The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 8 (Films 22-24)

 

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.

As we bear down on the final films in this epic series, our Cinapse team is mapping out a plan to cover all sorts of related films in the Zatoichi franchise. So in our next installment (after today’s piece), we’ll wrap up the original series with the 25th and 26th (and final) feature films starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, and also circle back to the beginning to visit Blind Menace, a pre-cursor film where Katsu plays a blind character that isn’t Zatoichi.

After that, we’ll dig into the remakes, so keep your eyes peeled for our coverage of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003), Ichi (2008), and Zatoichi The Last (2010). We’ll wrap this entire journey up after that with our final thoughts and then we’ll wander off, alone, into an uncertain future.

ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Austin:Note: We’re also covering the first two One-Armed Swordsman pictures today; feel free to hit that article up first for a bit more background.

Zatoichi’s first crossover with so-called “Yojimbo” was a surprisingly unsatisfying outing that wasted most of its terrific concept’s potential, so I really hoped that his clash with Shaw Brothers’ One-Armed Swordsman, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), would not make the same mistake. On paper, it makes less sense than Yojimbo – Fang Kang is a Chinese character from the more acrobatic and fantastical world of wuxia, and whose previous films were shot in Shaw Brothers’ characteristic house style.

Fang Kang, traveling in Japan on a pilgrimage to seek a respite from fighting, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and framed for some murders. He meets Ichi on the road and they travel together for awhile, but he grows to mistrust Ichi, misunderstanding his concerned comings and goings for the behavior of an informant.

Knowledge of Fang Kang’s previous films is not required, but the tale definitely benefits from knowing his background. His alienation and frustration while traveling in Japan resonate more when you know he has a devoted wife and friends back home, and is once again as ever thwarted on his goal to avoid violence. Unlike “Yojimbo”, this portrayal looks and feels believable as a continuation of a known character.

Even though the film is ultimately more of a Zatoichi tale with Fang Kang in a supporting role, the change in style from Shaw Bros’ studio-based sets to outdoor locations breathes some life and change into this appearance of the One-Armed Swordsman. The film also smartly makes the most of Fang Kang’s foreign origin, with the Chinese/Japanese communication barrier driving a wedge between Ichi and his Chinese companion, which will eventually result in a sword battle between the two physically handicapped masters (with a surprisingly daring result).

Fans of the One-Armed Swordsman films may be disappointed that Fang Kang gets second billing, but otherwise this is a notably interesting and surprising entry for both franchises. (@VforVashaw)

ZATOICHI AT LARGE (1972) Dir. Kazuo Mori
Ed: Once again, of the three films we’re covering this round, the one I’m focusing on is the least interesting. But that said, these entries are now Toho-produced, along with Shintaro Katsu’s own production company, and all have a boundary-pushing feel to them. At Large has very little in the way of gimmickry to make it stand out. In fact, aside from a more 1970s air and geysers of blood, there’s way too much familiar, tired setup here. Again, Ichi is saddled with an innocent infant and must find the baby’s family. A “big bad” boss actor from a previous installment even plays the boss here (Rentaro Mikuni, Boss Tetsugoro here, Boss Asagoro in The Outlaw).

What does stand out in this entry is the screenplay by Kinya Naoi (Zatoichi And The Fugitives), which takes far-too-familiar elements and binds them into an ever-tightening noose around Ichi’s neck. There’s this dollar amount, 20 Ryu, which seems to be the price for freedom and the price for capture, and rarely has one denomination of money passed through more hands or felt more seismic to all the characters involved. Also towards the finale, there’s a moment when Ichi is fighting the traditional horde at a festival and he dons a dragon costume. A dragon-headed Ichi, slicing and dicing, made for a great visual. And an even better one followed, when a flaming Ichi (very clearly NOT a stunt double, and very clearly ACTUALLY on fire) escapes from a trap to cut down the final boss. Director Kazuo Mori, who has been around since the second film and even went on after this installment to do many episodes of the television series, also does a solid job here… even closing us out with a magic hour duel that’s simply beautiful. At Large suffers from being a taut but too-familiar entry in a series that, by this point, needs far out signifiers to make them stand out from the pack. If this were an early entry I would have assessed it much higher. (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972) Dir. Shintaro Katsu
Victor: Titles over a black screen. Silence. A pleasant moment of connection and kindness cut suddenly and tragically short. A split second misfortune that leaves Ichi seeking vengeance against… what? The river? God? Himself?

The message is clear: this won’t be your average Zatoichi

A random death brings Ichi into the world of Nishikigi, a prostitute whose contract he buys out in an attempt to make sense out of random tragedy. But Ichi is no shining knight and Nishikigi is no damsel in distress, and the consequences of both their choices will only bring more pain and suffering into the world.

This movie has a ruthless heart, and a sense of style that’s been all but missing from the last dozen or so chapters. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of Shintaro Katsu himself, clearly just as bored as everyone else was with the series by this point. Taking the reins as a first time director, Katsu infuses the proceedings with a true sense of grit and luridness, making it the best installment since the original trilogy.

Granted, storywise this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before from the series, but it’s done with a newfound tone. There’s some very dirty talk and some very dirty deeds that go down here, lending a grimy reality to Nishikigi’s pathetic existence (to say nothing of the mentally challenged man who accidentally ejaculates on a hoodlum’s face, which is a thing that happens here). And the violence is as graphic as it’s ever been, but with even more of a sense of futility than ever before; There is no victory here, merely survival.

Here now, towards the tail end of the saga, we find new life in the pitch black heart of the Edo period.

All this, plus one of the downright funkiest scores ever. Now THIS is music to slice and dice to… (Victor Pryor’s Author Page)

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: Zatoichi At Large
By now the trope of Zatoichi’s Adventures In Babysitting is getting way overplayed. It even made a short appearance in the immediately prior Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman. With two dozen films produced in the span of a decade, the franchise was definitely guilty of recycling ideas and making new films without any clear sense of direction, and this is one of those instances.

Fortunately the film gets better once it unshackles itself from the recycled plot and gets to the fighting, which is superb. Like Ed, I was completely in approval of the last act: a series of action sequences in which he hides in a dragon costume, fights on an oil-slicked platform and gets set on fire, and emerges from the flames like some vengeful demon. Finally, a lingering plot thread with a master swordsman itching for a duel is closed with a surprisingly abrupt ending.

Ed’s comment about how this would’ve been a better film earlier on is right on the money. On its own, the film is quite strong. As a late sequel, the action is tight but the plot is “been there, done that”.

Zatoichi In Desperation
As we’ve previously commented on, Katsu’s late control over the franchise as a producer resulted in a change in the series’ tone, for both good and bad. The blood and violence get amped up (good) and the style is far more modernized (neutral), but there’s also a mean-spiritedness to his productions that really rears its head here (bad). Victor and Ed both really dug this change-up but I found it too much of an exploration of this more lurid flavor.

None of the previous films have had any sexual explicitness beyond mild glimpses of nudity, and I’m not necessarily opposed to that kind of thing being introduced, but the way is gets used here is ugly and gratuitous. In the scene that Victor referenced, some thugs heckle and sexually abuse a horny, mentally handicapped young man. There’s no real point to the scene or continuance of the boy’s story as a plot thread; it’s just there to disgust and show how bad they are.

On the plus side though, there’s some very stylized action and Victor and I definitely agree on one thing: the 70s soundtrack really jams.

Victor’s Final Word
Victor: Okay, so are we just not going to say anything about the scene in Zatoichi At Large where Ichi breastfeeds a baby? Because if you take away that and the part with the monkeys, there’s really nothing to say here. The film benefits from a hiss-worthy villainous turn from Boss Tetsugoro (whom I did not recognize from The Outlaw; nice catch, Ed), but that’s really all there is of note in this thoroughly middle of the road entry. Unless you count the deeply annoying comic relief from what seems like refugees from the loudest, most obnoxious Improv troupe in the history of mankind. Which you shouldn’t.

Jimmy Wang Yu has never been a charismatic screen presence, or a particularly impressive fighter, and so teaming him up with Katsu is a severe mismatch in charisma and talent. I’ll defer to Austin’s knowledge of Fang Kang here: if he says this seems like the same character, then so be it. Pity, then, that it’s such a crap character. Luckily, One-Armed Swordsman has the common sense to background Wang Yu after the first 30 minutes or so, to better focus on Ichi doing his thing… which means it’s basically just another Zatoichi movie. But given the charisma deficit, I suppose I should count my blessings…

Taking these three films in tandem, it’s clear that there are commonalities. For starters, the overarching message is that kids are the worst. If they’re not throwing rocks at your head, they’re wrongfully accusing you of murder or getting their parents killed because of a stupid kite. Further, we find that by this point they were seriously running out of things to name people. How else do you explain ‘Oyane’ in One-Armed Swordsman,’ Oyae’ in At Large, and two completely separate characters named ‘Tobei’ in both?

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: No one is safe now, and heroes can’t save the day. While I agree with Austin that the exploitation of In Desperation was distasteful, I genuinely believe it serves a deeper purpose. Not to mention that Ichi as a character seems to remain a largely righteous hero amidst a series which seems to be indicating that the world is devolving past the point where even a hero like Ichi can have any effect. A more cynical worldview, but a more complex exploration of the myth of redemptive violence as well.

Here in this set of three films, not only are children problematic… but they are also unable to be saved. Two out of three of these movies centrally feature the death of a child. And even the gimmicky set up of Meets The One-Armed Swordsman seems to give way to an intentional political statement about the mistrust between China and Japan and how if these two countries could simply begin to walk in the shoes of the other, much violence could be avoided. But they don’t. And it isn’t. Earlier in this series I started to get frustrated with the lack of grey. There were evil Yakuza Bosses and corrupt lords, and noble, oppressed villagers, and along would come Ichi to shake things up and restore justice. The grey has come with a vengeance now, with many villagers being unworthy of saving, and even fewer lords and bosses worthy of ruling.

By the end of this set of three films, Shintaro Katsu takes the reins in Zatoichi In Desperation and creates an art film filled with boundary-pushing camera work and biting social commentary, then infuses a little bit of Django-style melodrama to remind us that Ichi is still the baddest dude in town even if there’s no one left alive to know or care.

PS: Victor, will it blow your mind to know that this is the SECOND film in which Ichi breast feeds a baby?!

Join us in two weeks for the final two films in the original 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

  • Austin Vashaw

    lol at Victor – “kids are the worst”

  • V.N. Pryor

    *Does not respond to Ed, on account of a ‘Scanners’-type situation, cranium-wise*