I’ve been watching the movies contained in the Criterion Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box for over a month now; it’s odd to consider that I’m nearing the end of them – only seven to go. Then, of course, I have managed to track down five of the six collections of the TV series put out by Tokyo Shock around 2008 – and does anybody have any earthly idea why the second volume of that now commands upward of $150? Also saving my pennies for the out-of-print disc TS put out of Zatoichi: Darkness is His Ally, Shintaro Katsu’s 1989 swan song to the character. So I will continue to be Ichi-fied for some time.
Meanwhile, still moving through the 60s pictures:
Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)
For someone who could give Daredevil a run for his money, Ichi really does have some of the worst timing ever. To pay for his hospitality, a disagreeable yakuza Boss sends Ichi along with a party of six thugs to force a ne’er-do-well to cough up the thirty ryo he owes. When the target douses the lantern in his hovel and sends the sighted yakuza bleeding out into the night, Ichi has to step in – after all, darkness makes no difference to him – and though Ichi explains matters to him, the guy still insists on attacking, with the usual fatal result. This occurs just as the man’s sister appears with the money to pay his debt.
That’s bad enough, but then the Boss’ regulars announce they’re also taking the woman prisoner as interest on the debt, which is when Ichi steps in. Turns out the entire thing was an elaborate scheme to press the woman into service to the local corrupt magistrate, so the Boss would get a lucrative concession at a new palace, or something. Ichi tells the Boss that ain’t happening, kills a thug who called him a “blind bastard” once too often, and then takes it upon himself to get the girl, Osode (Yoshiko Mita) safely to her aunt in a nearby town. Osode is, shall we say, conflicted about receiving help from the man who killed her brother, but the Boss’ men are still following her, and there is a troublesome ronin (Makoto Sato, a popular action star in his own right), who has eyes on Osode, and also on a huge bounty on Ichi’s head. Osode keeps sneaking off from Ichi’s care, only to find herself captured once more, and at one point Ichi, desperate to catch up with her, basically steals a horse to cover ground more quickly – then realizes he has absolutely no idea how to stop a horse.
Comic actor Takuya Fujioka, a friend of Katsu’s, plays Shinsuke, another peripatetic yakuza who is something of a bungler, but in whom Ichi still finds a staunch ally. Once more Kenji Misumi directs a splendid action picture, full of gorgeous natural vistas and nicely choreographed sword fights. I’m a bit dismayed at Ichi actually cheating at dice, and at least one instance of questionable physics, but overall Misumi once again delivers a fine Zatoichi movie, and if the traditionally complex plot is absent, at least this time Ichi isn’t bleeding to death as he walks off into the sunset. I worry about him, you know.
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
And here we are, the first Zatoichi movie I ever watched, some 25 years ago or so. It was fairly available back in the days of the first VHS wave, largely due to the name recognition factor of Toshiro Mifune and Yojimbo. I frequented a video store back then that had an amazing catalog of foreign movies. (Also cheapass straight-to-video horror movies, but that is a story for another time.)
This was a collaboration between Katsu Productions and Toho. The previous movie, Samaritan Zatoichi, had been released almost two years before, a telling gap when previously, Daiei had been releasing three a year for some time. It is also the longest of the Zatoichi movies at nearly two hours, when others had run just short of 90 minutes. All these factors serve to make this a rather novel entry in the series; but the major component setting this movie apart remains the presence of Toshiro Mifune, and the concurrent doubling of star power, for better or worse.
The movie opens with a nightmarish scene, a marsh during a rainstorm, where everybody out in the storm is preying upon everybody else. Ichi breaks his sword dealing with one attacker, and becomes overcome with homesickness. He returns to his home village for the first time in three years; he delights in the familiar sound of a stream, not seeing the dead bodies rotting in its waters. He bypasses a bizarre improvised graveyard unaware of the rough carvings of monks serving as tombstones. Things have changed in the last three years. The village has been taken over by the rich merchant Eboshiya (Osamu Takizawa), and a rival gang formed by his son, the hyperactive Masagoro (Masakane Yonekura), who relies, both for muscle and for strategy, on his bodyguard, Sassa (Mifune). When Sassa isn’t drunk or making time with local prostitute Umeno (Ayako Wakao), he’s egging Masagoro on about a bar of gold the Boss is certain his father is hiding somewhere. There is some skullduggery afoot regarding gold there, but it’s not what one would suspect.
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Ichi in that last paragraph. He is there, but seems almost a guest star in his own movie. The necessity of devoting screen time to Mifune and developing his character is what adds the extra time to the movie. Despite what many people insist, although Mifune is playing a yojimbo, a bodyguard, he is not playing Sanjuro, the subject of two Kurosawa movies. Really, Sanjuro was far too similar to Zatoichi to be used in this story – a rough and tumble traveler who altruistically did the right thing and protected the weak against the worst elements of a corrupt world. The character of Sassa is not quite so complex, but has his secrets – and some of those secrets run counter to Sanjuro’s character.
Eboshiya eventually brings in another bodyguard, Kuzuryu (a properly cadaverous Shin Akida), who turns out to be the sort of villain Sassa pretends to be, while still having a surprising connection to the yojimbo. As with all other Zatoichi flicks, the threads come together in the end, but unlike most of them, the loose ends just sort of flail together in a mass instead of the usual tidy bundle.
Both Katsu and Mifune could be legendary troublemakers on the set, and a legend about the two disagreeing about who would win the final duel persists, but seems wildly unlikely. Would Mifune really think he would be allowed to end a successful series, 20 entries long? I kind of doubt that, but I could also see Katsu and Mifune pranking the world with the idea. Good publicity, too. The revisiting of Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo at this remove did give me one insight, into why I never bothered before to seriously look into the series, even when Animeigo released the series domestically back in the early part of the century. Again, it’s due to the presence of Mifune and the necessary focus put on his character. I find I don’t care much for Ichi’s character in this outing, outside of a few outstanding comedic bits, and that is the impression I carried with me for the next twenty-five years or so.
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
This is the first film in the series where star Shintaro Katsu has a co-writing credit, and I wish I were clever enough to ascertain exactly where his contributions lie. I’m tempted to say it’s some of the more outrageous comedy bits, but that’s just guesswork on my part.
Ichi rescues a woman from a “mistress auction” (earlier translations called it a “geisha auction”), who had been “wife to a retainer of the Shogun”. That night, she steals Ichi’s wallet, and runs into a moody samurai who she recognizes – and says not a word as he kills her. Turns out this ronin (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, sixteen times more intense and crazy than his role in Sword of Doom) was the lady’s husband, and he’s determined to kill everybody she ever slept with – and that includes Ichi, although he’s innocent.
But that, my friends, is mere subplot. Ichi’s real problem is the yakuza Superboss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori), who has united all the gangs in the region under his control – and is, himself, blind. Yamikubo is aware of what a nuisance this Zatoichi chap can be, and when an ambush in a bathhouse fails (probably nerve-wracking to shoot, even with blunt swords and all that exposed man-flesh), the Superboss reveals why he holds that high position. He rightly feels that throwing more knives at Ichi isn’t going to work, and takes the opposite tack: he sends the daughter of his right hand man, the lovely Okiyo (Reiko Ohara) to get close enough to kill our favorite masseur. Though Ichi is charmed by the young lady, Okiyo (of course) falls in love with Ichi, his lack of guile and his decency. This will lead up to Yamikubo’s ultimate death trap (of which the title is an ironic clue) and the final showdown between two blind adversaries – not to mention that troublesome and now completely insane ronin, who shows up when Ichi is about to drown in yakuza, announces “No one kills this man but me,” and proceeds to turn into a combination of Lone Wolf and a threshing machine.
Kenji Misumi is back in the director’s chair for this one, and though the movie betrays its 1970 origins with a number of Eurocine snap-zooms and close-ups through telephoto lenses, Misumi’s visual flair and penchant for truly lovely natural vistas to set his scenes against is stronger than ever. Outstanding in the comedy department is a really odd scene with a man and a woman running a roadside tea stand who bicker more than the Kramdens, but with the added appeal of flying kicks. I wanted to see more of them, but it’s probably best that Katsu obeys the laws of showbiz, and leaves me wanting more. There is another, stranger character in wannabe yakuza and amateur pimp Umeji (played by transgender actor Peter, likely best known to American audiences for his role in Ran), an androgynous youth who looks like an anime character. At one point, he attempts to seduce Ichi and assassinate him. It’s played for laughs, but I’m still trying to parse if my discomfort with that scene is due to my sexual orientation or that it’s played for laughs. I may never figure that out.
So here I am, four movies out – not counting TV series and swan song – and I’m feeling more and more of a need to take a break from Ichi. This may only be a matter of a week or so. Maybe a little longer. But we’ll come back to this glorious box and finish it out, sooner rather than later.