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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
..and he’s off down yet another road, to another adventure.