Zatoichi #3: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Zatoichi 03 (1)

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.

Zatoichi 03 (4)

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.

Zatoichi 03a (3)

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:

Zatoichi 03 (2)

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.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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6 Responses to Zatoichi #3: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

  1. Nice review, again.

    Curious about the name of the director, Tozuko Tanaka. Did Criterion list his name like this on the new set? I have always seen it listed as Tokuzô Tanaka.

    And on a more interesting note, Season 2, Episode 6 of the Zatoichi television series was pretty much a remake of this film, minus the plot line concerning the bandits at the inn. The role of Ichi’s sensei is played by the legendary Tetsuro Tanba.

    06. Shi no Kage ni Naita – Tears in the Shadow of His Teacher
    Director: Umeo Minamino

  2. The TV series is “Kind of” available. The first season was officially released with subtitles by Media Blasters (Tokyo Shock), the guys who also released the first season of the Lone Wolf & Cub television series. Unfortunately, like the LW&C series, they never continued with the later seasons. They also released the final Zatoichi film starring Shintaro Katsu from 1989 which, I believe, is not included in the Criterion set.

    http://www.media-blasters.com/main/index.php/component/search/?searchword=zatoichi&ordering=&searchphrase=all

    Long time samurai film advocate and Entrepreneur Merlin over at SamuraiDVD.com has finally finished subtitling the remaining three seasons of the Zatoichi television series and offers them for sale on his site.

    http://www.samuraidvd.com/servlet/the-65/BOX-SET-ZATO-ICHI/Detail

    http://www.samuraidvd.com/servlet/the-123/BOX-SET-ZATO-ICHI/Detail

    http://www.samuraidvd.com/servlet/the-241/BOX-SET-ZATO-ICHI/Detail

    They are also available as individual 2-3 episode “volumes” if you do not want to commit to a “full season” purchase.

    Merlin also has several other cool television series available, including the 52 episode long “Epic Chushingura” starring legend Toshiro Mifune. This series is still in progress with volumes 19 and 20 JUST listed for pre-sale (I actually just paused to order them). He has also been slowly releasing episodes in one of the Nemuri Kyoshiro television series, the character originally made popular by Raizo Ichikawa in a series of films during the 60’s.

    He has a lot of cool films available as well.

    – Steve

  3. dan nimer says:

    Mr. Biggins,
    I read a very old post of yours from 2007, and noticed that there were no comments or replies left regarding it, and I wanted to followup with you on it, and see if you had gotten anywhere with your search. I too am a huge fan of the franco-belgian comics, however we never seem to get any in english. having a scanlation group would be wonderful, but I cannot seem to find any.
    https://quietbubble.wordpress.com/2007/05/03/bootlegs_for_th/

    thank you,
    D. Nimer

    • Hi D. Alas, I’ve not turned up any scanlation sites or groups devoted to French- or Spanish-language comics, which is a shame. On the official, fully legal front, Fantagraphics is doing a little bit more on this front, particularly with bringing Jacques Tardi’s stuff out in English-language editions. D&Q continues its good work with European comics. Still, it’s slim pickings, as far as I can see, and I gave up on finding such scanlation sites a few years ago. If you find any good leads, please share.

  4. Pingback: Zatoichi #13: Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966) | Quiet Bubble

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