that Ichi is a gangster. His code is a ruthless one, where honor is nonsensical, and often fleeting. As Ed previously reported, Ichi murders a man because he has yet to pay a debt owed to a local yakuza boss. Prior to the callous, yet beautifully shot, cinematic moment where Ichi cuts into the debtor at the entrance to his own home, he wounds a slew of henchmen sent to kill him. Not only does the debtor wound these men instead of killing them, but he also explains to them that his sister is on her way home with the sum owed. Because the debtor only wounded those that entered his home violently, sparing their lives when he could just as easily have murdered them, it is safe to presume that he would have spared Ichi as well.

Whether or not slaying the debtor is integral to the narrative of Samaritan, another scenario could easily have been crafted in order to justify his death by Ichi’s hand. Director Kenji Misumi disappoints, as does Shintaro Katsu. Perhaps the sloppiness of Samaritan was the reason why a yearlong hiatus was taken between Samaritan and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

The biblical parable of the Samaritan is one of the more renowned gospel narratives. At the time of Jesus, within the context of Judean culture, Samaritans were considered lower class citizens. Samaritans were not esteemed, nor were there any expectations of nobility from a Samaritan. Yet, it was the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite – representations of power and spiritual righteousness – who saved the life of the beaten and broken traveler on Jericho Road. In prior tales of Zatoichi, Ichi paralleled the Samaritan. However, in chapter 19, the tale that names Ichi Samaritan, he could not be further from him.

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)

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Share On Reddit
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

  • Michael Lovaglio

    Austin, the angry samurai that tracks Ichi in Fire Festival is the husband of the woman that he actually slays in the beginning of the picture. He believes Ichi, like so many other men, slept with her. He has killed all of them, and wants to now kill Ichi as well. That is how I understood that whole scenario. I could be wrong though. Ed, want to chime in?

    • Ed Travis

      I was just about to chime in and say exactly that. He wasn’t particularly well developed and I referred to him as “Crazy Eyes” Samurai in my notes.

  • Ed Travis

    *Realizes he immediately needs to see INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS*

    • Austin Vashaw

      Shintaro Katsu is in it as well.