Zatoichi #19: Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Zatoichi 19 (2)

Directed by Kenji Misumi. Written by Kiyokata Saruwaka, Hisashi Sugiura, and Tetsuro Yoshida.

Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Yoshiko Mita (Osode, another beautiful woman with a legitimate grudge against our hero), Takuya Fujioka (Shinsuke, a funny and roly-poly yakuza), Ko Nishimura (Sosuke Saruya, an oily magistrate), Akira Shimizu (Boss Kumakichi, who’s toadying up to Saruya), and Makoto Sato (Kashiwazaki, a sociopathic samurai).

“Lord, I was born a rambling man.” —The Allman Brothers Band

“The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” —Gary Snyder

Why does Zatoichi keep on keepin’ on? I mean, it would probably extend his lifespan to stop traveling, to settle down in a village, and find a permanent job as a masseur for a doctor’s clinic. Hell, he almost does exactly that in the last film (Zatoichi and the Fugitives). Despite the blindness, potbelly, and slovenly eating habits, hot women seem to glom onto him, so he would have no trouble finding a wife. (Over the course of this series, he’s received at least three de facto marriage proposals.) If he needed to scratch that yakuza itch, he could serve under the employ of a boss he respects, and just stay in town. It’s only by Ichi’s incessant movement that he finds himself in so much trouble, blundering into so many messes, and causing so many of his own. Just sit down, man.

He can’t, for whatever reason. Like so many lone traveler archetypes in cinema, who are almost always masculine, the end of an Ichi tale shows our “hero” movin’ on down the road, with red sunset often as the backdrop. Interestingly, the original Kan Shimozawa story subverts all this. Shimozawa’s Zatoichi stays under the employment of a yakuza boss until he can’t stand it no more, and then leaves—with his wife—and settles somewhere else. He settles down but the story never implies that he’s settling for less. In fact, getting out of the yakuza life seems to be a wise move—for his health and his ethics—for Zatoichi.

But the film enterprise is a franchise, and kept going with Katsu Productions even after Daiei Studios shut down. And franchises keep going, even if it no longer makes sense for them to continue. The biggest difference that I see between Daiei’s and Katsu’s productions is the bleakness. These later films, overseen by the lead actor, show the weight of Ichi’s violence. With each new body that piles up, that’s one more reason for our “hero” to keep moving. He’s outrunning his past but, with each killing, he’s making that past bigger and more dangerous. It’s a vicious circle.

Still, he could just stop.

After all, once Ichi’s killed all the baddies in town, he could become the rare non-corrupt yakuza running it. After all, once he’s gotten the woman whose brother Ichi killed to love him (and this plotline’s happened more than once in this series), why not stick around? The life he’s slicing his way through ain’t so great, so why not try out a different one?

Zatoichi 19 (5)

Osode (Yoshiko Mita) wants to know. She’s been through as rough a life as Zatoichi. She’s prostituted to pay off her brother’s gambling (and drinking) debts. Once she’s got the 30 ryo, she returns home, only to find that Zatoichi—working temporarily for a corrupt yakuza—has slain her sibling. Furious and saddened, she makes a half-assed plan to murder Ichi in his sleep and, after that, to return to life in the brothel. She’s going from one terrible home to another.

That plan—if you can call it that—goes awry. (It was originally worse—kill Zatoichi, and then kill herself.) Ichi feels bound to protect her, since he’s killed her brother. That’s as far as he sees. Osode, though, sees the bigger picture. It’s not Ichi who killed her brother but, instead, Ichi’s employer. Under the yakuza code, Ichi was just following orders; Ichi, of course, hadn’t bother to get the full scope of the issue before he unsheathed his blade. He’s trapped in the yakuza life, and unwilling to break it, no matter how many times we have seen it to be corrupt and counterproductive. (I mean, seriously. In nineteen films, I think I can recall one honorable boss, and maybe three magistrates who weren’t absolutely awful.) Osode, as a woman with debts (even though they aren’t her debts), is bound to the whorehouse. At least Ichi can run away.

Despite all this, Osode sees love as the way out of this system. By the end of Samaritan Zatoichi, with all obstacles out of her path, Osode asks desperately for Zatoichi to stay. “How can I ever be happy after you’ve gone away?” she cries. The look on Ichi’s face lets us know that he’s thinking the same thing. The melancholy, spare music—Sei Ikeno’s score is haunting throughout the movie—underscores the tense moment. But Osode is pulled away suddenly and, once she breaks of the moment and gets her bearings again, Zatoichi has disappeared.

He has pulled himself away from women who love him, whom he has loved back, from families with whom he could have made a home. He’s done all this before. But Samaritan Zatoichi‘s tragedy hurts because the slow-burning love here seems real, seems to fit. Osode’s no naive babe in the woods, though she seems so at the beginning, before we know the depths of what she’s done to survive. She’s strong enough to make do with Zatoichi. She’s smart enough to see the system that traps her and him both. (Zatoichi’s always trying to save individual women, to seek vengeance for wronged individuals. He doesn’t see the corruption as a whole.) And she’s beautiful, though Zatoichi will only know that by touch, taste, smell, and voice. Maybe that’s not so bad.

But he flees. In doing so, he escapes a potentially good life so that he can adhere to the codes of the yakuza and feudal law, which have failed him in every Zatoichi film and which will fail him again. If that’s not an indictment of the Edo shogunate, what is?

* * * * *

Though the plot’s rote, cinematic surprises abound in Samaritan Zatoichi. Kenji Misumi directs, and he lets himself loose this time. Sure, there’s his minimalist mise-en-scene and obsession with right angles, but there are also (gasp!) tracking shots and close-ups so tight you’ll think you’re watching a Sergio Leone feature. Luridly hued flashbacks, Dutch tilts, sloooooow cross-fades, and quick flashes between past and present all make appearances. That’s not so odd for, say, Kazuo Ikehiro or any number of music-video directors, but it’s strange for Misumi. A nice change. The fight choreography stuns again, particularly the solo fight between Zatoichi and his rival (Makoto Sato). Misumi allows it to go on and on, all the while ratcheting up the tension with dramatic lighting, eerie drumming, and well-timed cuts.

All this makes me want to see another Zatoichi entry, even though I know it’s in the best interests of the protagonist to quit.

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Profiles in courage

There are two new additions to the Biggins family. Let’s introduce them, shall we?

Zadie

Zadie.

Named for: The noted author of White Teeth, The Autograph ManOn BeautyNW, Changing My Mind, and various essays for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and Harper’s.

Age: 3 years old.

Default mode: Cranky.

Favorite place to sleep: The futon in the guest bedroom, you know, the one with the nice sheets (when shedding). On the master bed (when not shedding).

Favorite activities: Racing down the Biggins Motor Speedway (i.e., the hallway), at prime racing time (i.e., 4:00am). Howling piteously nonstop until you find her and ask “WTF?”, at which point she stops and pretends not to hear you. Scratching up the one office chair I have, which every cat I’ve ever had scratches up, even though I insist on buying expensive scratching posts.

Favorite room: The screened-in deck, where she can hiss at the neighborhood strays and stare for hours at dead leaves on the ground.

Turn-ons: Belly rubs. Ear rubs. Whisker Lickin’s. The condensation on the windows, especially when it’s cold out.

Turn-offs: Berry. (See next profile.) The smell of bourbon.

Berry

Berry.

Named for: The noted essayist, poet, and novelist from Kentucky. Though, as Dan Couch, naming her for the occasionally brilliant and always lovely actress would have worked just as well, given my inclinations.

Age: 2 years old.

Default mode: Sickeningly sweet.

Favorite place to sleep: The brown chair in the den.

Favorite activities: Passive-aggression. Scoping out the kitchen counter and leaving paw prints on the bathroom sinks. Sniffing Zadie’s butt. Hairballs.

Favorite room: The screened-in deck, where she can coo at the neighborhood strays and stare for hours at dead leaves on the ground.

Turn-ons: Zadie’s butt. Belly rubs. Scratches at the base of her tail. The spinning top that lights up when you get it going fast.

Turn-offs: Being picked up for more than 5 seconds at a time.

Give ‘em a hand, folks!

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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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