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.
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.
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:
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.