Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Minoru Inuzuka and Shozaburo Asai.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Tatsuo Endo (Boss Yasugoro, a truly malevolent yakuza boss), Ryosuke Kagawa (Boss Bunkichi, a relatively good yakuza boss and Yasugoro’s rival), Naoko Kubo (Okuni, Bunkichi’s kindhearted but naïve elder daughter), Mayumi Nagisa (Oshizu, Bunkichi’s hotheaded but more sensible younger daughter), and Takashi Edajima (Seiroku, Bunkichi’sprodigal son, who’s both hotheaded and senseless).
Kazuo Ikehiro, the grand stylist, reigns supreme again, even as it’s clear that Daiei Studios is trying to rein him in. There’s less flash here than in Ikehiro’s previous installment but he still gets some crazy licks in.
This time, he’s in love with the birds-eye view, which he uses to open the movie arrestingly. Zatoichi’s card trick, this time, is to slice apart three buzzing flies from the thin air. For a few seconds, the camera moves woozily and with a slight blur—a fly’s-eye view, of sorts. But Ikehiro and company aren’t just showing off. The bird’s-eye vantage returns in the climactic battle, in which we see our hero mows down samurai after samurai from way above the action.
But it’s the flipside to the opening scene—night instead of day, cramped halls instead of white space, a roving camera instead of a still one. It’s an eerie, perfect visual rhyme. Ikehiro and cinematographer Yasukazu Takemura add weird extra beats to this sequence, as the fight occurs during a fireworks display, so the colors get lurid during the tension.
Speaking of “lurid,” Ikehiro continues to be the only Zatoichi director so far interested in sex. In his case, maybe befitting a filmmaker, it’s a voyeuristic interest. He likes his hot ladies taking baths, with guards watching, and Zatoichi—blind but aware of it all—disrupting the peeping toms hilariously. We saw it in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, and by golly, we see it here.
The luridness extends to the violence, as Ikehiro is also the only Zatoichi director so far who shows much blood. In Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, the violence hurts, as swordfighting truly does. There isn’t the excessive gore of Kill Bill—though perhaps that’ll come later in the series—but Ikehiro acknowledges that all these swinging swords mean lost lives and cut-up flesh, and Daiei allows him to show it.
(Or perhaps the studio encouraged Ikehiro’s tendencies, seeing that sex and swords got asses into movie seats.)
Indeed, there’s a parenthetical sense of cynicism throughout Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. Wry irony and a distrust of institutions are undercurrents of the series, even if explicit political satire isn’t (yet) a part of the films—though Chest of Gold comes awfully close. Zatoichi spends a lot of his time here “accidentally” stumbling into schemers’ plots, and muttering truths—veiled threats, really—that he intends only for those evildoers to hear. He exists as a parenthetical aside, until the end, when he becomes a demonic avatar. Seriously. By the end, his forehead is running over with thick blood; the screen shimmers through a reddish lens filter; fireworks pound the sky; and the music (by Sei Ikeno) takes on a heightened, shrill, deliciously dark tone. He’s meting out vengeance on the villains.
And they are true villains this time around. Before Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, the bad guys were bad mostly out of circumstance—weak-willed village managers, territorial yakuza, mediocre people placed in impossible situations, good people who had run out of good choices, itinerant samurai too starving and poor to care anymore if their killings were justified. Kazuo Ihehiro, though, injects the series with genuine madmen, bad guys who actually relish being evil. In The Chest of Gold, there’s Jushiro (Kenzaburo Jo), the ronin who gets off on whipping Zatoichi and dragging him on the ground. In Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, there’s Boss Yasugoro (Tatsuo Endo), who delights in massacres and stutters whenever agitated by anger or joy—and his joy always comes with someone else’s death. Stuttering, black-eyed, and snaggle-toothed, the makeup department makes sure Endo radiates evil in every frame he’s in. His acting fits the film’s overall lack of subtlety—even the humor is broad and coarse here—but you’d be forgiven if you found it a little much.
Fortunately, so much of the film’s wild flourishes work that I can overlook an overcooked performance. To counter the often-crowded and claustrophobic frames, there are gorgeous long shots of landscapes…
…and a weirdly endearing concentration on feet…
…along with some crazy, poetic cuts. I imagine this conversation between Ikehiro and editor Takashi Taniguchi:
“Okay, so Zato’s walking through the outskirts of the village in this scene, and we need to establish that he’s walking through farmland.”
“Cool! I love cows!”
“Okay, whatever. Now, we’ve already done this long shot of him walking through the grass but it needs a little something.”
“Is there a cow in it?”
“What? Maybe, I guess. They’re in the background somewhere.”
“Did any of the cameramen get close up to the cows?”
“Dude, they stink to high heaven, and we didn’t want to get cowpies on the tracks and tripods if we didn’t have to.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Why is that a shame?”
“I really think you need, like, an extreme close-up of a cow. Chewing cud.”
“Just go get the shot, Kazuo. You’ll see. My shit always works.”
And that’s why we have a close-up of a cow chewing cud before we get the establishing shot that puts that shot in context, that helps us understand where we are.
And that’s also why we have a sudden cut to an almost-abstract splash of blood before we see the guy who got cut, or before we understand where the cutting’s being done.
It’s disorienting, a little mysterious, and very cool. That describes Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword as a whole pretty well.