The Zatoichi Box, Part Five

$150-$200? Really?

$150-$200? Really? That’s fifty bucks an episode.

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)

62.jpg?w=584For 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. osodeOsode 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-19-samaritan-zatoichi

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO JPAnd 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. zatoichi_meets_yojimboThings 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.

image31355Eboshiya 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. Zatoichi-Meets-Yojimbo-1965The 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)

zatoichi-goes-to-the-fire-festival (1)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.

ichi_twentyoneBut 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. z21_3Though 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. z21_1Outstanding 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.

The Zatoichi Box, Part Four

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)

Zatoichi_16_Zatoichi_the_OutlawRight 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.

zato16_03An 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.z16

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)

275389-zatoichi_challenged_chikemurikaido_largeOnce again, Ichi finds himself saddled with a child, and is determined to return him to his distant father. This time, though, the boy is six years old, and something of a brat.

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.

Z17-4smIchi 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.

Z17-2smBut 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)

Zatoichi and the Fugitives.lgThe 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.

zat18Ichi 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. zato18_01

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.

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 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

Sword of Doom (1966)

I try to approach movies as tabula rasa as possible. You know, a general understanding of genre and plot, perhaps, no more than you would get from your average video box. That’s part of watching a good movie for the first time; the Discovery Phase, keeping up with the characters, the twists and turns of the plot. Hell, one of my best evenings was going to a sneak preview of John Sayles’ Matewan, when we only knew the name of the movie, period.

Sometimes, though, that blissful ignorance can work against you.

Sword of Doom is a very well-regarded samurai flick. 8 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database, two different releases from Criterion. This was literally all I needed to know going in.

Sword of Doom is the tale of Ryunosuke Tsukue (a marvelous performance by Tatsuya Nakadai), an extraordinary swordsman, and also apparently an unremittingly evil one. At the movie’s beginning, Ryunosuke comes across an aged Buddhist pilgrim at a roadside shrine, praying for death so he will no longer be a burden on his young daughter. Ryunosuke obligingly kills him on the spot without batting an eyelash. A traveling peddler almost meets the same fate, but is too swift, running away before the disinterested Ryunosuke can slash again. The peddler then finds the old man’s daughter sobbing over the corpse.

Ryunosuke is fighting a duel the next day, with a samurai who, if he wins, will become a fencing master at the school Ryunosuke abandoned; his ailing father begs him to let the man win, and despairs of the fighting style his son has developed, a “cruel style” which draws in the opponent and dispatches him quickly, like a snake striking. He feels the cruelty of the form has taken over his son’s life. This may be true, as that evening, his opponent’s wife arrives to beg Ryunosuke to let him win, and our black-clad anti-hero forces her to give up her body in a decrepit river mill to seal the deal.

The husband gets wind of this however, and the match becomes a duel to the death. This becomes obvious to everyone witnessing this match, the fencing masters as well as the audience, before a blow is even struck. The referee quickly calls a draw, but the husband launches an illegal attack, deftly parried by Ryunosuke, who instantly kills the man… with one blow from a wooden sword. Ryunosuke then leaves town, the widow in tow, while dispatching about twenty clansmen seeking revenge on a country road.

Two years pass, Ryunosuke fathers a child with the widow, and what seemed quiet insanity in the nihilistic samurai becomes slowly more overt as he falls in with a group of pro-Shogunate swordsmen who advance their cause through assassination, letting Ryunosuke handle the tougher targets. Concurrent with this, we find that his dueling victim’s brother is searching for him, and, on advice of Ryunosuke’s own dying father, has begun taking lessons from famed fencing instructor Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) to defeat Ryunosuke’s Silent style.

All this comes to a head in a party house in Kyoto, where, in a supposedly haunted room, Ryunosuke discovers that the courtesan he is supposed to kill (to keep silent about a plan to murder the head of his gang) is actually the daughter of the old man he killed at the beginning of the movie. This what finally seems to break the hard-drinking samurai, as he sees the shadows of people he has killed in the corners of the room and goes berserk, slashing at the many screens on which the shadows appear. A counterplot to kill Ryunosuke and his co-conspirator interrupts his screen-slashing, and Ryunosuke spends the rest of the picture cutting his way through a seemingly unending throng of swordsmen, who, through sheer force of numbers, manage to wound him enough to slow him down, until the movie ends in a freeze-frame, Ryunosuke in mid-slash.

Here is where the ignorance works counter to your enjoyment. There are several well-developed plot threads left unresolved by this ending, and any uneducated gaijin like myself is going to find himself hell of bewildered. Earlier in the week I had Tweeted that I loved Criterion for continuing to rock the pack-in booklet on its releases, and this one, an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, provided me everything I needed to know, mainly this is the first movie in a trilogy that never got finished.

Based on one of those outlandishly complex serialized novels so popular in Asia, Dai-bosatsu tōge – left unfinished at 41 volumes by the death of its author, Kaizan Nakazato – Sword of Doom is apparently a Greatest Hits version of the first third of the series, very familiar to the Japanese audience of the time. There had already been three movie versions of the novel by this time, two of which were trilogies.

But all we have right now is Sword of Doom, so let’s examine it. It is a beautifully well-made movie (which makes its unfinished qualities more frustrating), with strong performances across many interesting, complex characters. The two formal fencing matches, the first the duel at the beginning, the second a match between Ryunosuke and, unwittingly, the vengeful brother, are marvelously presented, the two fencers standing in silence for what seems an eternity. The counter-intuitive nature of Ryunosike’s silent style, sword down, eyes averted, looks incredibly fiendish in execution.

Director Kihacho Okamoto is more than ably supported by cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, who produces some of the most gorgeous black-and-white photography since Gregg Toland. One especially glorious example is a scene taking place during Winter, when Ryunosuke’s gang ambushes a palanquin containing who they think to be an indolent lord they wish to kill. Unfortunately for them, their information is bad, and the occupant of the chair is none other than fencing master Shimada, who demands an immediate apology. Being thugs, they decline, and attack instead – bad guys, when Toshiro Mifune demands an apology, you fucking say I’m sorry! Shimada proceeds to turn them to thug soup in a heavy snowfall, producing a scenic view of brutal beauty that would crop up later in manga like Lone Wolf and Cub. The sequence is so striking even Ryunosuke is stunned… not to mention dismayed that here might actually be an opponent he cannot best.

The quality of Sword of Doom is such that most of the feeling left from viewing it is of regret that the trilogy was not finished, as there are at least three characters I feel are standing slightly out of frame, waiting for the chance to finish their stories, and now they will never get the chance. Especially now that I know so much of the actual story still lay before them, that conclusion was likely not the one I was expecting, and since my determined ignorance was due to the fact that I love to be surprised by story… that makes me even sadder and more frustrated.

Good movie, though. I should be happy with what I got.

No trailer this time, but here’s footage set to Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries” that will give you some idea of how powerful this movie truly is:

The List: One Word or Less

Man, a lot of noteworthy – well, noteworthy in the sub-spheres I inhabit – noteworthy people died last week. Sheldon Moldoff, an artist who did many berserk covers for comic books in the Golden through early Silver Age; Ralph McQuarrie, another artist, responsible for the look and feel of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.; and, to bring it into the realm of this blog, Davy Jones.

Jones was, of course, the “face”, the “cute one” who fronted the Monkees. The Monkees are an odd thing to consider. I loved their shows when I was watching it on Saturday mornings, where I recall CBS put the syndicated series on several years after NBC had cancelled the primetime series. Watching them recently… well, not so much. As the boys exerted ore and more influence over the show, it became less stable, more obtuse (though I suspect I would still like the final episode, directed by Mickey. That was hilarious.).

Yes, they were the Pre-Fab Four, auditioned and cast when existing groups like The Lovin’ Spoonful weren’t available.

The more research you do, the more puzzling it becomes: no, they didn’t play the instruments on their first couple of albums, only supplied voice tracks; yes, they could play. Mike, I knew about. Peter came from the folk scene, and knew guitar and keyboards; Mickey could do guitar, but learned the drums because Davy, who could play them, was too short for the cameras to see over the drum set. In spite of the fact that it’s Mickey doing lead vocals on most of the songs.

The self-destruction of The Monkees seems almost scripted as well – or, at least predictable. Conceived as an attempt to emulate Beatlemania, the emulation became truth, and the boys began to chafe under the control of Don Kirschner, wanted to write and perform their own music, to be their own men. The same conceit that birthed them gave their critics their biggest ammo: they couldn’t play their instruments, they used session musicians, they didn’t write their own music. There’s truth in all those, but it was also true of a lot of popular groups. They were perceived as having had success handed to them, unearned, and that hurt.

So it was pretty much by accord that the TV series was cancelled after two years; The Monkees weren’t interested in doing it anymore, and NBC was tired of dealing with them. Producer/Director Bob Rafelson used the box office success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! to get funding for a Monkees movie. The result was Head, it was a dismal failure at the box office, absolutely buried under an obscure ad campaign and oddly chosen venues… and it is one of my very favorite movies of all time.

So of course, the day Davy died, I had to watch it.

I’m not even going to try to give you a synopsis of what goes on in this movie – that’s like trying to close your fist around a glob of quicksilver. It is possible to recount exactly what happens in HeadChad Plambeck does it pretty effectively here – but even then, it doesn’t match the full effect of the movie. There is no plot, and trying to find one will only frustrate you; but if you follow the advice of a stoned William Hurt in The Big Chill and “let art wash over you”, what you get is the truest translation of an acid trip to film ever accomplished. Neurons firing multi-colored bursts in all directions, someone keeps changing the channel and there’s Monkees on every channel. An idea slides smoothly into another idea, never mind that one has nothing to do with the other.

People like Chad and other folks smarter than me feel they have found the meaning behind the chaos, and they make damned good cases for it, too. Me, I just like to sit and enjoy the madness.

My favorite moments, of course, are the meta moments. During Davy’s tenement romance sub-movie, complete with Annette Funicello love interest (Rafelson, not knowing if he would ever make another movie, said he made about 50 of them in the course of Head) he’s a violin player who wants to be a prize fighter. Davy is getting the living hell beaten out of him by Sonny Liston (yes, really) while Mickey, in the crowd, is yelling “Stay down! Stay down!” When Mike, playing an obvious crime kingpin, calls Mickey a “dummy”, Mickey goes berserk, climbing into the ring and punching out Davy (“Stay down!”) and Sonny, and in fact, all comers, screaming “I’m not the dummy!” until he is calmed down by Peter, who appears against a wall of boxing ring smoke (or is it supposed to be a sort of heavenly haze?) and tells him, in a calm, steady matter-of-fact voice, “You’re not the dummy, Mickey. I’m the dummy. I’m always the dummy.”

In my post-young fella years, I find that Peter is the one I wind up liking the most.

Since we’re doing this in Davy’s honor, though, here he is singing “Daddy’s Song” by Harry Nilsson, dancing with Toni Basil and tripping everybody’s head out. Reminds one that Davy started out as The Artful Dodger in the Broadway Oliver!. And, oh yeah, there’s some guy named Frank Zappa in there, too.

Yeaaaaah, either Columbia didn’t know what to do with it (likely) or just decided to bury it (also likely). In any case, I had never really heard of it until it cropped up on the CBS Late Night Movie one night and I said, “Wait. The Monkees made a movie?” It seemed to have a very healthy life in bootlegs after that, until it got a legit release on VHS and then DVD, and now it’s part of a box set from The Criterion Collection.

I cannot tell you how impressive the Criterion disc of Head looks. I bought the set (America Lost & Found – The BBS Story) before I purchased a Blu-Ray player, and I can only imagine what this sucker looks like in true high-def. The upscaled DVD is almost painfully sharp, allowing me to see details I had never noticed before, like the designs painted on the psychedelic mermaid’s faces in the opening number “Porpoise Song”. In another meta bit, where at the end of a scene “Cut” is yelled and we see the whole film crew bustle about for the next setup, we see Producer/Screenwriter Jack “Lookit me, I’m so young” Nicholson. But what I had never noticed before, in that same bustle, is Dennis Hopper, wearing his Easy Rider togs, which would be Rafelson’s next Producer gig.

On top of that, in an earlier portion – a World War II movie – Peter is trying to get some ammo for his squad, but keeps getting tackled by Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke. Peter escapes with some ammo, Nitschke throws his golden football helmet after him, and Peter gives it to Mickey, who considers his GI issue helmet “a drag”.

The next time we see that golden football helmet, it’s going be on Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. This stuff can make your head spin. Appropriately enough.

I actually did watch other movies last week. Let’s see if I can get through them without blathering 1000 words on each:

Doom is the new Justice League animated movie from DC Universe/Warner Brothers Animation. I was all set to give this one a bye until I found out it was apparently one of Dwayne McDuffie’s last projects, so I went ahead with my pre-order. In a lot of ways, McDuffie was the heart and soul of the animated Justice League series, Static Shock and some of the more exemplary DTV offerings via DC Universe. His untimely death last year was a serious, serious blow, and when movies like Doom come along, you find out all over again just how much we lost.

Based on the Mark Waid JLA story arc, “Tower of Babel”, Doom gives us yet another version of the Legion of Doom, this time headed up by the literally immortal Vandal Savage. Batman (being Batman) has detailed contingency plans on what to do if any member of the Justice League ever turns evil; Savage gets hold of these and refines them to lethal outcomes, then unleashes each superheroes’ arch-nemesis  upon them. It’s a good story, well-done, and features the familiar voice talent from the various animated series, plus Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern once again. I find that sort of continuity comforting; sometimes stunt casting the voices yields good results, sometimes they’re distracting and disastrous. I just know in my head that Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy and Superman sounds like Tim Daly.

Pretty good way to spend 80 minutes or so. Not sure I’m going to be around for any further offerings from DC Universe; I could be wrong, but I get a feeling of diminishing returns over the last year or so.

I followed up Doom with Cube, which was apparently a staple in the good old days of the Sci-Fi Channel before they started deliberately misspelling their name, and was a constant presence on the video store shelves. None of this ever meant I had seen it; there are lots of holes in my viewing history, and that is one of the things The List is about: remedying those absences. Not that Cube was on either of this year’s lists; but I listened to a typically excellent Projection Booth podcast covering it and thought, “Okay. I should nudge that further up the non-list.”

Cube is a low-budget sci-fi film with a fairly simple premise: Five people wake up in a high-tech structure of interlocking rooms. Each room is a cube, with doors on each wall, floor, and ceiling. Each door leads to another cubic room. And some of the rooms are booby-trapped.

With nothing more than the prison-type uniforms they wear, no food or water, they try to find a way out. At first they note sequences of numbers on each door; if the number is prime, the room beyond seems to have no trap. But even that dodge stops working, and they have to find the more devious, complex clues to make it through alive.

So, actually, what we have here is a movie that takes place largely in one room; sure, it changes colors to give the impression of multiple rooms, but that’s a brilliant setup for a low-budget film. What remains is a character study as the process wears away at each of our protagonists. The balance of power tips and changes; weak characters turn out be stronger than anticipated, and vice versa. That’s a tricky road to follow, but the actors, happily, are up to the task.The ending is… well, not anti-climactic, but unsatisfying. To me, anyway. This is one of those movies where you’re not really going to get any answers outside the ones the characters come up with themselves, and those aren’t going to get validated.

So that was three movies I watched last week. But now I’ve gone and brought up that gosh-darned List, and those of you keeping track at home (snort) have noticed that none of these movies is on either list. So I felt I needed to hit one of those movies  or feel myself a shallow mockery of a man. Of course, I was also on a bit of a roll, and I am unable to resist gimmicks. I had just watched three movies with lots of colors: the psychedelia of Head, the four-color mayhem of Doom, and the color-coded rooms of Cube. Did I have a movie on The List that also centered upon color in this fashion? Well, no, I didn’t, but I did have a movie that had a one-word title.

Hello, Inception.

Inception is one of those movies where really, seriously, I have no idea why it took me so long to see it. I was really excited by those trailers, back when nobody had the first damned idea what the movie was about, but those visuals. Well, it was probably a number of reasons that kept me away. Summers are notoriously tight on money for me, what with the AC bills. I still feel an adversarial relationship with most people who go to the movies these days. So anyway, when it came out on DVD, it was the very first Blu-Ray I ever bought, even before I had a player – one of those Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs – so I was probably, subconsciously, waiting until I could watch the Blu-Ray.


Probably, most of you know the basic concept, at least, of the movie by now. An “extraction” is the high-tech corporate espionage term for stealing information from a person’s brain while they dream; an “Inception”, then, is the placing of an idea in a person’s brain while they sleep. Much more difficult, and, in the world of the movie, next to impossible. But Leonardo DiCaprio, in order to get back into the country legally (a situation teased out over the course of the movie) is willing to give it a shot.This will require taking his team three dreams deep – a dream within a dream within a dream – to accomplish it. To complicate matters, the target’s mind has been trained to resist such antics, and his resistance takes the form of unrelenting gunmen. And the reason for DiCaprio’s expatriation – his dead wife – keeps cropping up to screw things up, which eventually requires going into a fourth level of dreaming – possibly even a fifth.

This is a real mindfuck of a movie, and I totally respect that. One needs to pay attention, or one is going to get lost. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, it isn’t that hard, if you keep your wits about you. The rules and conventions of this dream invasion stuff is laid out for you, as you need it, causing Joe over at the Daily Grindhouse to call this Exposition: The Movie. Well, we need that information, and it is played out so matter-of-factly, and in easily digestible chunks, that it’s never intrusive, and never slows down the story.

Inception is pretty close to being a perfect movie. Everything is in its place, everything serves a purpose. As far as possible, Nolan keeps his special effects in-camera, heightening the sense of realism, even when that realism starts getting  elastic. I’d say it was worth the wait, except the wait served no real purpose.

By way of coda, after my wife and I had finished watching it, she said, “Well, what was the point of that? Be sure to choose good dreams?” to which I could only reply, “I don’t think movies have to make a point. I’m personally willing to just let a movie take me somewhere else for two hours.” Which it did, and that brings us full circle. I let art wash over me, and I was refreshed for it.

I really need to start just writing about movies one at a time again. This is getting grueling.