Zatoichi #7: Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Zatoichi 07 (1) Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Minoru Inuzuka and Shozaburo Asai.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Tatsuo Endo (Boss Yasugoro, a truly malevolent yakuza boss), Ryosuke Kagawa (Boss Bunkichi, a relatively good yakuza boss and Yasugoro’s rival), Naoko Kubo (Okuni, Bunkichi’s kindhearted but naïve elder daughter), Mayumi Nagisa (Oshizu, Bunkichi’s hotheaded but more sensible younger daughter), and Takashi Edajima (Seiroku, Bunkichi’sprodigal son, who’s both hotheaded and senseless).

Kazuo Ikehiro, the grand stylist, reigns supreme again, even as it’s clear that Daiei Studios is trying to rein him in. There’s less flash here than in Ikehiro’s previous installment but he still gets some crazy licks in.

This time, he’s in love with the birds-eye view, which he uses to open the movie arrestingly. Zatoichi’s card trick, this time, is to slice apart three buzzing flies from the thin air. For a few seconds, the camera moves woozily and with a slight blur—a fly’s-eye view, of sorts. But Ikehiro and company aren’t just showing off. The bird’s-eye vantage returns in the climactic battle, in which we see our hero mows down samurai after samurai from way above the action.

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But it’s the flipside to the opening scene—night instead of day, cramped halls instead of white space, a roving camera instead of a still one. It’s an eerie, perfect visual rhyme. Ikehiro and cinematographer Yasukazu Takemura add weird extra beats to this sequence, as the fight occurs during a fireworks display, so the colors get lurid during the tension.

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Speaking of “lurid,” Ikehiro continues to be the only Zatoichi director so far interested in sex. In his case, maybe befitting a filmmaker, it’s a voyeuristic interest. He likes his hot ladies taking baths, with guards watching, and Zatoichi—blind but aware of it all—disrupting the peeping toms hilariously. We saw it in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, and by golly, we see it here.

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The luridness extends to the violence, as Ikehiro is also the only Zatoichi director so far who shows much blood. In Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, the violence hurts, as swordfighting truly does. There isn’t the excessive gore of Kill Bill—though perhaps that’ll come later in the series—but Ikehiro acknowledges that all these swinging swords mean lost lives and cut-up flesh, and Daiei allows him to show it.

(Or perhaps the studio encouraged Ikehiro’s tendencies, seeing that sex and swords got asses into movie seats.)

Indeed, there’s a parenthetical sense of cynicism throughout Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. Wry irony and a distrust of institutions are undercurrents of the series, even if explicit political satire isn’t (yet) a part of the films—though Chest of Gold comes awfully close. Zatoichi spends a lot of his time here “accidentally” stumbling into schemers’ plots, and muttering truths—veiled threats, really—that he intends only for those evildoers to hear. He exists as a parenthetical aside, until the end, when he becomes a demonic avatar. Seriously. By the end, his forehead is running over with thick blood; the screen shimmers through a reddish lens filter; fireworks pound the sky; and the music (by Sei Ikeno) takes on a heightened, shrill, deliciously dark tone. He’s meting out vengeance on the villains.

And they are true villains this time around. Before Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, the bad guys were bad mostly out of circumstance—weak-willed village managers, territorial yakuza, mediocre people placed in impossible situations, good people who had run out of good choices, itinerant samurai too starving and poor to care anymore if their killings were justified. Kazuo Ihehiro, though, injects the series with genuine madmen, bad guys who actually relish being evil. In The Chest of Gold, there’s Jushiro (Kenzaburo Jo), the ronin who gets off on whipping Zatoichi and dragging him on the ground. In Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, there’s Boss Yasugoro (Tatsuo Endo), who delights in massacres and stutters whenever agitated by anger or joy—and his joy always comes with someone else’s death. Stuttering, black-eyed, and snaggle-toothed, the makeup department makes sure Endo radiates evil in every frame he’s in. His acting fits the film’s overall lack of subtlety—even the humor is broad and coarse here—but you’d be forgiven if you found it a little much.
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Fortunately, so much of the film’s wild flourishes work that I can overlook an overcooked performance. To counter the often-crowded and claustrophobic frames, there are gorgeous long shots of landscapes…

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…and a weirdly endearing concentration on feet…

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…along with some crazy, poetic cuts. I imagine this conversation between Ikehiro and editor Takashi Taniguchi:

“Okay, so Zato’s walking through the outskirts of the village in this scene, and we need to establish that he’s walking through farmland.”“Cool! I love cows!”

“Okay, whatever. Now, we’ve already done this long shot of him walking through the grass but it needs a little something.”

“Is there a cow in it?”

“What? Maybe, I guess. They’re in the background somewhere.”

“Did any of the cameramen get close up to the cows?”

“Dude, they stink to high heaven, and we didn’t want to get cowpies on the tracks and tripods if we didn’t have to.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Why is that a shame?”

“I really think you need, like, an extreme close-up of a cow. Chewing cud.”




“Just go get the shot, Kazuo. You’ll see. My shit always works.”

And that’s why we have a close-up of a cow chewing cud before we get the establishing shot that puts that shot in context, that helps us understand where we are.

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And that’s also why we have a sudden cut to an almost-abstract splash of blood before we see the guy who got cut, or before we understand where the cutting’s being done.

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It’s disorienting, a little mysterious, and very cool. That describes Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword as a whole pretty well.

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Pastrami on rye


I don’t know why. I don’t even care why. I love old-school Jewish delicatessens, everything about them, from the tall corned-beef sandwiches piled higher with sauerkraut and rip-snorting mustard to the egg creams and celery seltzers, from the fresh pickle bars to the cheap Formica tables and blaring fluorescent lights, from the smartass waiters to the no-nonsense silverware. I love the briny, pickled sharpness of it, the rough-hewn textures of it, food, the messiness of it on the plate and on my fingers.

And I don’t have in Athens, GA, nor did I in Jackson, MS, nor in Dallas, TX. Those are all the places that I have lived, so I’ve never had it. So how can I crave something so badly, like a hometown lover, that’s never really been part of my hometown, my growing up, my first kisses and holding hands? I don’t know. Look, I was born and raised in a large Texas city, meaning by all rights I should be missing quality Tex Mex–taco trucks and green chile sauces ain’t the same, you Californians, you New Mexicans. But I don’t. I don’t get a bone-deep urge to gorge on beef brisket barbecue, the way it gets done in Texas. Nope. But a pastrami on rye, with sour pickles and a bowl of matzo soup? I swear I dream about such things. (Longtime readers know this is true, as I’ve hit on this subject before.) I hope against hope that a deli will be the next thing opening up downtown.

Now, I’m gradually becoming a pescatarian, now that I make enough to afford seafood when I go out, and I accidentally went vegetarian for most of last week. But, when I find myself in a northeastern city, and this doesn’t happen that often, I’m gonna find my way to a pastrami on rye. I didn’t even like rye bread as a kid. No matter–I load up on the ol’ home cookin’, even though it was never my home cookin’.

I spent this weekend in Philadelphia for a conference. In between hawking scholarly monographs and hunting down murals, I made my way to not one but two delis. That might seem excessive for a four-day trip to you, which makes me feel a little sad for you. I found Hershel’s East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal Market–i.e., the happiest place on Earth–where I had a brisket sandwich that made me weak in the knees, and my first egg cream in over a decade. That was Friday lunch, which meant I spent the rest of the workday sleepy and happily distracted. The very next night, I gorged myself at Schlesinger’s Deli on Locust Street. Matzo ball soup, pickled whole hot peppers, sour pickles, pastrami on rye, another egg cream, and a quiet coffee as I watched the girls in sundresses and their underdressed bros stroll down the street. I let it all settle as I read a Percival Everett novel on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, marveling at the variety of both the city’s dogs and the fashions (or anti-fashions) on display.

I’m still full from all this but I have to stock up, kids–this has to hold me over for another year or two.

RELATED: Chabon’s shtekeleh” (2007), and “The perfect meal” (2005).

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Zatoichi #6: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

Zatoichi 06 (38)

Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Shozaburo Asai and Akikazu Ota.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shogo Shimada (Boss Chuji, one of the few honorable yakuza in the series), Kenzaburo Jo (Jushiro, a calm and vicious ronin), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Ochiyo, a woman whom Zatoichi has obliquely wronged), and Machiko Hasegawa (Ogin, a lovely outlaw who’s so sly that I’m not sure she’s actually named in the film)

Well, hush my mouth. After all of my disappointment with Zatoichi on the Road’s formulaic tedium, I never would have expected that the very next film would overturn so many of the series’ conceits. But Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, under the direction of Kazuo Ikehiro, flips the script, like a beautiful Pelé goal bending the air. From the way the plot moves to the visual flourishes, the series gets born anew.

The visual invention starts, well, with the start. Six films in, I’ve gotten used to the cold open sequence—Zatoichi flashing his sword, samurai slain, in a moment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, in the same way that the covers of Marvel comic books often had little to do with what’s inside.

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Zatoichi enters a frame of otherwise complete blackness, looking for all the world like someone’s lost Jewish grandmother. He periodically blows a shrill whistle into the void, and then listens. I understood what was happening intuitively before I got it logically, which is the best way. The blind man’s using the sound, and the way it reverberates, to “show” him where his enemies are. Sure enough, human figures emerge from the blackness, lit as if from within, and the battling commences. These scenes chop and dice themselves like the swordplay itself, feeling like discrete fragments in space.

Usually, the Zatoichi films are so well situated in Edo-era Japan that I feel like I could enter this world just by stepping into the screen. Not so for Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. This is self-consciously stagy, very much stylized. Its director, Kazuo Ikehiro, has style to spare, and ain’t afraid to show it.

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Zatoichi 06 (5)It’s only after this riveting set of little fights that we enter something like a natural, lived-in environment. Ikehiro and crew lose the staginess after this point, instead drawing constant attention to cinematic—as opposed to naturalistic—qualities. The colors bleed and quiver. The film stock is sometimes so grainy that I could almost rub its grit between my thumb and forefinger. The camera pans as it zooms in and out—Robert Altman’s old trick of his 1970s films. The transitions between scenes are abrupt enough to disrupt my sense of continuity—sometimes it takes a minute for me to reorient myself. Zatoichi flashes back to a moment two years previously, when he killed a man he shouldn’t have. I’m startled to realize that, six movies in, I believe this is the first flashback of the entire series. (How is it that such a hoary filmic method has been avoided in the Zatoichis until now?) The whip pans that jell together scenes last so long that they almost become mini-scenes in themselves, forming abstract patterns.

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Everything’s earthier, more intimate, and vicious in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. Gone, for the most part, are the broad vistas and clinically precise compositions. Instead, we feel crowded in, part of the frenzies and melees. This farming village has been born under punches, and the filmmakers want you to feel the desperation and bruises.

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It’s thrilling and sickening all at once to see blood, red and thick and spurting, for the first time in the series. Ikehiro reminds you, the viewer, that swords actually cut into flesh, that people (lots of people) die as a result of Zato’s prowess. Speaking of, our hero gets beat up pretty good—also a first for the series—on multiple occasions.

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There’s torture, and people getting branded by hot irons (don’t worry—you don’t see it but you feel it). The final battle, between Zatoichi and a particularly diabolical ronin (played by Kenzaburo Jo, Shintaru Katsu’s real-life brother), involves a whip, horse trampling, and the blind swordsman being dragged through the dirt like a rattling can. Almost all the fighting takes place in close quarters, in dense forests instead of open valleys, in cluttered houses rather than broad streetways. The claustrophobia seeps into the film’s soul.

It’s not just arty experimentation. The villagers are hemmed in by three years of terrible drought, by a debt of thousand ryo, by a corrupt magistrate who fucking steals that tax payment and then blames the villagers for it, forcing them to pay it twice. Money woes are crushing the spirits of these farmers. They feel the absence of choices, of a looming lifetime of being captive to what and who you owe. The visual captures the emotional.

I had to pause the movie at a couple of moments, as I was reminded too forcefully of my bad old days. I was reminded of overdrafting the checking account; of paying $1000 on a credit-card bill one month only to find next month that I’d whittled down the debt by only $180 because I hadn’t been able to pay the minimum, and the penalties had eaten away at what I paid; of timing the mailing of bills and postdating checks; of getting a monthly paycheck and knowing where half of it was going by the end of that day, and the crushing feeling of knowing on the 3rd of the month that I had $600 to make it till the 30th; of the free-floating resentment of a friend’s easy ability to pay for Chinese food and beer on a Friday night while I calculated if that six-pack meant I couldn’t buy a full tank of gas a week from then; of hoping that a treasured first edition would sell on Amazon or eBay, and the bitterness of shipping out that sold book (given to me by a dear ex-girlfriend) to some anonymous person in Minneapolis who didn’t know the book’s history with me; of the free-floating anxiety that gave me stomachaches and migraines throughout the second half of every month, and the way that anxiety curdled into anger at myself, and then threw at my friends, my ex-wife, my family. Severe debt made me incapable of seeing beyond it, of seeing the world in terms of anything but that crushing weight. It made me mean, sad, and unknowable to myself, unable to see the good in myself or anyone else, and unable to see a way out.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film that visually and tonally evoked the angry, sad powerlessness of major debt—that tunnel vision—the way that Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold does. It’s fitting that the film starts in darkness, with a stage in which everyone is as blind as Zatoichi. That lack of money, and the woe in spirit that it can cause, creates a stinginess of heart here that Zatoichi—and the filmmakers—have to cut through.

And it does. Chest of Gold begins, essentially, once Zatoichi enters a farming village erupting into celebration. Over three hard, stingy, mean-hearted years, the town’s eked together enough to pay its taxes to the magistrate. So, it’s celebrating. Drums, music, sake, bawdy songs, backslapping, laughter, and greenness are in the air. Even Zatoichi drops a beat, and does a jig. I remember when, two years ago, I paid off my car note, freeing up $310 bucks a month. I felt like a lavender wind blew into my lungs, like I was breathing in lavender and mint for the first time ever, when in truth I had just forgotten the perfumed air, and that perfume is always there amidst the shit. In the early moments of Chest of Gold, I saw what I felt. When that tax money is cruelly stolen, plunging the farmers back into even worse trouble than before, I remembered the way my throat sank into my pelvis whenever I realized that I had forgotten to write down an automated payment in my checkbook, meaning my balance was off, meaning I’d overdraft again, meaning that buying a Snickers bar might cause a twinge of fear. When the villagers sink into despondency and blame and scapegoating poor Zatoichi, I remember things I said to myself and others that I would rather forget but know that I shouldn’t. I need those reminders of myself like tattoos, ever-present scars of my transgressions.

Scars are important here. Zatoichi’s enemy here, Jushiro, sports a scar across the right side of his face. Zato is bloodied and bruised throughout. But flesh holds beauty as well as damage. And there’s a lot more flesh than abstraction in Chest of Gold. Sex was hinted at in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues but things get actually steamy here.

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Even menace holds a glow, as with the paper lanterns of marauders in the forest.

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The void is always there, of course. The abyss, the blackness, the seeping indigo. But there is always also a glow in the void, a way beyond what we think of as oppressive reality—which really may be just poor vision caused by our mud-colored glasses. The villagers find a way out of their mess by learning to band together, learning to trust in their fellow men and women, and learning to heed an outsider’s (Zatoichi’s) perspective rather than their own blinkered miseries. But to see the light, they have to recognize the darkness, and that—more importantly—the darkness comes not just from within but from without, and the “without” can be cut through, and cut off.

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A little happy pill

With thanks to Carolina Whitfield-Smith.

I grew up in Dallas, TX. I now live in Athens, GA. In some ways, though, Jackson, Mississippi—where I spent over a decade of my life—is home. Jackson is where I went to college, where I had my first real job, where I joined a church, where I built a community of friends and comrades, where I got married (and divorced), where I settled into consciousness about race and religion and masculinity, and where I grew from a boy into an adult. I’m still growing. I’ll always be growing, and sometimes growing backwards at that. Like all places laden with our growing pains and failures, I have conflicted feelings about the city and the state. I left it, in part, because I got tired to defending it. You get caught in a perpetual defensive crouch whenever you live in Mississippi. It’s perceived, and not entirely unfairly, as the worst of the worst. I remember watching Django Unchained in a cold December theater, and knowing the already-violent and disturbing slave fantasy was taking a turn for the worse when the word “MISSISSIPPI” scrolled sideways across the screen, huge block letters consuming the frame. The audience groaned, in part sighing over yet another representation of the state as backwater and sighing over what we knew was at least a partial truth. Whenever I went to conferences out-of-state, and someone asked me where I was based, there was always a slight hesitation in my voice as I said it and a slight pause as they processed that. “But you seem so cultured,” someone actually said to me. “So, what’s that like?” said lots of other people, with a barely hidden smirk. Once, when I responded to a kind-faced black woman, “I’ve really enjoyed it so far; I must be, because I’ve been there five years,” she said, “Okay, sure, but what’s it really like?” If you’re black or liberal, and I’m both, that defensive posture gets even more painful, because there’s a lot that’s wrong about the state’s laws and attitudes regarding race, women, LGBT, poverty, and foreigners (to the state or the country). There’s a lot that’s indefensible, and I found myself saying variations of “But it’s not all like that!” more times than I can count. But, sometimes, I think Mississippi is America’s problems and promises writ large, where you see the country’s pressure points at their most extreme points. You can’t pretend American politics actually cares about its poor if you’re in the most impoverished state in the country. You can’t pretend it cares about its children or their futures, if you’re in the most educationally neglected state in the nation. You can’t pretend America’s race and religion conflicts are resolved in Mississippi. In fact, I think the reason Mississippi is comfortable to pile on—even for its residents—is because Americans like to pretend the rest of the country isn’t that bad, scarred, and unholy. But, hey, I’m writing a lot about Mississippi’s problems but it’s largely its promises and quiet triumphs that I saw on an everyday basis when I lived there. This video—created by some of Mississippi’s premier filmmakers (and also friends of mine)—opens with a flipside version of Tarantino’s Django scroll. The next four minutes, set to a song I’m still not sick of yet, showcases the joys, the diversity, the beauties (human and otherwise), the hope, and the promise. Loud, brash, hilarious, and chockfull of people and places I recognize and sometimes long for, it’s an ode to Mississippi, and therefore an ode to the best of the South, and the best of America.

Created by Philip Scarborough, Nina F. Parikh, Tom Beck, Thabi Moyo, and a horde of Mississippians. The fan page is here. The production company’s info is here.

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Zatoichi #5: Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

Zatoichi 05 (opener)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shiho Fujimura (Omitsu, the pristine but dull damsel in distress), Reiko Fujiwara (Ohisa, the more interesting and sexier conniving woman), Sonosuke Sawamura (Boss Tobei), Yoshio Yoshida (Boss Tomegoro), Shosaku Sugiyama (Boss Hikozo), and Yutaka Nakamura (Matsu)

Five films and a mere two years in, the Zatoichi franchise hits its groove, which may in fact be a rut. As I wrote to begin this whole adventure, “samurai enters troubled town; trouble indeed ensues.” For the first time in the series, though, the formula creates a dull batch. The scenes drag on longer than they should, though they often do so with brave long takes. The machinations between rival gangs are too convoluted by half. The rural backwaters, for the first time, look like the soundstages that they are, complete with soft lighting, tight interior compositions (so that we don’t see the film crew just out of frame), and painted backdrops. The rote characters—corrupt town bosses, virginal damsels in-distress, wisecracking innkeepers, conniving mature women—fail to hold attention. (There’s one exception, and I’ll get to her shortly.) The only archetype missing is the soulful rival samurai figure of the first four films; I assume he’ll be back for later installments. The filmmakers can’t even be bothered to finish shooting the final big battle, which cuts midway through to a scene of fleeing young lovers.

It’s not that Zatoichi on the Road is lazy, exactly. Kimoyoshi Yasuda’s use of shadows arrests the eye in the nighttime scenes. An angry undercurrent of male entitlement permeates the picture, and the filmmakers seem intent on driving home the ugliness of this patriarchal culture, in which women are property to be used, abused, and kidnapped at a whim. Notably, Zatoichi stands apart from this rape culture, not that that term would have been known by either the 1960s filmmakers nor the 1840s Edo culture they depict. But “Bitch” is said more here than in the first four movies combined, and the threat of rape—along with general nastiness toward women—drives the plot. The emotions are vicious, and so is the language; the film seems eager to demythologize this much-discussed period in Japanese history.

So, there are interesting ideas afoot. Unfortunately, they must pay allegiance to the Zatoichi formula, which means Zatoichi on the Road isn’t nearly as interesting as it could have been. Since plot summary is hardly of the essence this far into things, let’s look at that formula.

Zatoichi 05 (our hero)

Here’s our man. Sweaty, shabby, shambling, rambling, gambling, broke, Zatoichi always cuts an humble figure. He’s restless, starting and ending the movie in motion. He never stays still, never nests, never finds himself at home, and is always heading out of town as soon as he’s done doing what he does.

Zatoichi 05 (showing off)

…And this is what he does. At some point in every film, Zatoichi sets aside that humility, and shows ‘em what a blind man can do with a sword. His precision is legendary—his adversaries know who he is as soon as he splits a candle in two, dividing even the wick so that both sides keep burning. (They aren’t, however, usually smart enough to flee.) In Zatoichi on the Road, the perfunctory showmanship is displayed before even the opening credits. The audience expected it but it seems less impressive, or necessary, with each passing movie.

Zatoichi 05 (damsel in distress)

Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Zatoichi’s got a cane sword instead of a pistol but the point’s well taken. There’s always a girl in trouble and Zatoichi, oddball gallant that he is, serves as her protector when he can. The series likes its innocent porcelain dolls more than I do. Here, the virginal Omitsu (Shiho Fujimura) is perpetually being kidnapped and perpetually dull. Evidently, she’s on the run because she resisted a feudal lord’s sexual advances. Let’s be specific; she stabbed him in the face with a hairpin. Alas, neither Fujimura’s performance nor Minoru Inuzuka’s screenplay gives off any sense that this character is capable of such a thing. (The stabbing and fleeing happened offscreen.) There’s a variation of the naïve, helpless maiden in almost all of the Zatoichis but the women usually convey at least some sense of wit, resilience, and can-do spirit. Not here.

Zatoichi 05 (Reiko Fujiwara)

Thank God, then, that the series also has a penchant for the Other Woman. Zatoichi is the lowest of the low class, and he’s reminded of his status by every yakuza boss, corrupt governor, and rich lord he comes across. So, it only makes sense that Ichi’s world contains more prostitutes, con women, rogues, manipulators, bandits, and other strivers climbing their way to the top—or, hell, even the middle—than it does landed gentry. He feels protective of the innocent damsels, and seems forlorn that they’re beyond his grasp. But it’s the rogue women with whom he feels right at home, who are wise to his façade as a bumbling idiot, and who occasionally bed him with glee. These women are more interesting, more surprising, and just plain sexier than the squeaky-cleans Ichi finds himself saving. Daiei Studios made Fujimura (as Omitsu) a star but it’s the sharp-jawed and sharper-tongued Reiko Fujiwara (as Ohisa) who I prefer in every way. Fujiwara gives the greatest, most dynamic performance of Zatoichi on the Road. The character is by turns manipulative, selfish, and vengeful, but ultimately discovers a conscience that she perhaps wasn’t aware she had. Fujiwara makes all these convincing and coherent. Ohisa’s got good reason to be pissed at Zatoichi, as he kills her husband within the movie’s first ten minutes. Once she realizes that the blind masseur has sworn to protect Omitsu, Ohisa goes out of her way to corrupt the innocent girl and put her in the hands of mob bosses, only to find that she’s in over her head. Ohisa is a master manipulator, shrewd and subtle. It’s too bad that the mob bosses she tries to deal with are too dumb for mind games, too brutal for subtlety, and too vicious to care how smart she is.

Zatoichi 05(Sonosuke Sawamura)

Speaking of which, what would the Zatoichi formula be without rival yakuza bosses? The great Sonosuke Sawamura, a roly-poly instigator who always looks quick to laugh but with a menacing air underneath the joviality, plays his second Zatoichi boss in two years. (He was Boss Kanbei in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues.) Tobei’s rival is played by Shosaku Sugiyama, who’s also returning to the franchise from The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. Just as many crew members ended up working on multiple Zatoichi films, so too do its actors come back, time and time again. Occasionally, as with Masayo Banri as Zatoichi’s lost true love Otane, they reprise their roles.

Zatoichi 05(Yutaka Nakamura)

My favorite, though, is Yutaka Nakamura, thin-faced, wily-eyed, jumpy and anxious in motion, often with a grin that could be a leer or grimace with just a twitch of facial movement. Sometimes, he’s a villain; sometimes he’s just in the background. Here, he’s essentially a good, sweet kid. In any case, in three Zatoichis over the course of two years, he’s not played the same character once but he’s convincing in all roles. Because the Zatoichi films follow such a strict formula, it’s the characterization and visual style that distinguishes them. So, even if Nakamura’s character is underwritten, I’m always happy to see him walk onscreen. He makes Zatoichi’s world that much richer by his presence.

Zatoichi 05 (big battle)

Alas, subtleties of characterization ain’t what put butts in movie seats for this movie. Eventually, those rival clans have to duke it out, with Zatoichi in the middle.

Zatoichi 05 (Mexican standoff) 
And, within each onslaught, there’s gonna be a Mexican standoff. Zatoichi the Fugitive set a high standard for these face-offs, which this film fails to match. After Ichi dispatches these bosses and rescues the girl, with the quiet assistance of Ohisa, there’s a setup for another climactic battle. But the film shrugs, and cuts to the young lovers escaping the town. Zatoichi sees them off, after having apparently slaughtered the rest of his opponents…

Zatoichi 05 (ending)

..and he’s off down yet another road, to another adventure.


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Zatoichi #4: Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

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Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, written by Seiji Hoshikawa.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Miwa Takada (Onobu), Masayo Banri (Otane, back for more), Jutaro Hojo (Tanakura, a samurai in the Toshiro Mifune mold), and Junichiro Narita (Sakichi, a cowardly landowner)

Unless the temperature’s just perfect, between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, I’ll be sweating. My forehead beads up after even short walks, though I’m by no means overexerted. I wear dress shirts with collars a half size too big, to reduce the sweat rings around them as I’m wearing them. I carry handkerchiefs wherever I go. It’s gross but I adjust, and accept it for what it is.

From frame one, it feels like everyone in Zatoichi the Fugitive is living in my world. I got damp just watching the movie. The colors are blotchy, almost full to bursting with yellows, oranges, and browns. The film stock is grainy, evoking the dirt, mud, and blood that overwhelm the movie. Sunlight causes haze in the shots, along with the occasional lens flare. Everyone’s sweating. Everyone’s got armpit stains on their shirts. Everyone’s a little stinky, uncomfortable, exhausted. Laundry, and cleaning off dirt, play relatively big roles in this movie.

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In this movie, Japan is having a Mississippi summer. It turns out that summer sucks everywhere. It’s not just me. And with the heat and humidity comes fever, a sort of restlessness that’s present in the cinematic techniques. Tokuzo Tanaka returns to the director’s helm (he directed the masterful New Tale of Zatoichi), and with him comes his crowded frames and layers of action. He also brings with him the returning cinematographer (Chikashi Makiura)—and gives him more free reign to create unsettling, almost sloppy images and compositions—and editor Hiroshi Yamada, who cuts this film into lightning bursts of shots that jump from extreme close-ups to landscape shots, from mid-range establishing shots to weird angles and tilts, from bird’s-eye views…

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to ground-up vantage points:

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I’m not sure if the restless experimentalism was entirely planned. Zatoichi the Fugitive was the second of three Zatoichi films Daiei released in 1963, and there’s a dashed-off quality that implies that this whole thing was shot under the gun. The stylish sloppiness, alas, extends to the writing, too. That’s a backhanded way of saying this movie makes little sense. Plot machinations are confusing—who’s trying to steal whose land? How did this guy get his land in the first place? How did this innkeeper lose his? What’s to gain politically by gaining this land? Why, exactly, does any of it involve Zatoichi? How would killing him settle any of these land disputes? And if he’s got a price on his head, why’s Zatoichi sticking around at all? Why does he run into such an obvious trap at the end, one that corners him and that practically begs for the obligatory swordfight showdown between Zatoichi and a horde of soon-to-be-slaughtered samurais?

The motives are murky, the characterizations even more so. Toward the movie’s end, during the big showdown, it’s revealed that one villain has a rifle and knows how to use it. Shots are fired. Zatoichi’s almost hit on three occasions. We sense real fear—as good as the blind swordsman is, he’s not faster than a bullet, and he can’t judge where a bullet’s coming from quickly enough to dodge it. (He always jumps after the shot’s been fired.) But, abruptly, the rifleman disappears and the danger passes. Why? Where’d he go? Why doesn’t he keep aiming for Zatoichi?

Ah well. There are small pleasures, of course, and lots of them. The standoff between Zatoichi and Tanakura—a samurai good enough to wound our hero and an amorality vicious enough to scare him—is a marvel of pacing that evokes Sergio Leone’s westerns. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars would come out the very next year. Though Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) is an acknowledged influence on this particular spaghetti western, you can see Zatoichi the Fugitive’s stubble, sweat stains, close-up/long-range juxtapositions, flash cuts, and hothouse colors all over Leone’s oeuvre. A sweaty wrestling match at Zatoichi’s beginning is the flipside of the movie’s ending duel—slapstick and funny instead of stoic and sober. The music, minimal and dread-laced, stirs the action. Four movies in, Katsu continues to find new depth—humorous ones, this time—in our protagonist.

For the first time, though, the series seems to be spinning its wheels, a hothouse of activity that’s ultimately futile and opaque.

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Zatoichi #3: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

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Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, written by Minoru Inuzuka and Kikuo Umebayashi.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Seizaburo Kawazu (Banno, Zatoichi’s mentor), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Yayoi, Banno’s younger sister), Fujio Suga (Yasuhiko, brother of Boss Kanbei, nursing a grudge).

Look at the frame above this sentence. Look at how much is going on in it. Foreground, midground, background—something’s happening on all three layers. That frame is filled. If you’ve seen the movie up to this point, you realize that that frame is filled with tension, worry, and violent potential.

In the middle, there’s Zatoichi, seated humbly on the ground. Just minutes ago, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi) confessed her longstanding love of Zatoichi, and he confessed—wearily but with a relieved exhalation of breath—his love, too. But that’s not all. He confessed, for the first time in this series, his multitude of sins. He has killed, gambled, drunk, rambled, and whored (“And not just five or ten women, either,” he says) his way around rural Japan. Yayoi receives his sins, accepts them for what they are, and casts them aside. In penitence for his actions, and out of love for Yayoi, Zatoichi tells her that he is giving up the yakuza life. He is willing to, and even happy to, lay down his sword for Yayoi’s love.

Now, I switched from past to present tense midway through the previous paragraph. In the frame, in the scene under discussion, Zatoichi sits on the ground, and his past must be roiling through him. His potential for present action must press on his heart like a hot iron. Immediately after their confessions, the would-be lovers are confronted by a man. Zatoichi killed this man’s brother, Boss Kanbei, at the end of The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. The brother has come seeking revenge, precisely at the moment that Zatoichi has given up the samurai way. And I can’t help but think that, seated on the ground before this looming remnant of his past, Zatoichi’s thinking about that cane sword and how he wishes he had it on him right now.

So, knowing all that, the above frame is packed. Foreground, middle, background = past, present, future. Zatoichi’s past (his would-be killer’s legs) loom over the frame, framing our hero at the present, while in the background, his potential peaceful future (Yayoi) waits expectantly and fearfully.

Throughout, the movie is dense, the layers of the swordsman’s past, present, and (possible) future crowding the frame. Sometimes, the density feels joyful, bursting with life. Here’s a shot near the beginning, of schoolchildren singing, circling around, and gently taunting our hero.

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Other shots show a cluttered scene, displaying all the richness of life Zatoichi can’t see. Even a casual scene at a popular restaurant/inn feels packed with people in motion, with latent tension, and with incidental background action that threatens to draw your eye away from the main events. New Tale establishes a gritty, cluttered, lived-in mise-en-scene.

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So, director Tokuzo Tanaka introduces a new visual style to New Tale of Zatoichi. His film is shot in color, a suite of grungy browns, sleet grays, and earth tones. Gone are the sharp contrasts and open white spaces of the first two films.

In a sense, though, New Tale is an ironic title, too. Zatoichi’s more hemmed in by his past than ever before. Tanaka’s style, bolstered by quicker cuts than we’ve seen previously in this series, is claustrophobic. Everyone feels trapped by their pasts, by traditions that they didn’t foster and don’t even like. It’s a movie that takes place in winter but everyone sweats, overwhelmed and overexerted by outside forces that box them in.

That boxing-in effect is made sometimes quite literal, as in this masterful sequence:

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The past cages our present, binding us into roles that in turn shape our futures. At several points, New Tale’s characters try to outrun their pasts. Yayoi’s brother Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu) wants the woman to marry a man of means, so that she can escape the subsistence living she (and he) are in. Banno himself, who is also Zatoichi’s mentor, is fleeing from a life of sin, too, as gradually becomes clear as the movie progresses. Yayoi sees Zatoichi as an alternative to her brother’s restrictive plans. Zatoichi genuinely wants to lay down his arms, and sees a happy marriage as a way out. Zatoichi’s would-be killer opts to choose a path away from honor killing.

No one gets what they want, exactly, and no one gets out unscathed. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Zatoichi takes up the sword again by movie’s end, nor is it surprising that Yayoi sees this happen. The air of inevitability hanging over the movie makes the heart dark, and indeed New Tale of Zatoichi earns its ending, which clearly echoes the famous close of The Third Man, complete with falling leaves.

It’s a morose movie that’s nevertheless dense with the fullness of life. It’s a movie about hope that is ultimately despairing. It’s a movie that uses color not to convey the vibrancy that black-and-white cinema can’t convey but to further portray darkness. And, for all that, it’s a sad film that has some very, very funny setpieces. The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues are both very good films with moments of greatness. New Tale of Zatoichi, though, is the series’s first true masterpiece.

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