Directed by Kazuo Mori, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast:Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Yoshiro, a wayward yakuza), Yoshie Mizutani (Osetsu, a prostitute), Masayo Banri (Otane, back from #1), Sonosuke Sawamura (Boss Kanbei), and Eijiro Yanagi (Boss Sukegoro, back for more).
Spoilers follow. So, go see the movie. Seriously, do it; it’s great. Then, come back and let’s talk.
With this movie, we plunge in. That verb’s important. Water imagery abounds in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. This quickie sequel opens, literally, on a grainy, textured close-up of rippling water, which then pans up to reveal a boatful of people in the noonday sun. One of them’s Zatoichi, on a pilgrimage to the grave of Miki Hirate, the noble samurai that Zatoichi was forced to kill in the first Zatoichi. Not that we know all this at the film’s start. All we know is that we’re looking at a boatful of poor travelers.
Almost immediately upon seeing that boatful, those poor folks are forced out. A noble entourage needs the boat, see. Now, this local governor—or maybe he’s just a yakuza made good—and his sheath-happy protectors aren’t necessarily in a particular hurry. They’re just used to getting their way. They empty the boat, inconveniencing travelers who have already paid their fares. Zatoichi, who’s asleep, stays. Maybe he’s pretending to be asleep. He does, after all, like annoying the powerful, and his blindness gives him the excuse to ignore social niceties that handicapped folks have. Anyway, predictably, the governor gets in the blind swordsman’s face. He pushes Zatoichi out of the boat, never bothering to wonder if a blind man can swim before he does so. As Zatoichi flips overboard, he—with the lightning quickness he’s renowned for—steals the governor’s sword and slices him in the cheek with it. Cheeky move.
The next move is even cheekier, and just as unsettling as the opening plunge in media res. Zatoichi swims, the murk and movement of the water catching the light in a dreamlike, wavering way. It’s an eerily beautiful image. If this dude can swim with ease, he can do anything. Watch out, bad guys. He’s under your boat, and you’ve pissed him off.
Rage isn’t something Zatoichi was known for in the first movie. Melancholy? Yes. Drunken? Yes. Annoyed? Certainly. But the anger is new. Under Kazuo Mori’s direction, Shintaro Katsu gives us an angrier samurai than he portrayed less than a year prior to this movie. (Yes, both movies were released in 1962.) In the first Zatoichi, the swordsman pursued justice but did so only under great reluctance. Here, the masseur/samurai wants vengeance. There’s still that reluctance—dude mostly wants to be left alone, to drink his sake quietly in a back corner of the bar, to eat his bowls in silence, to sleep and fish and dream under the sun and without company. He gets drawn into territorial disputes and battles. At one point near the end of this one, he even reveals that his antagonists have to make the first move; otherwise, “I can’t tell where you are.”
So, he draws trouble to himself like gravitational pull, even though he hates it.
As a center of gravity, Katsu is an arresting, enormously appealing actor. His character is the lowest of the low in Edo-era Japan: a blind, portly, itinerant masseur without class status and with the perpetual need of charity. Yet, Katsu makes the roly-poly samurai into a charming man. He moves with a comic stumbling, relying on that cane—but remember that it sheathes his sword—and the kindness of strangers. Katsu portrays the man as halting but not bumbling. He’s always on the verge of a pratfall but embarrassing splats never happen to Zatoichi, and the man laughs easily at himself. Except for the blindness, it’s all a ruse. We see plenty of examples of Zatoichi attuning his body to the world, suddenly alert and quick when necessary. He’s quiet but not shy. Even his humorous stumbling has a grace to it. Good samurais—i.e., men smart enough to look beneath surfaces—don’t underestimate Zatoichi. Neither do women, who understand that gentleness, comic timing, and, um, vigor can exist in a single man. And they like it.
Zatoichi is an enigma, a mass of contradictions. He’s a killing machine, through his cane sword, but also a healer of the body, through massage. He drinks heavily but always seems alert. He’s a blind man who “sees” the world more clearly than most of the sighted folks around him. He’s poor but a spendthrift and a gambler. He’s slovenly to look at but he talks suavely and smoothly to women. So, he’s a mass of contradictions. Aren’t we all? Still, Zatoichi’s contradictions seem mythic, almost surreal. It’s only through Katsu’s openhearted performance that the character seems not just real but natural.
At 72 minutes, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is leaner and meaner than its predecessor. Its emotions feel rawer, closer to the surface. Mori, though, doesn’t make the film-student mistake of equating raw nerves with raw technique. As with the first film, he employs deep focus, long silences, grid-like compositions, and a languid sense of editing rhythm. The fights are shot in long shots and from a distance. This allows us to see how fluid the choreography is, and how compelling and quick Zatoichi’s movements are.
There’s the occasional whip pan and flash zoom but the fleetness of the film comes less from bravura tricks that Mori adds, and more instead from what he (and screenwriter Minoru Inuzuka) subtract. This is an elliptical movie. The plot, and the interior motivations that galvanize it, are murkier than before. There’s less that is explained and more that must be guessed at, pieced together from stray frames, glued together with the unconscious mind. (The only times in which the movie sags are when it gives in to expository dialogue and when Zatoichi has a brief voiceover—beautifully shot, by the riverbank where he fished with Hirate in Zatoichi #1 but still unnecessary—to summarize the previous film.) We don’t learn what links Zatoichi and rival samurai Yoshiro (Tomisaburo Wakayama) until the final ten minutes. Relationships are left unresolved, in limbo. We get a glimpse of Zatoichi’s backstory, at long last, but it’s just a quick glance, not a panoramic view. A lot is left out. The movie leaves a lot of sentences unfinished, leaves a lot of paragraphs with gaps. The movie ends with a slice of the sword and a quick editing jump to black—a cinematic cut that’s a metaphor for Zatoichi’s handiwork.
That ending is too abrupt, maybe, but life too is often interrupted and unresolved. We leave The Tale of Zatoichi Continues as we enter it—bobbing in the water, hoping we’re not about to drown.