The New Year has begun, work is ramping up again. The Criterion Zatoichi box set is designed to facilitate binge watching, but I know myself too well: familiarity can breed contempt, so I started leavening my Zatoichi-watching with other movies. We’ll get to those later; for now, here’s my latest Zatoichi watches:
Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)
Right at the front, there it is, an announcement that this is the first movie by “Katsu Productions”. Star Shintaro Katsu had so much success with this series that he formed his own production company, which would continue on after the failure of Daiei, even producing two other popular series, Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub.
Outlaw is a pretty definite attempt to establish there’s been a change in management. As ever, Ichi manages to stumble into a conflict between two yakuza gangs. One, led once more by veteran heavy Tatsuo Endo, is using crooked dice games to bilk drought-stricken farmers of their money and, eventually, their land. The other, led by Boss Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni), is more in line with what Ichi considers classic yakuza philosophy: live on the shadowy side of life, but look after the common man where you can. Endo is in league with the corrupt Inspector General Suga (Ko Nishimura), and continues to attempt to draw Asagoro into a war. To circumvent this, Ichi assassinates Endo, then goes on the lam for a year to escape the wrath of Suga.
This is unusual enough; usually the death of the bad Boss is at the end of the movie, and Ichi walks off into a gorgeous sunset, the entire story taking up maybe a week of subjective time. This time, though, we find Ichi keeping a low profile, falling in with a massage service filled with louts and fools, until word reaches the service that he is a wanted criminal, and Ichi hits the road once again, only to find out that in the interim, Sugo has made Asagoro the local constable, and the once-noble yakuza chief has fully gone over to the Dark Side.
An intriguing character throughout this is Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), a fallen samurai who refuses to carry a sword. He is teaching the farmers about things like crop rotation and organizing into communes – let’s face it, he’s a socialist, and non-violent, to boot; another person who lays a guilt trip on Ichi for his swordplay. Fearing the growing popularity of this community organizer, Suga and Asagoro arrest him and accuse him of being an Imperialist, which is an executable crime under the shogunate.
So after his final showdown with the traitorous Asagoro (and it is thanks to Rentaro Mikuni’s talent and this new production regime’s sensibilities that we’re kept guessing as to Asagoro’s true intentions until the bitter, bloody end), Ichi must still rescue Ohara, giving the movie its most indelible image: the organized farmers carrying the wounded Ichi on a wooden panel in an enforced march through the countryside to intercept the transport carrying him to his death. Because the villagers, at least, realize that only Ichi has the skills to save their savior. True to form, after he is released, Ohara says, “So, you spilled blood on the land after all.” To which Ichi replies, “Yeah, but the land needs you,” and then, probably tired of this hippie bullshit, limps off, the farmers yelling their thanks but not offering him as much as a band-aid.
The Outlaw is the most political Zatoichi movie yet, and that lends it a philosophical complexity that oddly, I find I almost resent. It also shows Ichi at his most fallible, and there is only so much of the harm he causes in this story that can undone by more harm. I am apparently a simple, brutish lout who likes his stories black and white; more likely, Katsu had been thinking for some time that it was time for his franchise to grow up and deal with some of the ramifications of the avenging angel act. He’d tried to do this with Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, but was outvoted by the studio heads at Daiei. Now his own boss, he could plumb the additional depths the series required to continue successfully.
Zatoichi Challenged (1967)
With his usual impeccable timing, Ichi shares a room at a crowded inn with a dying woman, and promises to take her son to his father, an artist who lives in another village. First the two fall in with a traveling troupe of actors, an odd interlude that serves mainly, it seems, to spotlight the vocals of one of the actresses. This light diversion serves, at the very least, to introduce the fact that a local yakuza Boss named Gonzo (quiet, Thompson fans) is forcibly taking over the territory of the nicer Boss who’s been hosting the actors for years. The troupe’s troubles with Gonzo also serve to reintroduce a mysterious samurai from the prelude of the movie, Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe), whose wanderings will intersect Ichi’s with greater frequency.
Ichi tracks the artist, Shokichi, to a potter, where he was serving as an apprentice until he vanished a year before. The potter mutters about him hanging around Gonzo’s gambling dens before his disappearance, and thus detective Ichi goes to work, with a surprising amount of that work accomplished thanks to an impromptu massage appointment.
Ichi finds out what we’ve known for a while: Shokichi is a prisoner at Gonzo’s compound, and is being forced to design pornographic images for dishes and pottery that will be fired with gold and silver and sold to wealthy lords – a practice which was punishable under shogunate law by death. Akazuka is working as a government agent, and his orders are to kill everyone involved with this scheme, including the unfortunate artist. When Akazuka refuses to yield to Ichi’s pleas for mercy on the artist’s part, the two engage in one of the best fights in the series thus far. Superbly choreographed in a gentle snowfall, Akazuka proves himself a worthy opponent by lasting against Ichi longer than anybody else. In fact, at one point, Akazuka has won… but realizes that Ichi was willing to die for the artist, puts away his sword, and walks away into the snow, leaving a trail of his own blood.
This is the movie that the Rutger Hauer movie Blind Fury was based upon, with, of course, the pornographic crockery replaced by designer drugs. The presence of the child is probably what caused to the filmmakers to think this could be a commercially viable concept. In truth, the child is more a plot device than anything, and is so annoying we wonder why Ichi gets so attached to him. I don’t even recall Blind Fury getting a theatrical release (apparently it did, but not a wide one). It was largely shot in Houston, and my pal, the late Red Mitchell, had a small role as a Neo-Nazi thug who got zatoichied by Hauer, but he was cut from the final version. All I got out of the production was Tex Cobb threatening my life because I couldn’t roll a joint for him fast enough.
But back to Zatoichi. My man Kenji Misumi is at the helm again, and it shows in slow, purposeful unveiling of the plot. His skills kind of fail, though, to make that brat likable. Maybe that’s just me.
Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)
The Zatoichi theme song, introduced midway through Zatoichi the Outlaw, with vocals by Katsu himself, is now fully-formed – as does seem to be the new production regime’s mission statement, which is to take the title character and put him through seven kinds of hell. See how much damage he can take, and still kill everybody in the end.
The fugitives of the title are a band of sociopathic thieves who are murdering their way across the countryside, one step ahead of the law. Two of their number make the mistake of trying to take advantage of a blind man eating rice balls by the side of the road. Since that man is Ichi, they’re both going to die quickly once their swords come out (one with a hypertensive geyser of blood that presages Shogun Assassin). This is witnessed by Oaki (the devastatingly cute Yumiko Nogawa), the female hanger-on of the bandits, ensuring that the rest of the gang will be gunning for a blind man. One of them literally – his specialty is a pistol.
Ichi is going to cross paths with these fugitives several times, and pass up the opportunity to cut them to pieces several times. This speaks to his growing distaste for using his deadlier skills – he prefers to use his reputation to scare the local Boss into releasing an ailing girl from her indentured servitude – but he will pay dearly for that charity, as will several others. The Boss-turned-corrupt-official will use the gang to slaughter the village headman and his family, then Ichi will be severely wounded by the gun-packing bandit.
Ichi has, meantime, taken up with the local doctor (the always welcome Takashi Shimura), a genuinely good man with a surprising link to the band of fugitives. The Boss takes the doctor and his daughter prisoner, hoping to force them to reveal where the wounded Ichi is recuperating. He might as well have signed his own death warrant, as the half-dead blind man is limping his way to the compound in a driving rainstorm to rescue his friends, resulting in one of the greatest reveals in action cinema: a bloody, soaked Ichi stepping out of the darkness and telling the Boss in a sepulchral tone, “I have returned from Hell for you.”
This is one of the darkest Ichi stories yet; it’s a general darkness that seems to have flowed through world cinema in that troubled time. By the final scene, Ichi has done precisely what he had to in order to survive, but he senses that this very act has rendered him an outcast from the very people he has been trying to save. Bleeding, exhausted, he limps into the night, and that melancholy theme song plays again. It’s a surprisingly downbeat denouement, the bitter fruits of this harvest. A similar ending was attempted in Zatoichi the Outlaw, but it is far more successful here. It resonates perfectly with Ichi’s growing discomfort with his role as avenging angel, and just feels remarkably complete, if that makes any sense.
If the series had to end anywhere, this would have made a perfect stopping point. Fortunately, I don’t get to make that call, and still have seven movies in the set to watch.
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