Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Seiji Hoshikawa, Tetsuro Yoshida, and Masaatsu Matsumura.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Hizuru Takachiho (Ko, a pickpocket prostitute), Nobuo Kaneko (Boss Unosuke, a cowardly boss in more ways than one), and Shosaku Sugiyama (Hangoro, a henchman out for blood)
Frenzies of blood, sweat,
and orchestrated chaos—
the last four Ichis,
(excluding the fifth,
lazy by comparison,
an autumn leaf, browned)
tumbling and punchy,
exude raw energy—
summertime heat waves
They sweltered so much
that they warped the celluloid,
a spring’s aftermath,
fruit draping the ground and paths—
ants underfoot, too.
These were hot breezes,
intense poems, making me miss
the cold winter snaps
that come only with prose.
Despite its yellow-orange hues and pulsing title, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is cold to the touch, a somber and slow-moving affair that moves less like a lyric and more like a sentence. It’s grounded. Hell, the movie even starts at ground level, with a close-up of Zatoichi’s tired, swaddling, ever-walking feet.
It’s no surprise, this, given that Kenji Misumi returns to direct for the first time since, well, the first Zatoichi movie. He brings with him his obsession with straight lines, sharp angles, empty space, and rigid compositions. More of this movie takes place outdoors than Misumi’s last effort but I’d be hard-pressed to tell what difference it makes. The director gets nature to conform to his design. Here’s a woman walking through a bamboo crop.
And here’s grass, shrubs, and a building forming three symmetrical rows onscreen, which creates a flattening effect. The people are, not incidentally, dressed in neutrals grays and browns, so as not to unduly mar the composition.
In this composition, the screen’s almost perfectly split in half between light and darkness. Misumi, cinematographer Chikashi Makiura, and art director Akira Naito (all three veterans of The Tale of Zatoichi) hold frames such as these for five or ten seconds, with minimal movement. The samurai stand still for a while here. The stillness and silence—Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a quiet movie, too—are haunting. Throughout it, the characters are overwhelmed, swallowed up by fates they didn’t ask for. Misumi’s framing emphasizes the cages they find themselves in.
From the outset, Zatoichi’s on the run from adversaries seeking to kill him and thus secure their fame. He’s trapped by his own success as a swordsman. He then gets cajoled by two poor palanquin carriers into taking a ride. (They aren’t bad men; they’re just looking for work in lean times.) During his ride in the covered “wagon,” Zatoichi hears a woman, carrying her baby, double over in pain from a cramp. He helps her, and offers her a ride in the palanquin. Shortly thereafter, the adversaries ambush the palanquin. The palanquin flee, and the assassins stab the tent repeatedly before they bother to look inside and see that it’s not Zatoichi. The woman, who was trapped inside, dies. Her infant does not, and Zato takes it upon himself to deliver the child back to his father and to tell Dad the bad news about his wife. Zato is honor-bound into carrying out this mission. It turns out that the woman left her husband (Nobuo Kaneko) to look for work, to pay off her husband’s debts. She was trapped, too. It also turns out that the husband wanted her gone in the first place, so that he wouldn’t be bound to raise the child, and would be free to marry a woman of a higher station.
Traps and bindings, duties and cages—that’s what plot summary boils down, sometimes, but I feel the need to emphasize how rampantly this theme runs through Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Misumi’s just capturing visually what life looks like internally for his movie’s characters. His cages contain, but just barely, the boiling rages and fierce bouts of remorse within the protagonists. Zatoichi finds (momentary) freedom and happiness in caring for the baby, getting to play the father he will never get to be. Ko, a pickpocket prostitute who Zato employs as a nanny, grows to adore the baby, and Zato as well. But, even as they form an ad hoc family, we know (and they know) that it must end. Even amidst the rambling, 65-mile walk to the baby’s real home, there are signs that all is not free. Look at the right angles and machine-like precision Misumi finds in nature:
Even in death, the folks in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight can’t escape the prison bars.
So, the final battle—there’s always a final battle in a Zatoichi film—comes as release, with the (literal) fire and frenzy that the last three movies have swung about giddily. But there’s too little build-up for this climax, and the movie’s emotional climax had come in the previous scene, anyway, when Zato gave up the baby to a monastery. No amount of swordplay and sweaty faces could face the catch in Zato’s throat, the quiver in Ko’s eyes, and the way their formerly buoyant gestures suddenly deflate. The makeshift couple walks away from the baby, and from each other, and the devastation, the sheer weight of life, feels like death. A stupid battle can’t just compare to heartbreak.
Misumi seems to know that. The big battle is over quickly; the grief is just beginning.