The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 10 (The Remakes)

 

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.

We’ve said goodbye to Shintaro Katsu and will cover our final round of Zatoichi films this week. All various remakes and reboots this time out, we’ll walk you through them all (well, the Japanese ones anyway) and give you our thoughts on whether these updates bring honor to our beloved Ichi franchise… or just remind us of better days. Read on to find out about three totally unrelated productions that have homaged Ichi over the past decade.

We’ll close out the entire column with one final entry just to wrap up our thoughts on the series as a whole and its overall impact on cinema, as well as ranking some of our favorites. So keep your eyes peeled for that that final walk down the unknown road.

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI (2003) Dir. Takeshi Kitano
Ed:Kitano’s Zatoichi takes place in a world filled with death and gore, but which may also burst into song or laughter at any moment. This is a hopeful story in which the work of the common people becomes the heartbeat and rhythm of the film. Repeatedly the toils of the characters become the soundtrack, with hoes and shovels becoming instruments. Hammers and saws represent new life and music bursts forth from them. This being the first Zatoichi film I ever saw, theatrically, over a decade ago, I had remembered an offbeat sense of humor and a penchant for musical outbursts. I had also remembered lots and lots of computer generated blood.

I can’t ignore the blood, which looks absolutely awful. Almost all CGI blood does, and this being one of the earliest examples of it doesn’t help matters. But look: The blood is the only bad element in this almost miraculously exciting and joyous cinematic outing. I mean no disrespect to series cornerstone Shintaro Katsu when I suggest that Kitano’s Zatoichi is one of the absolute best of the entire series.

The film features a captivating transgender character who is largely treated with dignity. And the time honored tradition of Ichi building a quasi-family in his present town is wonderfully effective here. He’ll also bring justice to the oppressed by rooting out the true hidden master of the Kuchinawa gang amidst a thrilling climax with no less than three shocking and effective twists AND a musical number so joy-filled that I got a little emotional.

All the needed elements of a Zatoichi film are present here, with badass, jaw-dropping action, characters that matter, a noble and conflicted adversary, the troubling justice borne of bloodshed, and Ichi walking off into the night, leaving a town behind that has hope for a new day. (@Ed_Travis)

ICHI (2008) Dir. Fumihiko Sori
Victor:Nothing quite brings into relief the virtues of the original Zatoichi series as seeing how thoroughly it is misapplied (or misinterpreted) in Ichi. While I admit a certain weariness set in over the course of my journeys with the Blind Swordsman, no installment ever managed to seem so pointless as this one here.

In what should have been a brilliant twist on the usual preoccupations and tropes of the original saga, Ichi is a woman (and, it’s implied, potentially the daughter of the one, true Zatoichi). But aside from making her victimization a part of her backstory, her gender makes no difference whatsoever to the proceedings, making me wonder what the point of the switch even was.

Not that the lack of differentiation is the main flaw here. No, even if it wasn’t explored with any kind of depth, the sheer novelty of a blind, female swordsman could have been good for an interesting change of pace. But even this fails, as when you get right down to it this isn’t really any kind of Zatoichi we’re familiar with. Even at his grimmest, Shintaru Katsu played an Ichi that was burdened, certainly. But also one that hid his sadness and rage behind a veil of cheerful buffoonery and whose sense of justice and honor was manifest in his every action.

This variation is a nonentity, devoid of wit or charm (It doesn’t help that Haruka Ayase gives a downright lousy performance). What little dialogue she has is full of purple, self pitying musings, which Ayase refuses to invest with anything resembling character. Really, it’s not even clear why she even has to be blind. As played here, it’s less a facet of character and more an abstractly applied conceit, little more than a pretense for those morbid, lousy ramblings.

The story, oddly, is simpler and more direct than any other installment I’ve seen, which is why it’s puzzling as to why this takes two hours to unfold. This, of course, is the burden of modern filmmaking: more is less. This entire movie would have fit snugly in the first half of an actual Zatoichi flick. And it would have been more fun, too: this is a relentlessly humorless and dour affair.

So it’s kind of a bummer to go out on such a disappointing entry, but being a positive type of guy, I take from this a newfound appreciation for the talents of Shintaro Katsu and his collaborators. In this, we have proof positive that they don’t make them like this anymore…

ZATOICHI THE LAST (2010) Dir.Junji Sakamoto
Austin:I went into this latest Zatoichi film with enthusiasm, but it was quickly drained by a lifeless middle act, which is kind of a shame because the end really picks up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film opens with Ichi being chased through a forest by some baddies. His movements as he blindly stumbles are wonderfully reminiscent of Katsu. But as a battle ensues, we see that this is definitely not Katsu’s Ichi. He is younger, more vulnerable, and more desperate. He’s not the invincible swordsman we know; his opponents get plenty of licks in. His wife is always in his thoughts, and she is slain by a cowardly swordsman as she runs to embrace Ichi after the battle.

After this rather intriguing opening, things slow down considerably and I found myself becoming more and more indifferent to the film and its many nameless, indistinguishable characters. Ichi lies low in a seaside community of farmers and fishermen, basically doing nothing for an hour of the film’s running time. The middle act is cinematic torture. In Katsu’s films, even the bad ones, we pretty much always had decent pacing and a clear understanding of what was going on.

The film finally takes off about 100 minutes in, which is ridiculous because by this time the credits should have rolled. The next half hour, though, are really quite good. Ichi is chased through the snow in a striking scene reminiscent of the opening, and the chase ends in a skirmish between the film’s two warring groups (don’t ask me who they are, I lost track). This is followed by an epic conclusion for Ichi unlike any other film.

This Ichi is not a continuation of Katsu’s character, but a distillation of certain aspects of Zatoichi reflected through a new creation, with a different – and complete – character arc. This is the only Zatoichi film with a clear ending that doesn’t see Ichi wandering off alone on an unknown path. On the whole I’d have to say Zatoichi The Last is about 45 minutes north of greatness. (@VforVashaw)

Victor’s Final Word
Victor:Before I move on to the other films, one last thing to add about Ichi: The final battle with the main baddie (who looks very much like Quentin Tarantino in yellowface, and has all the acting abilities that implies) somehow manages to be doubly anti-climactic, which is an impressive feat, if presumably not an intentional one…

Now, then: I’ll say this about Zatoichi The Last: Despite its perverse disinterest in swordplay (the action doesn’t even kick in until the point at which most Ichi movies would be ending and tend to be over before they really even get started), it still feels like a genuine attempt to create a product that harkens back to the originals.

While it’s more faithful to the ideals and concepts of the original series, and seems to want to function as its logical endpoint, the endeavor is hampered by their conception of the main character. What Austin reads as inexperience and vulnerability, I took as an actor outmatched by the weight of an iconic character and performance (and let down by somewhat indifferent plotting: I have no idea what the fuck anyone is doing or why they’re doing it).

And with a callow Shingo Katori unable to hold the center, a dissonance ensues: for this movie to work, it has to be on the strength of Ichi’s legend. But the pathetic, bumbling figure we see here is not the figure of respect and fear that could inspire such myths, rendering the ending utterly hollow. This same movie, with Katsu in the lead (and a judicious editor; I mean, when you don’t even get to the gambling scene until an hour in, you done messed up, son) would have been a fitting (if rote) cap to the entire series.

So leave it to Beat Takeshi to get it just right (give or take some CG bloodletting…)

Takeshi combines his singular vision with the tropes of the Zatoichi series and comes up with something special, an endlessly inventive and fun romp that pushes the themes of the original series forward and provides a far more fitting and beautiful conclusion than Zatoichi The Last could manage.

As Ed mentions, the best part of all this was how musical it all is. Where the other movies attempt to modernize the series by forced attempts at philosophical or psychological depths, Takeshi something the other reimaginings chose to ignore: you don’t get 26 films out of a series that isn’t inherently optimistic and entertaining. And so, he returns the joy by skillfully honing in on and luxuriating in sound: bereft of vision, Ichi instead can focus in on the rhythms of his surroundings; and through him, the world becomes a more harmonious, far more magical place.

In following his own peculiar muse, he provides an homage that is more faithful to the spirit of Zatoichi than either attempt at resurrection we’ve looked at today, and the absolute perfect note to wrap up his (as well as our) adventures.

Austin’s Final Word
Austin:I find myself in near total agreement with most of what my cohorts have said about the other two films in this trio. Here are my additional thoughts.

Ichi
It’s hard to add anything to what Victor said about this film, as he pretty much nailed it. I may have liked it a bit more than he did, but his criticisms are essentially correct.

One of the silliest aspects for me was the subplot of Ichi’s companion Toma, a master swordsman who can’t unsheathe his sword due to a childhood trauma. I mean, can’t someone else unsheathe it for him? No? How about fighting with a spear or something then? It’s just a bad element that makes little sense and looks dumb on the screen.

In response to one of Victor’s comments though, I think the film does make use of Ichi’s femininity. While it isn’t particular relevant to her identity, she is treated differently by other characters, particularly by men who try to take advantage of her.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Like the final Katsu film from 1989, this remake was titled in Japanese as simply “Zatoichi”. Like Ed, this was my first experience with the character. I distinctly recall being intrigued by the DVD at Best Buy, where I worked. When I finally watched it, I was pretty much blown away by the lovely carnage (although the CG aspects were always pretty dodgy, regardless of Kitano’s defense that this was an intentional way of softening the film for audiences). The musical flourishes that Ed mentioned are one of my favorite aspects of the film, and go a long way to give it a unique identity. The massive taiko drum/tap dance sequence that serves as the film’s endcap has always been a major talking point of the film, and I for one absolutely love it. Takeshi shot for the fences with this thing. By this time, the film has earned its grandiose finish and it’s absolutely exhilarating to watch.

Watching it again, it’s still a terrific film but a strange Zatoichi entry. Aside from being blind, Kitano’s Ichi is a very different character: quieter, less jovial and a bit too second-banana to the circus of characters whose subplots hog the screentime. I also find it a bit disappointing that the film didn’t ignite a new franchise with Kitano. It’s one of the strongest Zatoichi films, yet his character was somewhat underdeveloped and really could’ve used some more exploration over the course of, say, 25 more movies.

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: I can’t fault any of our Zatoichi team for feeling franchise exhaustion by this point. I think we’re all feeling it. But with that said, I enjoyed both Ichi and Zatoichi The Last more than my wonderful counterparts.

While neither of the latter remakes even come close to Takeshi Kitano’s inspired entry (which, yes, should absolutely have become at the very least a trilogy) I still found things to like in each, as well as significant issues.

While I agree that Ichi lead actress Haruka Ayase isn’t wholly electrifying as a screen presence, I was totally suckered by her stunning beauty. Making her character a wandering shamisen player versus a masseuse was a clever spin, and overall I just thought the movie had a cool factor to it. But I found a couple issues that I’m not sure we’ve yet discussed. For one thing, Ichi spends most of the film as our uncontested lead, only to have [male] sidekick Fujihara get the final showdown and most full story arc. That is really frustrating. Ichi is also missing a very key element to what makes a Zatoichi film’s heart beat: there was no real justice element for the oppressed. Ichi is so concerned with the angst of its leads that it never really gets around to our wandering swordmaster ever, like, really helping anybody. Yeah, the town is clearly better off after the Banki gang is felled… but that’s basically a side effect of personal issues getting resolved through a sword fight.

When it comes to Zatoichi The Last, I felt the film was quite beautiful. Settings ranging from bamboo forests to the ocean to a snowy winter made me believe that this iteration of Ichi WOULD perhaps give up his sword and attempt to toil in the land of this beautiful town. Austin is correct that this film attempts to tell a complete Zatoichi story, with a new and tragic origin, a more unstable and less legendary hero, and a clear conclusion unlike any of the other films in the series. And Victor is correct that the dang thing is paced extremely “generously”, with many of the characters ending up nameless and confusing. The fact that the film is hard to follow was its greatest weakness, muting what would otherwise have been a remarkably gripping finale because you don’t know the characters well enough to deeply feel their fates. Is the film boring? I’m not willing to go that far. But it is confusing and slow, stepping past a “meditative” pace straight into “plodding”. They really went for broke with the character arc and creating a whole new Zatoichi, and surrounded him with a beautiful Japan, but the lead actor couldn’t escape from under Katsu’s shadow, and this entry is ultimately a quiet, gorgeous, and overlong curiosity.

It is truly hard to believe that we’ve watched every single Zatoichi feature film and discussed them all with you Cinapsians. If you want even more Ichi in your life, seek out the television series which also starred Shintaro Katsu, or the American remake starring Rutger Hauer: Blind Fury. Us? … we’re going to call it. Next time we’ll offer our final thoughts on the franchise as a whole and then walk off into the sunset.

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