Zatoichi #8: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

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Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Seiji Hoshikawa, Tetsuro Yoshida, and Masaatsu Matsumura.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Hizuru Takachiho (Ko, a pickpocket prostitute), Nobuo Kaneko (Boss Unosuke, a cowardly boss in more ways than one), and Shosaku Sugiyama (Hangoro, a henchman out for blood) 

Frenzies of blood, sweat,
and orchestrated chaos—
the last four Ichis,

(excluding the fifth,
lazy by comparison,
an autumn leaf, browned)

tumbling and punchy,
exude raw energy—
summertime heat waves

They sweltered so much
that they warped the celluloid,
overripe, lurid,

a spring’s aftermath,
fruit draping the ground and paths—
ants underfoot, too.

These were hot breezes,
intense poems, making me miss
the cold winter snaps

that come only with prose.

Despite its yellow-orange hues and pulsing title, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is cold to the touch, a somber and slow-moving affair that moves less like a lyric and more like a sentence. It’s grounded. Hell, the movie even starts at ground level, with a close-up of Zatoichi’s tired, swaddling, ever-walking feet.

It’s no surprise, this, given that Kenji Misumi returns to direct for the first time since, well, the first Zatoichi movie. He brings with him his obsession with straight lines, sharp angles, empty space, and rigid compositions. More of this movie takes place outdoors than Misumi’s last effort but I’d be hard-pressed to tell what difference it makes. The director gets nature to conform to his design. Here’s a woman walking through a bamboo crop.

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And here’s grass, shrubs, and a building forming three symmetrical rows onscreen, which creates a flattening effect. The people are, not incidentally, dressed in neutrals grays and browns, so as not to unduly mar the composition.

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In this composition, the screen’s almost perfectly split in half between light and darkness. Misumi, cinematographer Chikashi Makiura, and art director Akira Naito (all three veterans of The Tale of Zatoichi) hold frames such as these for five or ten seconds, with minimal movement. The samurai stand still for a while here. The stillness and silence—Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a quiet movie, too—are haunting. Throughout it, the characters are overwhelmed, swallowed up by fates they didn’t ask for. Misumi’s framing emphasizes the cages they find themselves in.

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From the outset, Zatoichi’s on the run from adversaries seeking to kill him and thus secure their fame. He’s trapped by his own success as a swordsman. He then gets cajoled by two poor palanquin carriers into taking a ride. (They aren’t bad men; they’re just looking for work in lean times.) During his ride in the covered “wagon,” Zatoichi hears a woman, carrying her baby, double over in pain from a cramp. He helps her, and offers her a ride in the palanquin. Shortly thereafter, the adversaries ambush the palanquin. The palanquin flee, and the assassins stab the tent repeatedly before they bother to look inside and see that it’s not Zatoichi. The woman, who was trapped inside, dies. Her infant does not, and Zato takes it upon himself to deliver the child back to his father and to tell Dad the bad news about his wife. Zato is honor-bound into carrying out this mission. It turns out that the woman left her husband (Nobuo Kaneko) to look for work, to pay off her husband’s debts. She was trapped, too. It also turns out that the husband wanted her gone in the first place, so that he wouldn’t be bound to raise the child, and would be free to marry a woman of a higher station.

Traps and bindings, duties and cages—that’s what plot summary boils down, sometimes, but I feel the need to emphasize how rampantly this theme runs through Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Misumi’s just capturing visually what life looks like internally for his movie’s characters. His cages contain, but just barely, the boiling rages and fierce bouts of remorse within the protagonists. Zatoichi finds (momentary) freedom and happiness in caring for the baby, getting to play the father he will never get to be. Ko, a pickpocket prostitute who Zato employs as a nanny, grows to adore the baby, and Zato as well. But, even as they form an ad hoc family, we know (and they know) that it must end. Even amidst the rambling, 65-mile walk to the baby’s real home, there are signs that all is not free. Look at the right angles and machine-like precision Misumi finds in nature:

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…and the way landscapes dwarf the travelers, making them seem insignificant and part of a cosmic design over which they’ve got little control:

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…and here’s a graveyard:

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Even in death, the folks in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight can’t escape the prison bars.

So, the final battle—there’s always a final battle in a Zatoichi film—comes as release, with the (literal) fire and frenzy that the last three movies have swung about giddily. But there’s too little build-up for this climax, and the movie’s emotional climax had come in the previous scene, anyway, when Zato gave up the baby to a monastery. No amount of swordplay and sweaty faces could face the catch in Zato’s throat, the quiver in Ko’s eyes, and the way their formerly buoyant gestures suddenly deflate. The makeshift couple walks away from the baby, and from each other, and the devastation, the sheer weight of life, feels like death. A stupid battle can’t just compare to heartbreak.

Misumi seems to know that. The big battle is over quickly; the grief is just beginning.

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Commonplace

A beautiful video essay by Tony Zhou, on the editing techniques of master animator Satoshi Kon. Kon created, in just about 20 years, a damn-near-perfect quartet of feature cartoons–Perfect BlueMillennium ActressTokyo Godfathers, and Paprika–along with one of the best anime series (Paranoia Agent) of all time. Zhou reveals one of Kon’s methods.

Man, I miss Kon.

(Hat tip to Cartoon Brew for the link.)

RELATED: I wrote about Paprika here, which seems to be among my most popular posts–or, at least, the one that the most screengrabs are stolen from.

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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.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Why?”

“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

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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.
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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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