Zatoichi #23: Zatoichi at Large (1972)

Zatoichi 23 (2)Directed by Kazuo Mori, written by Shintaru Katsu and Hiroyoshi Nishioka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Rentaro Mikuni (Boss Tetsugoro, a truly malevolent yakuza), Hisaya Morishige (Tobei, a rare, honest constable), and Naoko Otani (Oyae, a woman in debt)

I remember watching Spike Lee’s Girl 6, and saying to myself out loud, “I can’t believe a movie this bad could get made.” I got the same feeling reading Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, which was desperately unerotic, boring, and unimaginative, when it imagined itself to be exactly the opposite. I felt this when I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Watching Woody Allen’s September and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter left me the same way—dispirited, restless, sure that goodness had left the world forever.

It’s not the badness that left me so sad. Bad art happens all the time. It’s not even that these were great artists that made this bad art. That happens, too, especially when great artists try to stretch themselves or experiment with unfamiliar forms. I kinda like that kind of bad art, failures that are interesting and brave even in defeat.

No, it’s the worst when great artists make shitty art that doesn’t even try hard, as if they’re despondent over how bad this is, and that desolation infects the audience. U2 spinning its wheels on Rattle & Hum, Pedro Almodovar phoning it in for Kika, Bob Dylan grinding out a Christmas album for cash, practically every Christmas album ever… These are the sounds of men and women who just stopped caring. I’d rather have the truly terrible work that’s inspired by the artist’s temporary insanity than the paint-by-numbers piece that gives you exactly what you expect from that artist but without her soul.

Zatoichi at Large is just such a piece, at least in the first half. Kazuo Mori has directed one outright Zatoichi classic (#2) and one quizzical but impressive entry (Zatoichi and the Doomed Man). Both those movies are abrasize, with jagged cuts that shake up the rhythm, ragged plotlines that are left unresolved, a viciousness to the violence that’s less balletic than ramshackle, and photography that makes you queasy even as it floors you. All of that’s OK, because there’s a purpose there, a cohesion that undergirds the savage cinematics.

This one, though, feels like it’s going through the motions—rough-hewn not by design but because Mori couldn’t be bothered to sand down the edges. With Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, I staged my post as a series of questions, because 1) Mori left so much unfulfilled, and 2) I was genuinely curious about why he had done so. Here, I was just waiting for the end, and occasionally cringing at the carnage. There are more whip pans, extreme close-ups, fast zooms, shaky cams, overly dark lighting, foreground and background blurring in and out of focus, grainy film stock, and bleached-out colors than in any avant-garde diary by Jonas Mekas. But Mori’s not making a video journal, but just another entry in the Zatoichi saga. The style doesn’t resonate, and adds nothing. Those lens flares aren’t representative of anything but technical laziness. The poor form is disruptive enough to throw me out of the story, enough so that I pay attention to all the film’s snags.

Zatoichi 23 (1)

This combo of abruptness and meanness is, sadly, a feature of Shintaro Katsu as a screenwriter. As with the nonsensical (but more exciting) Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, he co-wrote this one, too. He should’ve quit while he was ahead. There are three or four half-formed ideas here, and Mori can’t stitch them together, which probably would have required a director (ahem, Kenji Misumi) with more precision and order than Mori has. Mori and Katsu drill down on the ugliness, with bursts of blood, an excruciating but somehow inert round of torture, and a messy childbirth all present. That blood’s dull because we’re inured to it by now. That torture’s dull because it’s directed at our hero, so we know he’ll survive it. That birth, which opens the movie, is dull because we know the pregnant woman will die during it. Everything’s lurid, and nothing’s vivid.

Zatoichi 23 (3)

(Even the film’s halfway-pimpin’ score, which mixes soft rock with Philly soul, loses its luster, because the filmmakers mix it too loud for it to blend into the movie.)

Honestly, it’s surprising that it took so long for this series to let out a true stinker—it’s the 23rd out of 25 entries altogether. Looked at that way, Zatoichi at Large‘s flaws feel less egregious than they are. Until you actually watch the thing.

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Commonplace (Sunday morning sermon)

Suffer through the blowhard audience member’s question–dude goes on for the first 78 seconds–to get to Reza Aslan’s impassioned, smart, and compassionate response about the inherent problems of Gospel literalism and biblical inerrancy. It’s worth it. I like the fact that he announces that “I believe in God, so obviously I’m open to some pretty crazy and absurd possibilities.” (Me too, brother.)

For background on Aslan’s discussion of the roots of fundamentalism**, and its existence as a specifically constructed thing (as opposed to being always a part of Christianity), here’s the Wikipedia article. All caveats apply, of course, but you can see that Aslan’s basics on this are firm. Again, the Bible is a constructed enterprise, with a shit-ton of contradictions, fudgy details, and flat-out lies. If you’re invested in believing that the whole thing is literally true, and that you’re bound to follow it to the letter, you will spend your life twisting yourself–and those you love–into moral and ethical pretzels, and in turn twisting the world around you into a warped design that cannot possibly cohere.

Jesus, it’s hard enough being a Christian–or a follower of any faith–without giving up the common sense and useful comprehension of metaphor that God gave us.

**SIDE NOTE: It’s utterly unsurprising that fundamentalism–a simplistic, either/or, teenager’s version of Christianity–has its roots in America, which is pretty adolescent itself.

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If you stand in the meat section at the grocery store long enough, you start to get mad at turkeys. There’s turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey pastrami. Someone needs to tell the turkey, man, just be yourself.”

—Mitch Hedberg

Once again, Thanksgiving is upon us. So, no Zatoichi post this Thursday—we’ll return to that in December. For now, some reruns:

1) “To hell with Turkey Day” (2006), on the possibilities of better Thanksgiving food.

2) “Pieces of April” (2007), on one of my favorite Thanksgiving movies.

and to lead into the Christmas season, here’s my 2005 post on one of the few Christmas songs that I adore: John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

See you next week, kiddos.

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Commonplace (#Ferguson)

…America’s black-on-black crime problem isn’t going to be solved by black boys pulling up their pants or refraining from using the N-word or any of the other condescending solutions cable news pundits have eagerly urged upon the monolithic ‘black community’ of their feverish imagining. Our justice system can prevent blacks killing blacks in the same way that it prevents whites killing whites: by investing time, money, and police resources into proving that black people are valuable to our society—by extending material and cultural support for their lives while aggressively investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of their violent deaths. Unfortunately, such a commitment is expensive and arduous, and it requires white Americans to admit that, in some ways, black-on-black crime is actually an outgrowth of historic white-on-black crime. It’s much easier to watch television’s hundredth Natalee Holloway special and tolerate cops who write off black murder victims as subhumans.”

Cord Jefferson, in a book review

“The reality, as we stand here looking back at another dead unarmed black male who posed enough of a threat to merit a lethal response, is that if the George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons of the world are justified in doing what they did then our legal system has decided as a whole that being a black male is probable cause. You are legally a threat by virtue of the fact that you are a black male. Nothing you do or wear or say matters. The probable cause is that you exist; you are black and male and anyone who shoots you only needs to point out those two facts because it is universally recognized that black males are threatening.

The legal system and law enforcement are structured in a way that allows me, a white male, to justify doing violence to you up to and including taking your life simply by claiming that I felt threatened by you. In fact, my legal footing is stronger if I do take your life since that eliminates the potential of a conflicting version of events being presented in court (not that there is likely to be a trial, nor that your version of events would be considered credible). The logic, such as it is, is tautological; I felt threatened because you are a black male, because black males are threatening. Every one is a mugging, shooting, sexual assault, or burglary waiting to happen. I don’t need to justify it because everyone (within the white power structure, of course) knows that that’s just How You People Are.

My right to respond to feeling threatened in whatever manner I choose is worth more in the eyes of the law than black men’s lives. If you and I have some sort of altercation, I can wait until it’s over and you are 100-some feet away and then shoot you. I can shoot you even if you are running away because you are still a threat because you are always a threat. You are never not a threat when in public. Your best course of action might be to stay at home and indoors, although that will protect you only from vigilantes. Law enforcement is another story.”

Gin & Tacos, “An Open Letter to Black Men

“Since their son was murdered in August, Mike Brown’s parents have used words. They have released statements conveying their grief and their desire for peace, for calm, for change. After learning that there would be no justice for their son, they said, ‘We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.’

There is so much grief and hope in that statement. I don’t understand how they can be so full of grace. I don’t understand how they can believe that this system that is so utterly corrupt, can be fixed. But if they can believe in change, surely I must at least try.”

Roxane Gay, “Only Words

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Tiny miracles are the best kind there are, #4


I know I’m supposed to drink high-quality beer outta high-quality glasses, bulbous squat things that open like flowers in bloom and that allow the aromas and effervescence to mingle and frolic. I know that the glass brings out flavors and textures in the brew that I’d otherwise miss, or, if I’m drinking from a straight-up highball glass, that it suppresses them like the elite’s thumb on the proletariat. Whatever. That over-contextualization of stemware leaves me cold, has kept me away from appreciating good wine—well, that and the expense, and the look-over-my-shoulder feeling that I have to dress up just to swirl around a $25 claret in a glass that costs more than my knife set. So, though I have a strong, distinguishing palate for beers, I drink ‘em from bottles or in juice glasses.

Hey, at least I don’t drink from cans (much) anymore.

It’s autumn, Athens is cooling, I’m feeling better after a weeklong illness—and this after getting my flu shot two days before Halloween. The welcome tinkling of Salvation Army bells brings Christmastime to the city. There’s not much Christmas music I like(see: here) but I love those bells. I add to them by plunking loose change into those red cans every chance I get. A mid-morning grocery-store run brought me in front of those bells, which reminds me that it’s time for my semiannual donation (clothes, books) to the Salvation Army, and that it’s time for me to actually be grateful, damnit, for my blessed life. So, while laundry ran at home, I spent the early afternoon picking out items to give away, boxing and bagging them up, and hauling it all to a smiling S.A. worker who was thankful for the giving.

I didn’t give away much, compared to many, but I felt a little better. So, a little treat was in order.

Now, those jingle bells reminded me that, yes Lord, Terrapin’s “So Fresh & So Green, Green” seasonal ale was in stock. Normally, I stay away from over-hoppy brews, and it annoys me that IPA’s are so damn popular right now. But Terrapin’s a local microbrewery, and “So Fresh & So Green, Green” is, um, different. Any beer that’s named after a classic OutKast song gets a leg up, right? Sure, it’s hoppy but that sweetgrass and bitter herb gets cut by honey in a subtle way that refreshes and refuses to leave the usual aftertaste. I’d found the beer last autumn, and I’ve been missing it since then, too.

So, I bought three bottles of it, and went home.

Now, the thing about “So Fresh & So Green, Green” is its fragrance. It’s rich, spicy, and velvety. And, I decided, all that deserves to be sampled fully. So, finally, it was time to upgrade the beerware. I headed back out, this time to J.’s Bottle Shop on Prince Ave., where I walk to for my monthly bottle of liquor.

This time, I drive. Pulling up into the parking lot, I see a scruffily-beared man leaning out of the doorway, chatting across the way to a customer who’s leaving. I can’t hear him, being still in my car, but facial expression and gesture tells me that he’s busting the customer’s chops. He flicks off the dude with a wave, walks back inside with a grin. I come in next.

Whatcha need?” he says.

OK, so I’m looking for, I guess, a couple of beer goblets,” knowing instantly that that’s the wrong word.

Goblets?! Like some Knights at the Round Table, with mead and wenches?”

Look, man, you know what I mean. I don’t know the word; I just said the first glassware that came to mind that wasn’t ‘tallboy’ on ‘pony beer.’”

Sure, Lord Gryffindor.” He starts scanning a shelf behind the bar. “I used to keep more glassware in stock but”–and here he shrugs, giggling–“it’s been a while. Got these tulips here.”

The two glasses have Christmas gnomes on them.

Perfect,” I say.

Wait’ll you see ‘em up close first, milord,” he says, pulling them down. There’s more dust on them than in The Grapes of Wrath. He blows, and a cloud wafts over the cash register.

Still perfect,” I say. “I’ve got a dishwasher.”

Cool,” he says. “Look, since you’ve been so patient with all this, have ‘em.”

For how much?”

Free, my man,” he says. “They’re clearly not, um, flying off the shelf.”

We laugh.

And so I walk out with two new tulips, and finally my “So Fresh & So Green, Green” has a vessel appropriate for it.

RELATED: Tiny miracles one, two, and three.

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Zatoichi #22: Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Zatoichi 22 (18)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Takayuki Yamada and Kimiyoshi Yasuda.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Jimmy Wang (Wang Kang, a Chinese martial artist on the run), Yuko Hamaki (Osen, a kindly prostitute), Michie Terada (Oyone, a justifiably angry woman), and Shinsuke Minami (Hanoichi, another blind, funny, wily masseur).

The Zatoichi universe drew from a variety of non-Japanese sources, almost from the beginning. The grand panoramas and extreme closeups have roots in Sergio Leone’s pictures, though it should be noted that both spaghetti and American westerns were deeply influenced by Japanese samurai cinema (see: ahem, Akira Kurosawa), so around and around we go. Rock music makes headway into the movies. So does psychedelia. Still, most of that shows up as cinematic technique, rather than what’s on the screen. What’s onscreen is firmly entrenched in Edo-era Japan, from the fashions to the technology to the elaborate social customs.

But, just as westerns ain’t American history, we shouldn’t hold samurai films to the standards of textbooks, either. Japan under the shogunate probably looked dimly like what we see in the Zatoichi universe, with all its exaggerations and postures. C’mon. It’s a series about a blind swordsman, in which the kimonos are never, ever wrinkled. So, assume it plays fast and loose with the culture.

Rarely, though, has the series played so fast and loose as it does in Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman. The loopiness is right there in the title; no one’s pulling wool over our eyes. And, when it becomes immediately apparent that the one-armed swordsman in question comes from China, during a historical period in which Japan was deeply isolationist, it’s hard to take its sense of facts seriously. Which is just proof that pop culture and artistic franchises can bowl over history any day.

“Zatoichi” was a household word by 1970, and its star—not to mention the new production company for the series, Toho Studios—wanted to set himself apart from Daiei definitely, and maybe make “Zatoichi” known throughout the rest of the Asian world in the process. We saw this bravura with the opening of Zatoichi the Outlaw, in which the franchise differentiated itself from its predecessor in the credit sequence. One-Armed Swordsman is more muted, as befitting its director (Kimiyoshi Yasuda), but the introduction of Chinese cinema tropes to this Japanese world gets the job done just as effectively. The movie brings together Katsu and Jimmy Wang, a Chinese martial-arts star and mainstay of the Shaw Brothers Studio, a Hong Kong-based company as famed and influential as Toho. In doing so, it fuses the fluid, airborne ballets of Chinese wuxia cinema with the decidedly more grounded action of the samurai flick. Imagine it as if it’s Hollywood in the 1930s, and MGM loaned one of its contract stars to Paramount, except that in the case the studios aren’t even in the same country, and the countries in question have some, um, fairly recent hostility.

So, the Katsu/Wang union was a big deal. The fusion, however, proves to be the least exciting thing about One-Armed Swordsman, at least in terms of the action.

That’s disappointing. See, for all my talk about The Seven Samurai being my gateway drug into Asian cinema, I’ve spent most of the last two decades preferring Hong Kong’s action movies over Japan’s. I love the wire work, the flying kicks, the floating through trees, the ghosts, the insane stunts, the grace and sexy dance of wuxia. If The Seven Samurai was one path, I’m forced to admit that the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon trail proved more fruitful to me in the long run. (Liking the Wu-Tang Clan gave me an assist, too.) I love that martial-arts movies, unlike Japanese or American ones, are primarily about bodily movement, about the body as a weapon. Of course, there are swords, poles, maces, and more, but they’re extensions of the actor/athlete using them. I love how mythic and poetic wuxia can be, with its fusion of the ethereal and the everyday, the folktale and the historical record, and its less-than-strict adherence to the laws of gravity. You see this wildness in Japanese animation but its human-based action cinema seems more earthbound. I was expecting Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman to fly.

It doesn’t, though it does glow.

Zatoichi 22 (1) Zatoichi 22 (2) Zatoichi 22 (3) Zatoichi 22 (5) Zatoichi 22 (6) Zatoichi 22 (10) Zatoichi 22 (12) Zatoichi 22 (15) Zatoichi 22 (16)

The light sometimes seems to radiate outward from the actors, dimly but warmly illuminating the rooms around them. They create their own fires. With its browns, blacks, and burnt yellows, One-Armed Swordsman feels autumnal, so it’s no surprise to find Kimiyoshi Yasuda in the director’s chair. Indeed, it’s a movie about decline and loss. Two major characters become orphans in the course of the movie; Wang Kang seems to have never really had a home or a family. Neither has Zatoichi, for that matter, which binds the two fighters together even though they are tragically disunited by the inability to speak the other’s tongue.

No one connects, though everyone’s trying to. Sometimes, this is played for laughs. Mostly, though, the Sino-Japanese language barrier is tragic. Poor Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang, as the one-armed man of the title), on the run in a country foreign to him, is forced to use translators and negotiators for assistance. These intermediaries, as often as not, dupe him and otherwise lead him into harm’s way. The fact that he can’t understand Zatoichi means that he misreads the blind masseur’s intentions, with terrible consequences. Despite his dazzling fighting technique, which everyone else in the film is puzzled by, Kang can’t protect himself, much less the people with whom he comes into contact. He’s like a bloody version of King Midas—everyone he touches becomes bruised.

The film leaves a mark. Mothers and fathers get their throats slit, and neither Zatoichi nor Wang Kang can rectify this, exactly. A boy becomes an orphan, and then a daughter becomes one, too, and their sad fates are sealed without the possibility of much intervention from our hero. Hell, Zatoichi’s just trying to get out of this town alive. A child dies and, though it happens offscreen, it stings. A good man succumbs to the wiliness of Japanese codes that he can’t understand. A good man is forced to make a terrible choice, because he can’t see and thus can’t read the handwriting on the wall.

This sounds bleak. Looking back at One-Armed Swordsman in retrospect, it is bleak—more wintry than autumnal. But there are pleasures galore. Yasuda’s naturalist gaze makes images sing. The close-quarters fighting is superbly choreographed, through the flying wuxia work is less so. (The latter’s too jumpy and unsure of itself.) The single takes and roving camera make me restless with anticipation. Some interior and night scenes feel as if staged by Rembrandt’s paints. The plot hangs together and pulls me along.

Through it all, Katsu and Wang stage an intervention between Japan and China’s pop cinema cultures, arguing forcefully for them to come together. The actors share relatively few scenes here but those scene resonate. You wish they could become friends. But you see the barriers—language, social codes, fashion, traditions—that keep them apart. Increasingly in the film, that cultural baggage looks more damaging than productive, more alienating than connecting. This series has made no secrets about criticizing the Edo period’s feudalism and political corruption. Now its isolationism takes some licks, too.

The message was worth hearing in 1971. 43 years later, it still is.

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“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

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