The ABCs of March, Part Five

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E  F through J  K through O  P through T

U: Upstream Color (2013)

upstreamA lot of us know about Shane Carruth through his first feature, Primer. If you’re any kind of a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it. If not, well… it’s currently not on Netflix Instant, which is where I first encountered it, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, a time travel story that’s brainy, dense, and remarkably free of the usual claptrap that surrounds such stories. Also, like the best Nolan movies, you need to pay attention every minute, and your gray matter is going to get a workout.

Now take that and square it, and you may be ready to approach Upstream Color.

Any attempt at a synopsis is going to get nightmarishly complex. Check out any of those on various streaming media, and you will find yourself wondering, “What movie did they watch?” I’m no better, but here goes:

A guy called only Thief (Thiago Martins) has found a worm that lives in certain exotic orchids; if a person ingests it, the parasite makes them instantly docile and extremely susceptible to brainwashing techniques, which he uses to steal every cent they have and cover his tracks… in case they survive the harrowing aftermath. At the beginning of the movie, he does this to Kris (Amy Seimetz), leaving her dazedly trying to cut out the worms scurrying under her skin with a butcher knife. Another mystery man called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) attracts her to a remote location with electronic music that is also coaxing normal earthworms out of the ground. He uses a crude but effective method to get the parasites out of Kris and into an anesthetized pig. The next day, Kris awakes as if from a nightmare, and attempts to try to put her completely destroyed life back together.

Eventually Jeff (our auteur, Shane Carruth) becomes attracted to her, and a relationship forms. Jeff, it turns out, has a similar black hole in his life, in which he abused his position as a broker to embezzle a lot of funds. They start finding out they have a lot of things in common, and a lot of things they shouldn’t have in common, because their identities are still fractured and bleeding into each other. The Sampler is not as beneficent as he seems; he has a whole herd of pigs, all carrying parasites from other victims, and he uses the connections these parasites still have with their former hosts to sample their lives.

upstream-color-pigs-croppedThat is about as bare bones yet cohesive as I can get. Like Primer, there is a hell of a lot of grist for the conversation mill here. Where it’s going to differ from Primer, though, is that much of that is so much more abstruse than its predecessor. The motivations of The Sampler are still beyond my comprehension, and that may in fact be the point: our lives are frequently shaped by unknowable forces, by people who we will never meet but nonetheless have power over us. I found it hypnotic and engrossing; others are just going to be pissed off.

One of my major frustrations with fiction is a perverse one – I love having a mystery to ponder, so much so that I feel let down when that mystery is solved (probably the main reason I liked Lost so much, even though most people use it as a swear word these days). I’m still chewing on Upstream Color days later. I like that.  Some people won’t. I’m okay with that. (This being the Internet, I also find that this tolerance is not reciprocated, and I expect I will soon be told why I am an idiot. Whatever.)

Upstream Color on Amazon

V: Vampyr (1932)

vampyrposterAnother one I had seen twenty years or so ago (on laserdisc, no less).

Carl Theodor Dreyer was looking for a more commercial property after his Passion of Joan of Arc was a critical and box office failure. (It is now, of course, widely regarded as a masterpiece) So hey, why not a horror movie? Remembering the problems Murnau went through with Nosferatu and a litigious Florence Stoker, he derived his inspiration from a collection of stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, In A Glass Darkly, which had recently gone into the public domain – so odd to consider that at the time, these things happened automatically 50 years after a creator’s death.

Supposedly Vampyr is based on the famous story “Carmilla”, which Hammer Films would go on to milk some forty years later. I say supposedly because the only thing the two have in common is a female vampire – and after gender, we draw the line.

A young traveler, Alan Gray (Julian West) stops at a remote inn; he is visited by a man who tells him, “She must not die,” and leaves him with a small package that is labeled “To be opened in the event of my death”. Gray investigates, and soon finds himself embroiled in the woes of a family being afflicted by the title creature,  aided by the village doctor. The man who visited him (the father of the victim) is assassinated by one of the vampire’s henchmen, so the package is opened: it contains a book about vampires, which turns out to be damned handy, as it even name checks the woman who is causing all the trouble.

vampyr460There is a delirious, dream-like quality about Vampyr, even before its most famous sequence, when Gray, pursuing the doctor into the night, passes out because he’s still weak from a blood transfusion given to the dying victim. He has an out-of-body experience in which his body is sealed into a coffin with a window over his wide-open eyes, and taken to a churchyard to be buried.

Besides the constant barrage of dream imagery and labyrinthine buildings for our protagonist to wander through, Dreyer’s camera is often in motion for very modern, swift dolly moves, at times feeling like a chiaroscuro Shining without benefit of a Steadicam. Most of the movie is silent, with the very few pieces of dialogue recorded by a still-experimental method; the silent parts show all the power and expertise of Dreyer’s mastery of that form.

The vampire storyline itself is pretty standard stuff these days, after almost a century of such tales. What sets Vampyr apart is that marvelous visual palette, and the embellishments wrought by Dreyer: shadows detached from the bodies that cast them, a vampire that is so obviously an old woman, certainly not the Ingrid Pitt Carmilla.

The major fun I have in considering the movie is that “Julian West” – actually the film’s financier, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg – looks a little like H.P. Lovecraft, and the villainous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko, a Polish journalist – Dreyer liked using non-actors) has a passing resemblance to Albert Einstein. I like to think of the two of them as pals, filming a movie with borrowed equipment on the weekends, Lovecraft playing hookey from his writing and Einstein from his chalkboards. That, though, is a silly thing, and shouldn’t take away from my admiration for Dreyer’s final product.

Vampyr on Amazon

W: White Zombie (1932)

Yeah, somehow I’d manaPoster_-_White_Zombie_01_Crisco_restorationged to live my life without seeing this one either.

In a Haiti with a curiously small black population, Neil Parker  (John Harron) has brought in his lady love Pamela  (Madge Bellamy) to get married. On the boat over, Pamela encountered rich scalawag Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who wants Pamela for his own. Under the guise of letting the two marry in his mansion, Beaumont sets to work trying to steal her from her man. When this doesn’t work, he enlists the help of local witch doctor Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi).

Using a drug Legendre gave him, Beaumont poisons Pamela on her wedding day. She apparently dies, is laid to rest in a tomb, and is later exhumed by Legendre and his hit squad of zombies, all former enemies he has now enslaved. Beaumont is troubled by the fact that the woman he wanted is now a blanked slate, a zombie herself, which leads Legendre to poison him, too, Meanwhile, Neal rouses himself from his multi-day drunk to take on Legendre with the aid of  a sympathetic missionary (Joseph Cawthorn).

White-Zombie-1932White Zombie has some memorable images – the one you see quoted in documentaries whenever the movie is mentioned is Legendre’s zombies toiling away in his sugar mill, with one zombie slipping and falling into the cane mill’s blades, without the other zombies noticing or caring. But really, the movie belongs to Lugosi, at the height of his powers, before he became a cliche over-used by hack directors. He has several moments of cold-blooded villainy that will simply take your breath away.

The movie gets points from me for employing “the zombie drug” alluded to in Serpent and the Rainbow, offering up a somewhat rational explanation for the goings-on, even if that goes out the window with Legendre’s psychic power over his zombie slaves, embodied in the “zombie grip” of his two hands clasped together. White Zombie has another thing in common with Vampyr, too, in that the older character – the missionary here, the manservant in Vampyr – does all the heroic stuff. Take that, you young hooligans.

White Zombie on Amazon

Is it my imagination or is that Criswell doing the narration on this trailer?

 X: Xtro (1983)

XtroWell, here’s a movie starting with X I hadn’t seen yet.

Sam Phillips (Phillip Sayer) is abducted by a UFO in full sight of his young son, Tony (Simon Nash). Three years later,  Sam returns, but in a spectacularly gross and gruesome way that results in the death of three people. He shows back up at his old apartment, claiming amnesia. His wife (Bernice Stegers) is understandably confused but sympathetic, her new boyfriend (Joe Daniels) is pretty pissed off, and the au pair girl (Maryam D’Abo, debuting here) just wants to screw her boyfriend. Tony is ecstatic to have his dad back, especially once Dad infects him with some alien DNA and he starts getting psychic powers.

As if his bloody, mutating return didn’t make it obvious, Sam is no longer human. His main mission seems to be retrieving his son, but there is a much darker purpose to his visit, and it involves eggs laid in Maryam D’abo. By the kid.

Xtro1Xtro is beloved by a lot of people, because it is pretty weird in all the right ways and gooey in others. The initial return, a costume utilizing a man spidering around with a face glued to the back of his head, is suitably freaky; but just as effective are more subtle scenes, such as Sam turning on a gas heater but not lighting it, contentedly breathing in the toxic fumes.

Where the movie starts losing me is when it falls into the 80s trope of becoming a body count movie, with Tony using his newfound psychic powers to get rid of busybodies and interlopers. The alien has a dozen different ways to kill people (and uses them all, just to keep the proceedings fresh) and the kid can apparently create matter at will, using the power of his mind. Why all the subterfuge? If these aliens are so immensely powerful, why do these things in secret?

There are at least two sequels, but unless I’m desperate again for an X movie, there nothing here to interest me.

 Y: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

220px-YoungmrlincolnYeah, there’s a change that’ll give you whiplash.

This is a rah-rah end-of-the-Depression years John Ford movie with all the fixin’s, produced under the steely eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Henry Fonda (with a fake nose and trick boots to make him taller) as the Great Man. And God, is it ever good.

This takes Abe from his early days running a general store (when a family who can’t pay for any provisions off-handedly mention they do have a lot of worthless old books in the back of their wagon, oh how his eyes light up); it skips over his time in the legislature and gets right to his days as a “jackleg lawyer”, operating only off the knowledge he’s gleaned from those “worthless old books”. He’s not doing bang-up business, either, until a murder at Springfield’s annual picnic gains him a client and a mission to save two young men from the gallows, not to mention a lynch mob.

yml1This is period-piece myth-making, a form at which Ford truly excelled. Though the case is based on an actual one, Lincoln was not the attorney, and he probably never pulled a 19th Century Perry Mason act either, dramatically revealing the true murderer at the last moment. But dammit, he should have, and I don’t mind being told he did. It’s an early example of the central tenet of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s not a documentary, nor was it ever claimed to be; but in this era of gritty reboots and revisionism, I don’t mind being told a figure I’ve admired across the ages actually might have been an okay fellow.

Young Mr. Lincoln on Amazon

Z: Zatoichi (1989)

zatoichiYep, I saved one for this. Also known as Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally, this is Shintaro Katsu’s swan song to the character, and it fell outside the scope of the Criterion Box Set I ran through a few months ago.

I’d like to give you a nice plot summary here, but there actually isn’t one. There’s the usual essential elements of a Zatoichi movie: a young and ruthless yakuza assassinating his way to the top, a thoroughly corrupt official, and… eventually… an attractive young lady for the official to attempt to force himself upon. Of course, a ronin who is impressed by Ichi, and is tasked with taking Ichi down. Groups of guys show up occasionally to kill him. We’re never really sure who’s sending them. Maybe it’s a subscription service or something.

Ichi meanders from one of these elements to another, once more trotting out his scam at a crooked gambling house where he makes the less scrupulous gangsters bet on dice that have fallen outside the cup, only to show that the real dice they should be betting on were inside the cup all the time. As usual, this results in a bunch of bilked baddies trying to kill him, but a high-ranking female yakuza chief intercedes. Later, she’ll have a dalliance with the aged Ichi in a bath, and we find out that “bring our efforts to fruition” is period slang for “simultaneous orgasm”.

zatoichi-1989Well, it’s an Ichi movie, so we know he’s eventually going to kill the corrupt official to rescue the innocent girl, then go up the street to kill all the local yakuza, who have been obligingly cutting their numbers in half with a turf war of their own, anyway. The thing is, Ichi’s dealings with these gangsters has been minimal, so that really is how it seems: he’s in the neighborhood, sword-cane’s out, might as well slaughter a hundred guys.

It’s an unfortunate, more-of-the-same end note for the character, or at least Katsu’s version, which was also the only version for nearly thirty years. One really hopes for more, but one also has to realize that not every cultural icon gets to make a Shootist or an Unforgiven. More’s the pity.


The Zatoichi Box, Part Six

Previously on Yes, I Know:   Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

one-armedThe second of two Zatoichi Team-up movies (the first being Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo). The One-Armed Swordsman movies were apparently very popular in Japan. In them, Chinese superstar Jimmy Wang Yu (well, superstar until Bruce Lee arrived on the scene) plays a man who loses his arm through treachery, but masters a form of swordplay using a shortened sword to eventually rescue the spiteful woman who maimed him. There are only two of these flicks featuring Wang Yu; by the time this entry in the Zatoichi series was made, he had split from Shaw Brothers and was replaced in The New One-Armed Swordsman by David Chiang. (There’s at least one more attempt in a 1976 Taiwanese movie, One Armed Swordsman vs Nine Killers, but it’s not really the same guy).

We can’t even really be sure this is the same One-Armed Swordsman, anyway, except for the fact that it’s Wang Yu, he still dresses in black and has the same broken sword… here his name is Wang Kong, and there are no references to the rich backstory of the Chang Cheh-directed movies. Wang Kong has been invited to live in a Japanese temple by an old friend who is a monk there; speaking no Japanese, Wang is glad to fall in with a traveling family of Chinese entertainers who enjoy living in their adopted country.

zatoichi-22-zatoichi-meets-the-one-armed-swordsmanThis group encounters a parade of samurai delivering abalone to the Shogun – the father tells Wang that everybody must clear the road, under pain of death. They do so, but their young boy runs into the road after a kite, and the samurai move to kill him. Mother and father intercede, are cut down, and Wang, naturally enough, cuts a bunch of them down with his shortsword before escaping into the woods. The boy also gets away as the samurai, to cover up that so many of them were killed by one man with a busted sword, slaughters everyone else on the road, blaming their deaths on a berserk Chinaman.

With Zatoichi’s usual luck, he finds the orphaned boy and eventually the fugitive Wang. The two men cannot speak each other’s language, and the boy is of little help. Wang’s distrust of Ichi reaches a peak when Ichi goes searching for food and information, and the yakuza hired by the samurai family kill the kindly Japanese hiding Wang and the boy. The surviving daughter, Wang and the boy make it to the Japanese temple, believing Ichi betrayed them for the reward. The truth is, Wang’s “friend” at the temple is the true villain, conspiring with all involved for money and power. This all leads to two grand battles: Wang against the samurai, Ichi against the yakuza. Then the two men meet, and Ichi, unable to speak with Wang, cannot convince him of his innocence, resulting in the final battle.

zatoichi_meets_one_armedThere are two remarkable things about this movie: the most obvious is that the samurai are confounded by what Wang Yu would call in Master of the Flying Guillotine “Good Jumping!” His (incredibly unrealistic, but who cares) kung fu leaps allow him to escape them on a regular basis. The second is (SPOILER ALERT) Ichi has to kill Wang Kong in self-defense, which is especially remarkable given Wang Yu’s reputation as a fairly disagreeable egotist. There are rumors of an alternate cut, of course, but it turns out that even this version didn’t get a home video release in Japan until fairly recently.

At the moment of his death, Wang realizes Ichi was okay, after all, and Ichi bemoans their inability to communicate. Overall, a pretty heavy message for an action flick.

Zatoichi at Large (1972)

zatoichi-23With his usual terrible timing, Ichi happens upon a woman on the road who has been attacked and robbed – on top of that, she is giving birth. After delivering the baby and the barest amount of information, she dies, leaving the masseur once more burdened with a baby and one hell of an obligation. He is also being followed by a child who will spend most of the movie chucking rocks at his head.

Ichi will find the woman’s family, and, sure as shooting, the village is being taken over by a thuggish yakuza boss, who was to be the recipient of the money the woman was carrying, payment for a debt. The local constable is seemingly ineffective, and in fact seems to resent the times Ichi stands up for the villagers against the villain. The rock-throwing kid will cause Ichi to be captured by the bad guys, but Ichi will be rescued by that other staple of the series, a ronin who desires a duel with a worthy opponent. We know it’s all going to end up with another battle royal, and Ichi will still get away, propelled to his next adventure on a tide of the blood of the wicked.

ZATOICHI_current_splash_image-300x169Things that set this adventure apart: the bizarre variety of traveling entertainers groaning under the new Boss’ taxes (I particularly enjoyed the monkey samurai drama), and the constable’s rebellious son. Rebellious teenagers were pretty big in Japanese cinema at the time, and this isn’t the last time we’ll see them in the series. This is actually the most solid Zatoichi movie in a while,and we should enjoy that warm feeling, as next up is…

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Zatoichi in Desperation.lgIchi meets an old woman when both are crossing a rickety bridge. The old woman is playing a samishen as she walks, and tells Ichi she is going to meet her daughter, a prostitute in a nearby village. The bridge gives way underneath her, and Ichi, unable to save her, of course has to seek out the daughter and try to rescue her from her life in a bordello. The major twist here is that the daughter, the popular girl in the house, enjoys her life there and doesn’t really want to be rescued, but when Ichi shows up with a stack of gold coins obtained at the local crooked yakuza gambling house, she allows herself to be swept away. She quickly gets bored when she finds out Ichi doesn’t want to have sex with her. The fact that Ichi spends so much effort trying to reform her means he misses out on the people who would usually come under his protection: a boy who is beaten to death by yakuza when he throws rocks at them while they’re grinding the faces of the poor, and the boy’s sister, who, rather than take the freed prostitute’s place in the bordello, gathers up the boy’s body and walks into the ocean to drown.

The prostitute eventually conspires with her lover to entrap Ichi so the local Boss can kill him for an even bigger Boss with a grudge against the masseur. Thinking she’s been taken hostage – and by this point, this is close to the truth, as the Boss shows his true viler-than-usual colors – Ichi surrenders himself, has both his hands stabbed through by harpoons, then is released again to await his fate at dawn, supposedly helpless. But this is Ichi we’re talking about, and he literally ties his sword to his bleeding hand so can still spend the rest of the movie cutting the yakuza to ribbons.

ZatoichiInDesperation02This is star Katsu’s second directorial gig, and his first in the series. That this should result in the bleakest entry in the series is a bit of a surprise. There are some self-consciously arty shots, and a lot of the shots seem to be close-ups through a telephoto lens. This is quite definitely a film of the early 70s, from the gritty nihilism to the cinematography to the downbeat ending. Downbeat endings are not uncommon in the Zatoichi movies, but rarely are they backed up by such an unrelenting story. Not a movie for a light-hearted evening.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

zatoichi-s-conspiracyIchi once more feels the need to visit his old hometown.This is about the fourth time he’s decided to do this, and it seems like it’s a different hometown every time, but what the heck. This time he hopes to visit the woman who wet-nursed him as a child, only to find she died a few years back. Ichi also runs afoul of a childhood friend who has returned to the village for different reasons:  farmers have been victimized by the local commissioner for years, pouring their tribute rice into a rigged measuring box, insuring perpetual tax debt. The prodigal pays the back taxes, but the villagers then find this gives him the right to stripmine the local quarry, whose stone they had been selling to make it through the lean years.

I told you that rebellious teenagers were the rage in Japanese cinema – this time there’s a full gang of four juvenile delinquents, three of whom – the guys – almost succeed in killing Ichi for the bounty placed on him (but they’re young idiots, and they do it by leading him into a bottomless bog, which means they’d have no proof, and therefore no bounty. They get scared and run away, anyway, leaving him to be rescued by the girl in the group).

Ichi will give his childhood friend three chances to leave town, which naturally gives the wretch three chances to kill Ichi, who will, as usual, get fed up and wind up taking down the villainous Commissioner and his minions, the old pal, and anyone else stupid enough to get in the way. The juvies redeem themselves, sort of, and Ichi walks out on yet another woman who loves him and who he loves. And that’s the end of the series.

Z25-5Except it’s not – Zatoichi would make the jump to television and have a successful run there for several years, an ironic development considering the (by this time) bankrupt and shuttered Daiei Studios saw the series as a tool to combat the encroachment of TV on their box office returns. Katsu would bring the character to the big screen one more time, in 1989 – but that is beyond the scope of this Criterion box set.

The character is enduring and fascinating, to be sure. Takashi Kitano would do a revamp of the character in 2003, there would be an attempt at a feminine reboot in 2008, and the influence on Western cinema is unmistakable, with movies from Blind Fury to The Book of Eli. 25 movies in little more than a decade is a sure indicator that something is there, something the public hungered for and rewarded… at least for a while. As a resource for examining this phenomenon, and the times in which it arose, the Criterion box is extremely valuable, and captures a slice of Japanese cinema history pretty darn thoroughly.

The Zatoichi Box on Amazon

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 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