The Zatoichi Box, Part Three

Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

zatoichi-11-zatoichi-and-the-doomed-manIt’s inevitable in the course of 25 movies that I would hit one that I found less than impressive, and with The Doomed Man I hit that particular wall. The movie begins with Ichi being caned for “illegal gambling”. In a flashback to his jail cell the previous evening, we see the man in the next cell telling Ichi that the officials do this every so often just to make an example. This man, however, is Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), a yakuza second-in-command who was running a simple errand for his Boss, but who was arrested the second he hit town, accused of crimes – including murder – he did not commit. He begs Ichi to tell his Boss what has transpired, so his name can be cleared and his life spared.

Ichi, however, has a moment of clarity on the road and realizes that every time he does something like this, he winds up in trouble. After winning big in an archery contest, Ichi finds himself in the company of a “mendicant monk” (read: con man) played by comic actor Kanbi Fujiyama, and events seem to guide him to the same village Shimazo begged him to visit. Not the least of which is that the monk has a new con: pretending he is Zatoichi, getting exorbitant fees from desperate minor yakuza bosses, running up a bar tab, and splitting town.

This is the most straightforward Zatoichi plot yet, and for some reason that makes me feel cheated. Half the fun of previous entries was watching the convoluted relationships eventually come together as Ichi assembled information; here, it’s pretty much given that the two Bosses involved are at fault for Shimazo’s plight and one interrogation later, Ichi has the letter that will save his life. Under these circumstances, the subplot with the monk seems like mere filler, although it has one of the better set pieces, when a group of killers seeking Zatoichi descend on the fake one.

It’s also not a Zatoichi movie without that massive final fight, and Doomed Man makes up for any shortcomings with a ton of murderers trying to stop Ichi from delivering his letter on the fog-enshrouded docks of a fishing village. That and some beautiful scenic photography raise this movie above the average, and it is really only because of the extraordinary quality of the movies preceding it that I would condemn a movie for merely being average.zatoichi11

Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert.lgThe twelfth movie is a return to form, as the plot is so intricate the last set of characters isn’t even introduced until halfway through the movie.

At this point Ichi is trying very hard to kill only as a last resort, illustrated by the opening sequence where he is attacked by five yakuza and he only wounds them, content to let them retreat. Of course, that also means they’ll still be pursuing him through the picture, but so be it. Ichi then makes the acquaintance of a wandering ronin obsessed by dai shoji, often called “Japanese chess”. Ichi likes the game, too, and the ronin, Jumonji (Mikio Narita) is impressed by the blind man’s ability to play without seeing the board. The two wind up traveling together, and Jumonji begins playing the game blindfolded, to even the match.

Film_Zatoichi12_originalIchi is also running the same scam he used at the very beginning of Tale of Zatoichi to bilk large sums of money from dishonest dice gamblers. This puts another yakuza gang on his heels, and during one donnybrook, a passing girl is injured. Ichi, who feels the call of giri (duty) more keenly than other supposedly honest men, takes it upon himself to raise the money for the expensive medicine the girl will require to recover from the ensuing infection and fever. This leads to one of the best, most suspenseful sequences yet, as Ichi fends off an attack from the yakuza in a reedy swamp, releases he has lost the precious box of medicine in the reeds during the fight, and searches the area with increasing, literally blind, desperation.

Kenji Misumi has become my favorite director in the series, with this, the very first movie, and the Zatoichi-with-a-baby flick Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Misumi doesn’t skimp on the swordplay, but also takes his time with the plot and the development of relationships, and this yields some stellar moments. He always finds a way to let Katsu show some genuine, deep emotions, and his Zatoichi movies – this one especially – display a moral complexity that leaves the viewer chewing over possibilities long after the first pass.zatoichi12

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

Zatoichis Vengeance.lgOnce again Ichi finds himself in possession of a package to be delivered, and once again he determines not to do it, and once again, fate pushes him in the proper direction to not only fulfill the duty thrust upon him, but to make another delivery of king-sized whoopass on those most deserving it.

This time Ichi receives a purse from a dying man killed for cheating at dice; the ronin hired to butcher him (Shigeru Amachi) also winds up at the village where the dead man’s son lives, a village only recently taken over by a cruel yakuza boss. This, of course, is the gang that you know Ichi will inevitably turn into Bad Guy Soup, but things are complicated by a blind monk (Jun Hamamura) Ichi encounters on the road, who constantly lays a guilt trip on the masseur about his violent ways, and how those ways are corrupting the admiring son. This results in Ichi allowing himself to receive a humiliating beating from the thugs, to rob the boy of his new idol – and that will lead to the vengeance of the title.

There are some nice variations on the usual Zatoichi themes here. Ichi has been dealing with his conscience on matters of violence before this point, and is only too keenly aware of the impact of his actions on the boy, to the point where he begins carrying a normal cane instead of his cane sword. The problem is, assholes keep being assholes, which something even the monk admits when Ichi, after his beating, comes upon the yakuza attempting to kidnap a woman to extort even more money from the merchants, and he exacts the first down payment on his vengeance. The monk is trying to make some sort of point about a Zen-like duality in his responses, but let’s face it: he’s just screwing with Ichi’s head.

This is Amachi’s second appearance in the series, playing a character diametrically opposed to the noble, tubercular samurai of the first movie. His character here, Kurobe, is a samurai who has definitely lost his way, and his personal path to ruin has also destroyed the life of his lover, who is now a prostitute in a local bordello. Kurobe must kill Ichi so the Boss will pay off her debt to the brothel and they can begin their lives together anew; but it is not a conclusion that she even wants anymore, nor is it likely, given Ichi’s skill.zato13_03

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

Zatoichis Pilgrimage.lgAs ever, I am indebted to Criterion’s supplementary material, and especially Chris D., for pointing out to me things that are not quite so obvious on a first pass. Pilgrimage has a different feel from previous Zatoichi movies, and this was originally by design; director Kazuo Ikehiro and star Katsu brought in Kaneto Shindo, the director of Onibaba (and, in a couple of years, Kuroneko) to pen a tale of Ichi traveling to the 88 temples of the region to pray for the spirits of those he has killed. He also prays that he will not be called upon to kill again.

Ichi is praying to wrong gods, or, more to the point, the heads of Daiei Studios worshipped different gods entirely; the Zatoichi movies were its only consistent money-makers, and the story was quickly rewritten to provide a more typical experience. A lone bandit ambushes Ichi shortly after his prayer, and Ichi reluctantly follows the dead man’s remarkably intelligent horse to the man’s home – where he will, against all odds, fall in love again, this time with the sister of the man he cut down. ichi_pilgrimage

The Boss who sent the doomed man to kill Ichi is determined to take over the entire area, including the sister and her house. The wily villagers – or “weasels” as the sister refers to them, prefer to just sit back and let the infamous Zatoichi take care of their bandit problem. This leads to a High Noon-style showdown, with the badly outnumbered Ichi taking on the gang as the sister pounds on doors, uselessly begging the villagers to help.

Ikehiro isn’t using the same frenetic camerawork he employed in Chest of Gold or Flashing Sword; he uses, instead, a very fluid, moving camera that still sets this apart from the more passive point-of-view of other entries. One can bemoan the what-if, the introspective Zatoichi movie that was lost to a more commercial product; but Pilgrimage is still refreshing enough in its approach to make it stand out from its brethren.zatoichi-14-zatoichis-pilgrimage

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1966)

zatoichi-15-the-blind-swordman-s-cane-swordThat’s an unusual enough title, but what you’re not expecting is how appropriate it turns out to be.

Ichi finds his usual dying man on the road, then circumstances route him to that man’s village, where, as usual, a predatory brute of a Boss and his thugs have taken over from the benign dead guy on the road. What elevates this movie above the usual is that Ichi has a chance meeting with Senzo (Eijiro Tono), an alcoholic blacksmith who was once a renowned sword maker. Senzo recognizes Ichi’s cane sword as the work of his mentor, and his trained eye also detects a tiny crack in the blade. He estimates that the sword has one more good blow in it, then it will snap.

Ichi leaves the cane sword with Senzo, as a memento of his past master, and that is the crux of what makes this movie so good: Ichi will spend the better part of the story bladeless, surviving only by his quick wits and formidable reputation (the fact that he can still dole out a serious beating with a common staff versus bullies with swords is a definite plus).

Eventually, though, Ichi is going to have to return to Senzo to retrieve his cane sword, because the evil Boss and an equally corrupt Inspector General must be stopped, a maiden’s honor must be protected, and lots of bad guys are being mean to honest people. The resolution regarding the movie’s title character is somewhat telegraphed, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. This is an especially entertaining attempt to vary the Zatoichi formula, and fifteen movies into the series, that variation is very welcome, indeed.zatoichis_cane_sword3

The Zatoichi Box, Part Two

I’m going to pretend that we all know about who Zatoichi is and get right to the point. Right after this commercial from the Criterion Collection for the box set that’s been consuming my free time:

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold.lgIt has been rightly pointed out that the Zatoichi movies only have one plot: Zatoichi comes to town, finds some people in trouble, turns the bad guys into hash (including at least one opponent smart/skilled enough to give him a challenge), and then leaves town. Where the fun comes in is the differing natures of the conflicts, and in this case (and the movie that follows it), the energized, often frenzied camerawork of young director Kazuo Ikehiro.

This time, a group of farming communities has managed to scrape together enough money to pay off the corrupt magistrate’s taxes, and, of course, the chest holding the money (with a large sign that reads “TAX PAYMENT”) is hijacked by thugs working for the magistrate. Among them is Tomisaburo Wakayama, making his second appearance in the series, this time as a cruel ronin named Jushiro, who has a fondness for the whip.ZATOICHI-600

Ichi, who traveled to the main village to do penance at the grave of a man he killed almost by accident back in the first movie, gets blamed for the theft, as does a local yakuza formerly revered by the farmers, Chuji Kunisada (Shogo Shimada) (Kunisada is an actual historical character, and the subject of at least three other movies, which explains his eventual disappearance from the story). Ichi, of course, promises to get the chest of gold back.

Once more, Ichi proves himself a saint by not only working to retrieve the farmers’ gold, but by putting up with a ton of abuse – twice – from the panicking mob, when he could obviously cut down the lot of them. Another startling addition by director Ikehiro is stage blood. Ichi’s previous outings were all of the “clean cut” variety, but there’s a fair amount of the red stuff in evidence here, and it’s pretty shocking in relation to what has come before.

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Zatoichi_7_-_Zatoichi's_Flashing_SwordThe prologue has Ichi dozing in a bath house, and a bunch of yakuza considering killing him in his sleep. Ichi is bothered by buzzing flies, however, and rouses himself long enough to bisect several flies in flight – causing the yakuza to reconsider their plan. Ikehiro’s camera weaves about the room, giving us the fly’s Point Of View, presaging the imaginative camerawork of Scott Spiegel in movies like Intruder and Texas Blood Money.

In the movie proper, Ichi gets shot in the back by a rogue yakuza trying to make his name. The wounded masseur is pulled from a river by a passing lady and her retinue, and she pays to have his wounds treated. Ichi travels to her village to thank her for her kindness, and finds himself, once again, embroiled in a conflict between two yakuza gangs. The first, headed by the charitable lady’s father, is pretty benign, controlling the traffic at a river ford and looking out for the workers. The opposing boss, nowhere near as nice (and has the bad teeth to prove it) wants the river ford franchise, and is conniving with the local magistrate to take it over.

zato7_06Ichi is upset, feeling that a yakuza working with a magistrate is the lowest of the low, and helps out where he can (did I mention that the good Boss’ estranged son is the guy who shot Ichi in the back? And that Ichi is going to wind up saving the young thug’s ass?). Eventually, though, Zatoichi’s reputation works against him, and the threat of the magistrate finding out the good Boss is harboring a violent fugitive forces Ichi’s ouster from the compound; of course, this leaves the good guys open to slaughter from the bad guys. Which leads to a pissed-off Zatoichi stalking the bad guy compound, cutting down candles and villains alike as fireworks illuminate his housecleaning in bright greens and reds.

It’s been pointed out that Flashing Sword feels a bit rushed, and the plot is a bit more clear-cut than is usual in a Zatoichi movie; we never once see this conniving magistrate we hear so much about, nor his compound. But the money and time is put where it needs to be, and Ichi’s avenging angel act, extinguishing lights and encouraging cowardly gangsters to come into dark rooms and find him, is one of the best in the series so far. Katsu also gets to exercise his comic muscles quite a bit in the first act, leavening the mood.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

plakatzatoichi8bd1It seems like any franchise of any length is eventually going to get a baby thrown into the mix, and usually with disastrous results. This time, Ichi accepts a discounted ride in a palanquin, unaware he’s being followed by five assassins. While the assassins rush to a point where they can ambush the conveyance, Ichi and the two bearers encounter a woman carrying a baby, who has collapsed by the side of the road. Ichi insists she take over his ride, with disastrous results for her when the assassins plunge their swords into the covered palanquin.

An investigation in the village uncovers that the woman had been left for collateral for a loan taken out by her husband, a merchant down on his luck. She had worked off the debt and given birth to the merchant’s son in the meantime. Ichi determines to deliver the boy to his father, 65 miles away, though there is still the problem of the five assassins, and the pickpocket Ichi encounters on the way (and hires as a nanny). Along the way he will bust up a crooked dice game, kill yakuza while changing a diaper, and form quite a surrogate family with the baby and the pickpocket, who is so overcome by her love for the baby and Ichi’s honor that she swears to reform her ways.

KT044_main_LLHere’s a bit of a SPOILER, so you may want to look away: Ichi becomes quite attached to the baby, and despite his reluctance, delivers the boy to the father – only to discover that he is not the hard-working merchant he had imagined, but a newly minted yakuza who used the loan to get rid of his wife for a much more advantageous marriage. Ichi vows to raise the boy himself, until convinced otherwise by a kindly but stern monk. Ichi leaves the boy with the monk, realizing that this course represents the child’s best chance at a decent life. “Teach him to read and write. Raise him to be a good man.”

Then Ichi goes to face off with the last surviving assassin, who has teamed up with the baby’s father to ambush Ichi with a torch-bearing mob. Katsu, his kimono on fire, still takes care of business.

At this point, there are a lot of things you expect from Zatoichi. He’s been pretty endearing so far, but you do not expect him to be downright cute, or, finally, to break your damn heart. Director Kenji Misumi returns to the series with this entry, and his calmer esthetic works well for this storyline; the sentiment is neither forced nor mawkish, though it certainly could have been. There is still plenty of action, but Fight, Zatoichi, Fight stands out as a novel chapter in the franchise.zatoichi-8-fight-zatoichi-fight

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Zatoichi_9_-_Adventures_of_ZatoichiThe Bond-like vignettes vanished with the last entry, and the stirring music by Akira Ifukube seems more and more spaghetti western influenced, with a thrilling flamenco guitar motif. This time Ichi is traveling to Mount Miyagi to “welcome the sunshine of the New Year”, and accepts a letter from another traveler to deliver to a maid at an inn. He reaches the village and finds it crowded with traveling vendors and entertainers, all groaning under onerous new taxes from the local Boss in league with a corrupt official (of course).

The inn is crowded and Ichi winds up sharing a room with a young lady searching for her father, a village headman who was daring enough to protest the new taxes making life unbearable for his townfolk. This is another thread in one of the most elaborately tangled plots yet, until one scene where a hurried confession ties it all together like the Dude’s ruined rug.

Add to this the local elderly drunk, who Zatoichi thinks may actually be his long-lost father, and the picture’s Big Bad, a ronin named Gouonosuke, the third son of a lowly retainer who is so desperate to prove himself that he sets his sights on Zatoichi. It’s a remarkably well-rounded performance by Mikijiro Hira, who fans of Criterion releases of chanbara flicks will recognize from Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast. Jumbled as the plotlines may be, they come together well in one of the more emotionally complex of the Zatoichi movies.zato9_02

Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

zatoichisrevengeThe spaghetti theme is in full bloom under the opening credits, simple black on a white background. There are two assassins on Ichi’s trail this time, as his wanderings bring him back to the village where he learned the art of massage. He also discovers his former teacher has been murdered, and the teacher’s daughter indentured to the local Boss’ brothel to pay off a loan made to the teacher just before his death. Of course, none of this sits well with Ichi.

The lion’s share of this movie deals with Ichi’s chance encounter with a dice thrower at the Boss’ gambling den, Denroku the Weasel, played by veteran comedian Norihei Miki. In his ongoing campaign to bring the Boss (and the obligatory corrupt magistrate) down, Ichi visits the dice game, and as usual is winning nicely until Denroku is brought in as a cooler. The scenes where Ichi reveals the tricks involved in cheating are always a treat; something is always going to get cut in half in some extraordinary way.

Denroku has a soft spot, an eleven year-old daughter he has been raising himself, and the Boss puts pressure on that spot, eventually driving both to betray their friendship with Ichi – which yields surprising results.

Ichi himself will betray one of his own codes, that he never strikes first, but it’s forgivable when his targets are two of the most vile villains yet, indulging in embezzlement, murder, rape and forced prostitution with an unholy glee, beating and starving the indentured, unwilling women. Some of these scenes are pretty hard to watch, but you can get through them secure in the fact that there is some shit that Zatoichi simply will not tolerate.

You also begin to get the impression that one of the reasons the Tokugawa Shogunate eventually collapsed was under-population, as Ichi seems to cut through about a hundred thugs per movie, at least. Not that I’m complaining – that’s what I’m here to see. And so, apparently, was the Japanese public, as we are only ten movies into a twenty-five movie set.zatoichi-revenge2

The Zatoichi Box, Part One

I’ve been aware of, though not necessarily a fan of, the character Zatoichi for years. Traveling masseur, blind Yakuza, compulsive gambler, master swordsman. He was created in a popular short story by Kan Shimozawa in 1948. In 1962, the samurai flick was undergoing a renaissance – this is the time of Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hara-Kiri. Daiei Studio wants in on this, and brings the short story to the screen, developed by a young actor named Shintaro Katsu, and what was once an incidental character becomes the linchpin of one of the longest-running film series in the world.

In late November, Criterion released a massive box set of 25 of the 26 Katsu movies (lacking only Katsu’s swan song, the 1989 Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman), and the fates were exceedingly kind on its timing, as the street date was during the Barnes & Noble regular Criterion 50% off sale, rendering the set affordable by mere mortals like myself (if you ignored every other Criterion title during that sale, anyway). Reproduced in the lovely illustrated book that comes with the set, is that original Shimozawa short story, allowing the viewer to start off where the Japanese public did, almost tabula rasa, knowing of the character, but not much.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Zatoichi_The_Tale_of_ZatoichiIchi (the zato is a prefix meaning, among other things, “blind”) travels into town to accept the invitation of yakuza boss Sukegoro (Elijiro Yanagi), who once saw Ichi’s impressive swordplay. Sukegoro is counting on Ichi’s skill for an upcoming war with rival boss Shigezo, mainly because his opponent has hired an itinerant ronin, the tubercular Hirate (Shigeru Amachi) as his muscle.  Unfortunately for both bosses, Hirate and Ichi meet while fishing at a nearby lake, and the two warriors immediately recognize each other’s weary dignity and honor, and they become drinking buddies. Hirate’s illness reaches a crisis, and Sukegoro seizes the opportunity to attack, insulting Ichi and throwing him out as “useless”.

Too bad that Shigezo has appealed to Hirate’s respect for Ichi on the samurai’s sickbed; the boss sighs that without Hirate, he’ll have to dispatch the blind man from a distance, with his secret weapon, a rifle. Hirate rises, calling for his kimono and sword, rather than let his friend die by such cowardly means. Which means that Ichi, on his way out of town, finds out the ailing Hirate is at the battle, cutting a swatch through Sukegoro’s men even while coughing up blood, and hastens to join. He and the samurai have a final, frenetic battle on a bridge, and Hirate gets what he had wanted: death at the hands of a respected foe, not some weasel with a gun. Sukegoro is victorious over the demoralized clan, but Ichi, enraged that a good man died to no fitting purpose, tells off the boss, arranges for Hirate’s funeral, and leaves his sword cane at his graveside.

Zatoichi_-_The_Tale_of_Zatoichi_2Ichi giving up his signature weapon at the end is the surest signal that Daiei had no idea what they were unleashing upon the Japanese movie scene. Make no mistake, this is the Dr. No of Zatoichi movies; the character, not yet fully formed, is still compelling, though there are times he seems to be a guest star in his own movie. The Japanese love to root for the underdog… who doesn’t? … and Ichi’s willingness to endure abuse until the time is right casts him in this light until he reveals he has the power to put down bullies quite permanently. In addition to his dazzling swordplay, we are introduced to his acute hearing (and gambling compulsion) when he opens the picture by running a nice scam on some low-level yakuza who think they can cheat a blind man at dice.

The swordplay is at a minimum in this entry, and might not be the ideal entry point for a casual viewer looking to get into the Zatoichi series. But the time put into establishing the Hirate/Ichi friendship is well spent, and we are introduced to the fact that Ichi is a powerful chick magnet. Women – never the most respected people in any culture, certainly not in Edo-era Japan – sense his common decency, despite the fact he considers himself wicked and beyond redemption; a result of the many people he’s cut down in his career, some of which he regrets. This is the first time we will see him walk away from the love of a good woman, the waitress Otane (Masayo Banri, taking a break from her usual sex kitten roles) – but certainly not the last. Overall, it feels a lot more like the previous year’s Yojimbo than a Zatoichi movie – but that will change.The-Tale-of-Zatoichi

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

Zatoichi_2_-_The_Tale_of_Zatoichi_Continues_2Surprised by the success of Tale of Zatoichi, Daiei rushed out this sequel, which only runs a trim 72 minutes. One of the benefits of such a short length is the story moves forward briskly, and if there were not so many plot points carried over from the first movie, I would almost recommend it as an entry point into the series.

Ichi – who has procured another sword-cane – is journeying back to the temple of the first movie to fulfill his promise to visit Hirate’s grave after a year. Along the way, he’s spared the trouble of dealing with some thugs who try to ambush him by the intervention of a one-armed ronin, Yoshiro (Tomisaburo Wakayama, moonlighting as Kenzaburo Jo). Trying to earn some money, Ichi is called upon to massage a Lord, who misbehaves in a most unLordly manner – turns out the Lord is insane, and in order to keep Ichi from telling anyone, his retainers sends out a couple of men to kill the blind man. This goes about as well for the killers as would be expected.

zatoichi2-450So the retainer hires the yakuza Boss Kambei (Sonosuke Sawamura) to track down and kill Ichi. Meantime, Boss Sukegoro, hearing that Ichi is returning, is also plotting his death. While the retainers are searching every inn for Ichi, he falls in with a prostitute named Osetsu (Yoshie Mizutani), who is a dead ringer for Ichi’s former love – and also the former love of that mysterious Ronin, Yoshiro. To cut to the chase, Yoshiro is Ichi’s brother, only pretending to be a samurai, and he lost his arm in a fight with Ichi over that very same long-lost love. Yoshiro is on the lam for robbery and murder, and Kambei and Sukegoro join forces to take down both men. On top of all that, the pretty Otane is back, scheduled to marry an honest, nondescript carpenter, a match of which Ichi heartily approves.

Even at this truncated length, the pacing is much more even in this entry, even as the complexity of plot that will be a trademark through the series surfaces, and there is much more swordplay. Tomisaburo Wakayama was Katsu’s brother in real life, and it’s not the last time he’ll crop up in the Zatoichi series. There’s a bit of eerieness whenever he does, since I know him best from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. Crossovers with other film heroes is still in Zatoichi’s future; but it’s hard to not get all tingly at the prospect of a Zatoichi/Itto Ogami team-up.Zatoichi

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

new-tale-of-zatoichi-05-webDaiei finally realized they had something special on their hands, and the third entry in the series is the first in color, to marvelous effect.

Ichi, sick of all the killing, travels back to his old territory. On his trail, though, is the brother of Boss Kambei, Yasuhiko (Fujio Suga), seeking revenge. This vendetta is put on hold by Ichi’s sword mentor, the fallen samurai Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu). Banno runs a fencing school, and laments the fact that none of his students ever practice with Ichi’s passion or precision. At one point, Banno overcomes Ichi’s aversion to showing off his skills by pressuring the masseur into a dazzling display of his draw, slicing through four candles in one move.

Banno is, however, involved with a group of anti-Shogunate samurai called the Mito Tengu (who might as well have saved their time, the Shogunate s going to collapse all by itself in twenty years or so). Needing money to fund their crusade, they plot to kidnap one of Banno’s wealthy students for ransom – Ichi’s demonstration is only the device to get the student out of his house at night.

Zatoichi-3-ambushFurther complicating matters is Banno’s little sister Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who has blossomed into a young woman during Ichi’s absence. Banno hopes to marry her to a wealthy samurai, which would be his ticket back to the capital city of Edo, and the high life. Yayoi resists this idea, and in fact proposes to Ichi, a man she has known almost her entire life, and whom she knows to be good. This leads to perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the series, as Ichi swears off the sword forever, only to be confronted by the vengeful Yasuhiko. When Ichi refuses to duel him, they proceed to play dice for the masseur’s fate: if Ichi wins, Yasuhiko will forswear his vendetta and leave the two to their lives together. If Ichi loses, Yasuhiko will take his right arm.

Ichi loses.

Yasuhiko, however, seeing the genuine love between the two, flips over one of the dice, announces he’s lost, and leaves the compound.

rShi1Nv3qv3ihyfMpl610pH4kUPBanno, however, will not agree to the marriage, because Ichi is a mere lowlife yakuza and Yayoi, is after all, samurai. Banno has, in fact, decided to betray the Mito Tengu and take the ransom for his own use, to fund Yayoi’s wedding to that wealthy samurai. Just in case we haven’t figured out Banno is a heel, yet, he also kills the unarmed Yasuhiko because the man drunkenly insults him.

It’s that murder that causes Ichi to follow Banno, free the hostage from the Mito Tengu, and waste all the bad guys, including his dismissory mentor, all before the shocked Yayoi. Ichi sighs that he just seems to be That Sort of Person Anyway, and walks off into the night.

This is apparently the last time we are going to get such a concentrated dose of Ichi’s backstory; Daiei realized that if they were going to milk this franchise for all it was worth, they were going to have to be much more parsimonious with such details. The fact that Ichi is ready to give up his itinerant existence is something of a shock in only the third movie of the series. This still isn’t an ideal entry point for those reasons. The color photography, though, is sumptuous.10

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

zatoichi_4_-_the_fugitiveNew Tale seems a bit studio bound, especially in contrast to Fugitive, which finds Ichi on the road, even participating in a village Sumo competition, which he wins, because he’s Zatoichi, after all. While he’s relaxing by a riverside, Ichi is forced to kill a shabby yakuza trying to ambush him; he finds out from the dying man that there is a bounty on his head.

Ichi seeks out the gangster’s mother to apologize for his death, and, as usual, this act of kindness will land him in the middle of a conflict between a thuggish Yakuza Boss and a more ethical one, made even more complicated by the return of Otane from the first two movies. Seems she didn’t marry that nice carpenter after all, but has fallen in with a brutish, hard-drinking ronin who is going to be very interested in that ever- escalating bounty. It’s also going to get personal as the ronin realizes that Otane still has feelings for Ichi, and vice versa. This leads up to one of the largest final fights yet, as a small army of Yakuza makes the mistake of putting itself between the ronin and a very pissed-off Ichi.

This is the best Zatoichi flick yet, with our hero’s character fully developed, the trademark tangled plot and personal interactions are in place, and the location shooting opening up the frame nicely. The return of Otane is about the only thing that keeps me from recommending this as the entry film; overall, this feels like the first Zatoichi movie that actually is a Zatoichi movie, if you know what I mean.zato4_08

Zatoichi On The Road (1963)

zatoontheroadposterWhen I’m asked what is a good entry point to the series, I’m probably going to go with this one; not only does the typically byzantine storyline show off Zatoichi’s altruism and sense of honor, it also is the first to start with a James Bond-style vignette (just to overwork that comparison) to let us know that we are entering the world of the blind swordsman.

A representative of a yakuza gang has been sent to fetch Ichi, though he is under orders to not tell the masseur any details; instead, he continues to ply Ichi with good food and drink as they travel to their destination, which is just fine with Ichi. A rival gang member recognizes the representative, though, and hires three traveling ronin to kill both men. Too bad for the rep, who dies, and for the ronin, who follow suit quickly at Ichi’s blade. The wife of one of the ronins, while casually gathering what money she can off the corpses, reveals the source of the attempted assassination. Ichi wearily continues on the road, duty-bound to tell the Boss what happened to his man.

zato5_14It is on the way there that Ichi stumbles, almost literally, on a dying man, who asks him to “protect Omitsu”. Ichi has been crossing paths all night with samurai looking for a girl, and he finds her, hiding in a nearby shack. Omitsu (Shiho Fujimara, who still has a busy career to this day) is the daughter of a rich Edo merchant who made the mistake of resisting the advances of a nearby Lord, hence the murderous samurai, as she apparently scarred the rutting Lord’s face. Ichi spends a goodly portion of the movie trying to get the girl back to her father, only to have her kidnapped – twice – by that ronin’s widow, seeking revenge as she best can. Ichi, thinking he has gotten the girl safe passage to Edo, reluctantly agrees to take part in the yakuza Boss’ war, but at a steep fee – only to find that the opposing Boss is prepared to use Omitsu as a bargaining chip.

The story has plenty of opportunities to show off Ichi’s quick wits and basic goodness. He gets deep into a yakuza hideout by simply walking in the front door and asking for the boss – no one gives a blind masseur a second look. As he waits for the final battle to start, he says to the young yakuza assigned to be his dogsbody, “Stay in the back when the fighting starts. You don’t want to be killed in a stupid fight.” Not only does On The Road provide all these Ichi basics, as well as a wistful examination of the growing affection between Ichi and Omitsu – it also does it with a rousing good story, a collection of bad guys you can’t wait to see get their final comeuppance, and, once more, nicely expansive cinematography.

So, I recommend it as the entry point of the Zatoichi series for the complete virgin. If you like it, you can feel safe going back to the first one and then making your way through the series – especially if the idea of an actual story that requires attention does not frighten you.zato5_08

Crapsgiving 2013

Thanksgiving interrupted my steady diet of Zatoichi movies long enough to realize that we had gone a significant amount of time without a Crapfest. Heeeey, we’d been busy! And as it is almost impossible to put one together over the Christmas holidays, it was Thanksgiving or nothing, Thanksgiving being one of the few weekends I can actually wrangle a Saturday off.

But my experience is not the same as others. Alan and Mark both had their weekends stolen away by the dreaded 10-Out-Of-12 tech rehearsals for shows they were in. I wondered aloud who would be so cruel as to schedule 10-Out-Of-12s on Thanksgiving weekend. Darth Vader? Atomic Hitler? Anne Coulter? Perhaps it is best that in large part, I am no longer part of the theatrical world.

Because here I was at Dave’s house, with Rick, Erik and Paul. The room did not feel particularly crowded, and there was a genial ease about the whole thing. A rejuvenating experience I desperately needed. Also, Erik allowed me check off an item on my Bucket List by bringing a bottle of Absinthe, along with the necessary spoon. I admit I had my doubts since I hate licorice, but the Green Fairy won me over. I quite enjoyed it, and promised the Twitterverse that I would let it know immediately if it drove any of us mad. Of course, considering what we usually watch at these things, many felt the “driving” part was a little too late.

StarshipWhile everyone got settled in, Dave started things off with Starship Invasions. If you’ve ever seen Starship Invasions, you know that ignoring most of it is the best course of action. I recall this getting wide release after the success of Star Wars; it’s made by Canadians trying to make an Italian movie – at least it always seemed that way to me. The bad guy is Christopher Lee (of course), who is part of a coalition of alien races who sabotages and murders all the other representatives (and when he guns down the Space Strippers, you know he’s evil), so he can exterminate all Earthlings with his Suicide Ray and repopulate it with his leotarded minions. Luckily, one good guy saucer escapes and enlists UFOlogist Robert Vaughn’s help.

L to R: Space Stripper, Christopher Lee, Egghead

L to R: Space Stripper, Christopher Lee, Egghead

The ships and alien designs were taken from eyewitness reports of close encounters. That’s a cool touch in a movie that seems a lot like The Terrornauts with a slightly better budget.

Really, the best part was Dave reminiscing about how this was yet another movie his father refused to take him to see.

Some time was taken up by going through my Bag of Tricks©, which I curate throughout the year, tossing in discs which I deem Crapfest-worthy. Dave triaged out the candidates he thought best, and Rick howled “No way in hell are we watching Black Devil Doll from Hell!”. He would then return to his periodic pointed mentions of his new “Unedited, Unexpurgated cut of Evilspeak“, which we were pretty certain only meant it was a solid 90 minutes of Clint Howard’s naked ass. We were all pretty laid back that evening, which is the primary reason every one of Rick’s mentions of Evilspeak wasn’t met with, “You know what I hear is pretty cool? Black Devil Doll from Hell!”

dogvilleOver Dave’s misgivings, I convinced him to start with one of the Dogville shorts, which is high-grade, hallucinatory, what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch material. A series of movie parodies starring dogs in costumes, made from 1929-1931, from the guys who would later direct the Three Stooges shorts. Paul immediately felt this was super-awesome and insured that we would be watching one of these each fest for the foreseeable future. This is what we did with Pink Lady & Jeff, which is a comparison which made Paul re-think this course of action.

What we watched was “Who Killed Rover?” a “Phido Vance” mystery that I appreciate for its refreshingly downbeat ending, but everyone else – save Paul – claimed to be scarred for life by the experience. Paul wanted to immediately continue on to “The Dogway Melody”, but was booed down. In deference to Paul, here is an excerpt from it:

large_dvd_colorspacev1I had brought a metric ton of sausage for our evening meal, and Dave, grillmeister that he is, has an elaborate process for getting the coals just so, which is time-consuming, but I cannot fault the results. So while the charcoal was doing its combustible thing, I put in a disc I had gotten from Diabolik, ModCinema’s ColorScape, Volume One, which is a compilation of movie trailers, commercials, and proto-music videos from the late 60s to early 70s. Or what I like to refer to as “Making the young punks regret they grew up in the 80s”.

Paul and I had a major discussion about how we were lied to as children, and we were certain that adult life was exactly like the scenes unfolding before us: all the grown-ups were swinging (except our parents, who were too old to swing), and every night ended with an orgy. Blake Edwards’ The Party, starring Peter Sellers? That was only a typical Tuesday night. Past that, the experience was mostly wondering why we weren’t watching the movies excerpted in the trailers.

I love damn near all the music on the ColorScape disc, though this was not shared by my compatriots, the heathens. So ha, compatriots! Here’s this one again! Heathens!

After two hours of reveling in 60s hedonism and psychedelic music, the sausages were ready, and so were we – ready for Weng Weng. But we were wrong. Nobody is ready for Weng Weng.

For Your Height Only press book coverThe movie, of course, is the infamous For Y’ur Height Only (why the dropped “o”? I have no idea), starring Weng Weng (actually Ernesto de la Cruz) as “Agent 00”. Weng Weng, at 2′ 9″, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest man to ever have a lead role in a movie.

In the movie, Dr. Kohler is kidnapped because crimelord Mr. Giant wants his “N-bomb”. What exactly the N-bomb does is never explained, and that doesn’t really matter, because Dr. Kohler is going to vanish for the next 80 minutes, and when he returns at the end, you’re going to ask, “Who’s the Anglo?”, because those 80 minutes are going to be jam-packed with Weng Weng kicking ass and using scaled-down James Bond gadgetry.

weng-weng-kissWeng Weng was apparently an accomplished martial artist, and is at the correct height to A) be below your peripheral vision, and B) punch you in the nuts. Repeatedly. And when that doesn’t work, his pretty assistant will just pick him up and throw him at you. Weng Weng eventually faces off with Mr. Giant, who is, to no one’s surprise, a dwarf (oh come on, that’s a given!). This fight scene gave rise to one of the better lines of the night, “My kung fu is smaller than yours!” Although I also give props to Dave, who, while watching Weng Weng leap about and traumatize gonads, entoned, “That’s some X-Men shit, right there.”

Look, there are simply not words in the English language to adequately describe how awesome is the mighty Weng Weng. He never made any movies with Chuck Norris or Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger because they knew they would be completely upstaged. And, by God, Weng Weng does all his own stunts, because face it: There are not a lot of 2′ 9″ stunt men out there.

super_ninjas_poster_01Weng Weng’s amazing kung fu skills put us in the mood for more chop-sockey, and what I had in the Bag was Five Element Ninjas, which is not the best of the Chang Cheh/Venom collaborations, but is still pretty great.

There is one of those acrimonious competitions between two clans in the World of Martial Arts, and the current Lord of the World of Martial Arts brings in a ringer – a samurai, who, when he loses his second match, commits hara-kiri, but sends a note to his pal the Ninja Lord, who proceeds to challenge the victorious clan to another contest, but kills all the best fighters using Evil Ninja Tricks.

The Five Elements come in with the various groups of Ninjas and their specialties, Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal. The Metal Ninjas are the least stealthy ninjas ever, dressed in dazzling gold lamé. But the ones we really hated were the Earth Ninjas, who burrow underground and stab upward with nasty hooked spears, which is a trick that even Weng Weng finds too dirty.

(This also leads to the movie’s most infamous scene, where one good guy soldiers on against the Head Ninja, even through multiple Earth Ninja stabbings; in fact, his internal organs are hanging down through his trouser leg. He does pretty well, too, until he trips over his own guts.)

five-element-ninja-1The ninjas attack the fortified Good Guy compound (thanks to Sinji, the cute ninja, masquerading as an orphan waif), leaving just one good guy intact – who escapes, meets up with an old master who knows the ninja arts (which, we are told, originated in China). Then the survivor and the master’s other three students take on the Five Element Ninjas and take them down with spectacularly bloody results. This is good, because the treacherous ninjas had taken over The World of Martial Arts, and we can’t have that.

Sinji (that minx!) in her Ninja Negligee

Sinji (that minx!) in her Ninja Negligee

Five Element Ninjas has a bang-up beginning and end, but a very talky middle, while Sinji works her wiles.  Perhaps not ideal Crapfest material, but we did really enjoy seeing the Earth Ninjas get their gory comeuppance.

The Ultimate Bait-and-Switch: a Boris Vallejo poster!

The Ultimate Bait-and-Switch: a Boris Vallejo poster!

Paul fulfilled his wuss duty at this point and went home, which meant it was time to play the R-rated Titty movie (take that, wuss!), and Dave chose Barbarian Queen.

Barbarian Queen is likely best known for its ill-fated star, Lana Clarkson, who didn’t survive a close encounter with Phil Spector. It’s also fairly infamous for its number of rape scenes. (I may be wrong, but I think Deathstalker beats it in that category. In any case, “Rape scene! Take a drink!” is a dangerous game to play with either one)

Lana’s village is kidnapped by slave traders (the synopsis says “Romans”, but they couldn’t afford Roman costumes), and Clarkson tracks them to the big city where the menfolk are turned into gladiators and the womenfolk into sex slaves for the gladiators. With a setup like that, it’s unsurprising that they plan an uprising while Clarkson basically kegels a torturer to death (since it looks like he has eyebrows glued to his glasses, he pretty much deserved that).

I really miss the days when Roger Corman had Joe Dante and Allan Arkush editing his trailers, you know?

It was late, and though I was still full of caffeinated vim, the hour was getting to most of us. Erik, Rick and I packed our bags and thanked Dave for once again allowing us to pollute the atmosphere in his home. Then we privately met in the front yard, discussing the possibility of a Christmas Crapfest, because, after all, Rick had this fabulous new disc of Evilspeak with all the gore that had previously been cut out intact!

PS. No, Rick!!!! Though I hear Black Devil Doll from Hell is pretty cool…