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.
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…
to ground-up vantage points:
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.