Zatoichi #18: Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

Zatoichi 18 (16)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Kinya Naoi.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Takashi Shimura (Junan, a generous but troubled doctor), Kayo Mikimoto (Oshizu, Junan’s daughter/assistant), Kyosuke Machida (Ogano, Junan’s prodigal son), Yumiko Nogawa (Oaki, a woman in trouble), Shobun Inoue (Kumeji, a genuine madman yakuza), and Hosei Komatsu (Boss Matsugoro, a corrupt deputy and silk merchant).

Dear Mr. Biggins,

Man, what’s the deal? You talk about Kenji Misumi’s cold, mathematical formalism all the time, noting all those right angles and high contrasts and straight lines in his shots. You sing hosannas all the time to Kazuo Ikehiro’s, let’s be honest here, batshit crazy experiments and leering eye. You spend a lot of time talking about Tokuzo Tanaka’s ambitious, ambiguous morality plays, like he’s some great tragedian of the series. That dude’s only directed two Zatoichi movies, and you weren’t even that crazy about the second one he did.

Meanwhile, I’ve now done four of these things—that’s as many as Misumi at this point, one more than Ikehiro, and two more than Tanaka. But the most you can give me is how much I like shooting in the autumn, and even saying backhandedly that maybe that’s all I know how to do. You’ve noticeably written the least on my films, with one essay being essentially a long paragraph and another one being a photo essay.

Is this even remotely fair? So, I like the natural world—the foliage, the passing seasons, the earth tones, the look of raindrops and clouds on the celluloid. So what? It’s a beautiful world, and I am a naturalist by design. Does this mean I don’t merit recognition as an auteur with a distinct, singular vision? Can you not recognize the wonder in a blade of grass? Or the swell of a thundercloud with a bellyful of rain?

I tried to mix it up this time. Instead of browns and reds, there’s green everywhere in this movie. Everything’s blooming. The trees riot in their colors. It’s fucking gorgeous. Surely you noticed.

Zatoichi 18 (3) Zatoichi 18 (7) Zatoichi 18 (8) Zatoichi 18 (10)

I’ll be the first to admit that my pacing is a bit slow. (Though not as slow as Misumi’s, thankyouverymuch.) But my fight choreography is solid. (Again, Misumi, ahem ahem.) I took a few cues from Ikehiro—the scene transitions are a little jumpier than my usual, and I fell in love with tracking shots, and with zooming in while tracking. I still like long takes with stationary cameras—but why fix it if it ain’t broke? So, that was fun. I gleaned from Tanaka that a downbeat ending, in which Zatoichi’s blade causes the death of a potential girlfriend’s brother (just like New Tale of Zatoichi), could be effective. I also took what I could from Tanaka’s sense of tense family dynamics as plot motivators.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—that my use of other auteurs’ key tricks only proves the point that I have no identity of my own. But you’re wrong. Along with being good with natural space and natural light, I also coax more naturalistic performances out of my actors than the rest. Katsu mutes his hamminess (a bit). The women—and, yes, there’s more than one significant woman in my features, which is a nice shift from the rest of the series—are engaging characters, and not just ciphers or damsels-in-distress. (Okay, okay, so I do that, too; blame the screenwriters and the studio heads, not me.) Old people get to do good work in my movies, as do children.

Zatoichi 18 (6) Zatoichi 18 (15)But, and I think this is most important, there’s no sense of heroism or nobility in my violence. With Zatoichi and the Fugitives, the fugitives are genuinely vicious, and I stop just short of having a yakuza slaughter an innocent baby. Zatoichi’s antagonist this time is, as with lots of these movies, a roguishly handsome but troubled samurai (Kyosuke Machida). But there’s no hidden light of goodness behind him. Yet, when Zatoichi kills him, there’s no sense of triumph in that death—the killing ends up alienating Zatoichi from the only people in the film who are good and who like him. I make violence resonate, and I de-mythologize it. That’s more than you can say about the other auteurs you love so much.

So, give me a little credit, please. I do lots of things right, and raindrops are worth noticing.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Kimiyoshi Yasuda

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Beer & Book #15

Knausgaard
Last night’s beer: Trois Pistoles
Last night’s book: A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard

So, this Knausgaard fellow—perhaps you’ve heard of him? The Norwegian’s now famous for My Struggle, his three-volume (so far) novel-but-not-really-but-don’t-call-it-a-memoir that’s entranced the literati worldwide. The UGA Main Library doesn’t have any volumes of My Struggle in stock, though I bet that’ll change with ever more magazine profiles on him. (I bought a copy of vol. 1 in a Washington, DC, bookstore. That brick glowers at me from the study bookshelf.) UGA does have, however, Knausgaard’s second novel, A Time for Everything. Jesus, how to explain it? Well, start with Jesus, for the novel largely concerns him and the religion, mythology, world, and visions swirling around the Jewish carpenter. Knausgaard explores and reimagines the myriad ways in which angels have visited and besieged Earth in the name of the Lord, pulling from medieval spiritual memoirs, private correspondence, “recorded” miracles, canonical texts, and ostensible works of history. In case you need reminded, Knausgaard conveys vividly how fucking terrifying angels actually are. Their mysteries befuddle and unsettle anyone who comes in their way, and they are earth-rattling creatures who—in the author’s hands—have a clinical disinterest in human affairs, or at least humans are incapable of understanding the angels’ interest in us. This supposed neutrality of the angels can lead to savagery—ask Noah, ask Lot, ask Cain. Knausgaard does, imagining the interior lives of the people who—so says the Bible, anyway—came into direct contact with God’s emissaries. Which gets me, and I think Knausgaard, too, to wondering: If God’s emissaries work so violently on behalf of God, and with so little disregard for God’s creation (that would be us), what does this say about how God sees and loves (and perhaps hates) the creation God made in His form? These are heady questions, and Knausgaard’s novel is as much an extended theological essay as it is a fiction. But that makes it sound like it’s staid, like it’s not headlong propulsive and vigorous with its every sentence. Knausgaard’s prose—thorny, staccato, conversational, visceral, eerily beautiful in its descriptions of flesh and thought alike—is a wonder. His voice compels so much that the theological considerations feel as vital, and as pungent, as a character’s walk in the scary night woods, or Cain’s churning thoughts just before he raises his blade. Oh, the beer: Lindsy Lawrence introduced me to Trois Pistoles years ago but I’m just getting around to revisiting it. Athens is a superb beer town, and it’s easy to get lost in the bottles. A dark, thick ale with a creamy, chocolatey head, Trois Pistoles feels like spiced silk slipping through my lips.

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50-worder: Aphex Twin

syro

aphex twin – syro – 9.5

Selected Ambient Works lacked drums. Drukqs lacked sense. I Care Because You Do lacked good voices. Syro fills in the gaps, remaining danceable while being dense and squiggly enough to require killer headphones to part the gauze. Even with shitty earbuds, it astonishes. Finally, Electronic Jesus deserves all those hosannas.

Reminds you of: Autechre / Moby / Radiohead, in its Kid A and Amnesiac phase / Carl Craig

**********************

“The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn’t know of each other’s existence. Now, that doesn’t really happen.”

—Richard D. James, in interview, “Strange Visitor: A Conversation with Aphex Twin” (Pitchfork, September 2014)

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Zatoichi #17: Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Zatoichi 17 (20)Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Ryozo Kasahara.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Jushiro Konoe (Akazuka, a mysterious samurai), Takao Ito (Shokichi, an artist in trouble), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Osen, a boss’s mistress who loves Shokichi), Miwa Takada (Omitsu, a potter’s daughter who also loves Skokichi), Yukiji Asaoka (Tomoe, an actress and troupe leader), and an unknown child actor as Ryota.

In Zatoichi Challenged, it’s springtime. Well, maybe it’s autumn. Some shots, things are blooming. Other shots, the leaves are browning. In any case, fruit is plump and shining. In any case, the cinematography emphasizes lush natural colors. Bees buzz, and grass shoots out. For most of the film, no one seems cold. People wear straw sandals—there’s even a sequence about this—instead of boots, and are in loose, light clothing. We don’t see clouds on anyone’s breath. There’s no shivering or commenting on the frigidity. The final, stunning, fight sequence, though, features the duelists whipping swords and panicked motion around amidst heavy snowfall. Is this a sudden last gasp of winter? Did the script girl take a day off during shooting? Am I missing visual cues that might’ve let me know this was coming? Or did director Kenji Misumi just decide, “Fuck it, I want a swordfight in the snow”?

I’m going with the last option. Everything that bookends that swordfight looks spring-like. It’s jarring, after that thrilling climax, for the next shot to be a warmly lit crowd scene with no snowmelt or packed ice in sight.

Good for Misumi. I’ve cast him before as the chilly formalist of the Zatoichi series, so it’s good to see him letting loose of the reins a bit. The colors pop so much, and are so vividly composed, that we can forget that Misumi is one of only two filmmakers to direct a Zatoichi movie in black-and-white. He introduces other chaotic elements to the mix. A young boy, whose tubercular mother dies early on, throws Ichi’s life into humorous disarray. The kid’s a bratty, smart prankster, and he gives Zatoichi Challenged an anarchic spirit that makes me laugh. There’s more evidence of wild pop here. Ichi gets his own theme song and, early on, a woman (Mie Nakao) sings a pop song that sounds like surf rock combined with lounge-lizard marimbas—the first instance of anachronistic music we’ve seen, seventeen films in. For the first third of the movie, Zatoichi travels with an acting troupe, and it’s clear that its leading lady (Yukiji Asaoka) is a celebrity of the sort uncommon prior to the twentieth century. She’s known all over.

But how? Well, there are posters and fliers of her everywhere, signs advertising her traveling show wherever she goes. This movie takes full advantage of Japanese ukiyo-e culture. Reproduced art, prints, drawings, mass-produced visual culture reigns in Zatoichi Challenged. From painted screens and banners to woodblock prints and elaborate posters and luggage stamps, print culture is everywhere here—foreground and background. Indeed, the fate of an artist hinges—in several ways—on his ability to draw beautiful erotica that is then set in elaborate pottery.

Zatoichi 17 (12) Zatoichi 17 (15) Zatoichi 17 (16) Zatoichi 17 (19)

His son Ryota, the aforementioned boy, can draw, too.

Zatoichi 17 (11) Zatoichi 17 (18)

Indeed, it’s weird that it’s taken so long for the series to admit Japanese print culture. This print culture was the precursor to Japanese manga and anime, and was flourishing and refining itself during the late-Edo period in which Ichi is wandering the countryside.

Criterion box

The Criterion Collection went out of its way to ensure that the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set evoked the ukiyo-e that would become so influential. The slipcase and booklets feature the vivid colors, landscapes, and drawing style of 19th-century woodblock prints. In the booklet, each movie gets its own spot illustration, each done by a different cartoonist. The cartoonists ain’t lightweights but a who’s who of contemporary alternative comics—Paul Pope, Scott Morse, Vera Brosgol, Matt Kindt, Benjamin Marra, Bill Sienkiewicz. The box set’s production credits are as extensive as that of some of the films. This print culture, produced and consumed by the middle class, is the way in which most Westerners—myself heartily included—have come to know Japan. And, being a mass culture in the best and richest sense, it’s unsurprising that Criterion would use it to evoke Zatoichi’s world, seeing as Zatoichi is the ultimate underdog and cinematic champion of the underclass. But it’s a little surprising that it takes the seventeenth Zatoichi film for this culture to assert itself so forcefully.

Then again, maybe not. Like all culture, ukiyo-e existed in context of any number of tumbling lives, acts, politics, and desires swirling around it. There was other stuff going on. And then there’s that word—“seeing.” For all Zatoichi’s superhuman abilities, Shintaro Katsu never lets us forget that this character can’t see, and thus can’t read. Ukiyo-e, that most iconic force for comics/animation nerds like me, would mean nothing to a blind man.

So, let’s stop talking about print culture and pretty pictures on paper. I want to talk about Zatoichi Challenged‘s major theme, and that theme is mercy. To do so, I must note that spoilers are ahead. If that bothers you, go see this movie—it’s really good—and then come back.

Throughout Zatoichi Challenged, Misumi and company try to show mercy looks like. Ryota’s mother dies early on of consumption, and Misumi allows her the dignity of dying offscreen. Whatever world she’s going to next, he intuits that we don’t have the right to see the journey. The director also shows tact by refusing to sentimentalize the moment—no surging orchestral strings, no melodramatic swooning, no copious weeping by her orphaned son. (Ryota cries at the movie’s end, in a moment evoking Shane, but it’s earned by that point.) Zatoichi shows mercy on the boy by agreeing to protect him and to take him to meet his father, though our hero has no obligation to do so. The boy’s father is an artist named Shokichi (Takao Ito), who impregnated Ryota’s mother, fled before the child was born (or before he even knew she was pregnant). Nevertheless, he shows mercy, and agrees to take on fatherhood once he meets the kid, despite there being little proof that the kid is actually his. Problem is, Skokichi’s in trouble. He’s gotten into debt, and appears to be paying it off indefinitely to gangsters by creating erotic art that’s then glazed into ceramics. We see, and eventually so does Shokichi, that the gangsters will never free him, because Skokichi’s so damn good. (Great artistry being a form of grace.) The bigger problem is that, during the Edo era, the creation and dissemination of erotica is punishable by death. The lawman trailing this case, played by the fiery Jushiro Konoe, intends to do the punishing. He kills anyone and everyone who even knows about the erotic art, including the magistrate in whose district the art is being created—even though the magistrate doesn’t know about the erotica until the lawman tells him. That’s cold.

Even Zatoichi, a man who’s killed hundreds of men, knows the lawman is being too harsh, too sure of his moral rectitude. Though the two swordsmen admire each other tremendously, they’re at odds. Akazuka, the lawman, is morally sworn to kill Skokichi and his new family. Zatoichi’s sworn to defend them. The men know that the only way this will end is in bloodshed. Hence, the aforementiond swordfight, blanketed by snow.

Akazuka, though, has an ace up his sleeve—an accomplice. While Zatoichi is engaged in the duel, the lawman orders his deputy to kill Skokichi, Ryota, and Omitsu (Miwa Takada); Omitsu’s been merciful by taking on Skokichi’s love and his child, though the latter ain’t hers, and the former ain’t always been hers, either. The deputy lunges forward, and Zatoichi—from a distance—stops the guy in the only way possible. He throws his blade into the deputy’s back. This, of course, leaves Zatoichi defenseless against Akazuka, and facing certain death. He knows that as soon as he throws his sword.

Zatoichi 17 (3)

But then Akazuka does something funny. Sword raised, Zatoichi waiting, snow falling, Akazuka can’t bring himself to do it. He can’t kill this man any more than he can kill this new family. He can’t follow the law if it mean unnecessary death. He suddenly realizes that there are greater things than the Law and, in acknowledging this, he shows mercy. “Ichi,” he says, “you win.” He sheathes his sword, and walks away.

Zatoichi realizes the enormity of what’s just happened–indeed, in this series, we’ve never seen Zatoichi act with such kindness. So, our hero does the only thing appropriate. He kneels.

Zatoichi 17 (4) Zatoichi 17 (5)

I’ve got no sense of Kenji Misumi’s religion but, given the precision he’s shown in his previous directorial efforts, it’s hard to imagine those crosses are accidental.

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Commonplace

“Never trust the teller; trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

–D.H. Lawrence

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Zatoichi #16: Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

Zatoichi 16 (29)

Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto, and written by Koji Matsumoto, Takehiro Nakajima, and Kiyokata Saruwaka.

Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Rentaro Mikuni (Boss Asagoro, a good yakuza gone horribly bad), Mizuho Suzuki (Shusui Ohara, a samurai labor leader/farmer), Kayo Mikimoto (Oyuki, a woman in trouble). Tatsuo Endo (Boss Tomizo, again a wicked yakuza), and Yuko Hamada (Oshino, a woman sold into concubinage)

Right there in big, bold lettering, the Zatoichi franchise announces that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Zatoichi 16 (23)

Daiei essentially went under in 1967—the Zatoichi movies were the only thing holding the studio afloat—and so the franchise’s main attraction decided to take over the series. (Hey, it was his cash cow, too.) So, Zatoichi the Outlaw is the first feature of Katsu Productions, the first Zatoichi movie under any production company other than Daiei, and the first Zatoichi movie under the financial thumb of, um, the guy playing Zatoichi. Stakes is high.

Director Satsuo Yamamoto and star Shintaro Katsu rise to the occasion by going for broke, even though the film sometimes looks like it was made on the cheap. Outlaw doesn’t lack for style—it’s as visually audacious as Kazuo Ikehiro’s contributions. The movie features overlapping frames, washed-out colors, a restless camera that often zooms in while it’s panning, shifting focal points, wipes, jump cuts, garish costuming and makeup, and easily the grisliest violence of the series so far. How violent is it? Here’s how the main villain—there are several, befitting this movie’s exaggerated sense of scale—meets his maker:

Zatoichi 16 (16) Zatoichi 16 (17) Zatoichi 16 (18)And that’s not even the first amputation in this movie. There’s torture, too, and thoroughly unjust punishments get carried out. It’s a bleak movie, one in which Zatoichi cuts down good people by accident, gets fooled by the charm of a good-sounding yakuza, and makes some terrible decisions that doom others. Good people get sold into prostitution, have their homes taken from them, are beaten terribly, stolen from, the works. The air of desperation lingers in the air, clinging to everyone. You can see it in the performances and costuming, in which the leads more disheveled and anguished than I’ve ever seen in this series:

Zatoichi 16 (7) Zatoichi 16 (11) Zatoichi 16 (14)In most Zatoichi films, the implied bleakness gets somewhat alleviated. The blind swordsman metes out samurai justice—the worst get their comeuppances, the best get saved. Not so here, or not exactly. The worst of it is that some of it, really the majority of it, is in some way Zatoichi’s fault. He must pay the consequences of his swinging sword.

The movie’s real hero, a former samurai turned farmer, more or less tells Zatoichi exactly this. Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki) is among the most interesting characters in the Zatoichi universe. He refuses to use swordplay, preferring nonfatal hand-to-hand combat, and using that only when necessary. He compels by his moral language—no drinking, no whoring, no gambling—and by actions that live up to his language. He’s persuasive enough that he’s organizing the village peasants into a labor force powerful enough to threaten the yakuza’s hold on the region. In much of real Edo-era Japan, feudal societies and yakuza clans—often hand in hand—ruled the territories. Indeed, the action of Zatoichi films pivots around these territorial disputes. Shusui offers another way, not one in which he openly challenges the yakuza but one in which self-reliance makes the yakuza unnecessary. He’s a compelling mix of Wendell Berry, Karl Marx, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The King reference is probably most apt. Zatoichi the Outlaw was produced in 1967, during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, and just before the European uprisings of 1968. In the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference, lots of African and Asian colonial territories were becoming postcolonial independent nations. This film’s director, even participated in labor protests against Toho Studios just after World War II. Revolution was in the air. Its possibilities, violent and nonviolent, makes its way into Zatoichi the Outlaw, and it’s the violent way that pointedly comes in for the harshest criticism.

Early on, Zatoichi tries to make the case for the yakuza way to Shusui:Zatoichi 16 (28)Shusui’s having none of it, and the most extended scene in the film—beyond the inevitable big swordfight at the end—is his philosophical conversation with Zatoichi. The two men respect each other, and Shusui has certainly lived his share of the wandering samurai’s life. But he’s also lived enough of the stay-put farmer’s life to know its pleasures and the ways in which it grows the soul and community alike. He asks Zatoichi a series of increasingly difficult moral questions, and the walk-and-talk becomes a rare confessional for our protagonist. It becomes so painful, so painful, that Zatoichi has to ask Shusui to stop talking.

But, and this is the kicker, Shusui refuses. Just because you don’t want to face the consequences of your actions doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to. For the first time in this series, Zatoichi is repeatedly forced to bear witness to the agony he causes with his blade. He begins to recognize that he’s morally at sea, and that the yakuza code of honor ain’t much of a code, and is dishonorable to boot. His reliance on this code blinds him to Boss Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni), who is so truly execrable his language of reform, chivalry, and goodwill toward the poor mirrors Shusui’s. Shusui, though, walks the walk.

For doing so, Shusui gets punished. Asagoro, at least for a time, flourishes. In his rise to power, gambling dens rise up, peasants go into severe debt, whorehouses crop up like dandelions, and taxes become exorbitant. It takes a year for Zatoichi to discover the depths of Asagoro’s treachery, and by then it’s too late for many of the townspeople.

Zatoichi the Outlaw is a tragedy, as much for the masseur’s soul as for the town he wanted to protect. But it’s an electric, antic tale of woe. Yamamoto’s experimental style isn’t as refined as it should be, and the movie bears the tonal disjointedness of having three screenwriters attached to it. There’s a long period of lewd slapstick among blind and mentally handicapped masseurs that feels like a lost reel of the Three Stooges. The transitions between scenes are jarring, enough so that I wrote in my notebook “WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS MOVIE?” more than once. Side characters and subplots fizzle out. The violence jolts more than it resonates.

Still, it’s the most openly political movie in the series so far, and the one most nakedly critical of the genre’s aims. It bears the bruises of trying to force the franchise account for itself. So, I accept the blemishes as acne scars, of an adolescent series molting into adulthood.

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Birchmore Trail

A little video doodle shot, edited & directed by Walter Biggins, Sept. 2014, Athens, GA.

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