Directed by Akira Inoue, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Norihei Miki (Denroku the Sly Weasel, a dice thrower & accidental samurai), Sachiko Kobayashi (Tsuru, his sweet 12-year-old daughter), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Osayo, a woman in trouble), Sonosuke Sawamara (Boss Tatsugoro, the guy giving her trouble), and Takeshi Kato (Koheita Kadokura, Tatsugoro’s enforcer)
Jesus, how many men has Zatoichi killed by this point? By the end of Zatoichi’s Revenge, he’s mowed down another 50 or so. You would think that, even in an era before telegraphs and telephones, the word would have spread: “If you see a blind masseur, don’t piss him off. If you do, run!” The swordsman’s legend grows with each film, and yet cocky samurai and bosses still try to step to him. There are still people who are surprised to run into him.
But back to the opening question, and its necessary corollary. How can I accept a mass murderer as a good guy, as a man with whom I sympathize and even like? After all, I see James Bond as the colonialist oppressor (or at least accessory) that he is. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sly Stallone’s personas, as smug killing machine, repulse me. I like John McClane a bit because he’s a schlub but he’s precisely the kind of cop that causes problems in Ferguson, Missouri. (The same’s true of Murtaugh, and I don’t even like him.) The less said about Dirty Harry, the better.
So, action-movie franchises are littered with psychopathic protagonists and anonymous corpses, and all that bugs me. I’ve largely soured on such films, in which death has little weight unless it personally affects the “hero”–who would be seen as deranged in any other context. So, why not Zatoichi?
Part of it’s that word–weight. More often than not, Zatoichi enters the movie on his way to pay his respects to someone who’s died, often by Ichi’s hand. Death, in the Zatoichi series, has a way of radiating. In New Tale of Zatoichi, the “villain” is trying to avenge his brother, whom Ichi killed in the previous movie. In Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Ichi lands in trouble precisely because he’s returning to a town where he killed someone; the dead man’s sister wants vengeance. In Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, a woman is accidentally killed–the bandits think they’re killing Ichi–and leaves behind a baby that Ichi must care for. Zato’s cane sword brings only more challengers, more avengers, and more woe. Death echoes. It bounces off others and resonates over the course of, sometimes, several films.
In Zatoichi’s Revenge, death’s consequence is a vengeful heart. Our hero decides to pay a visit to his old massage teacher, only to discover that guy was killed two weeks prior, and his daughter Osayo (Mikiko Tsubouchi) has been sold into prostitution to pay off the old guy’s debts. It turns out that this has been happening to a lot of young women lately. It turns out that practically everyone in the town owes money to either the local magistrate or the yakuza boss under his thumb? Or is it the other way around? The corruption’s so pervasive that it doesn’t matter.
If you know anything about this series, you know Zatoichi’s gonna set things straight. As with the masterful Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, the masseur acts as a Robin Hood figure. Most Western action-movie franchise figures work on behalf of the Man–cops, homicide detectives, spies, sheriff, soldiers. Even Indiana Jones ultimately does work on behalf of a rich man’s museum or the U.S. government. There are vigilantes in superhero flicks, of course, and rogue cops, but even rogue cops have been steeped in the values of their institutions. Part of why Zatoichi rings true, and maybe why his slaughter bothers me less, is that at least he’s representing the oppressed, the underclasses, the people without political voices or social status. He’s not owned by any one yazuka, feudal lord, magistrate, or overarching government or corporation, and he works for the poor and agonized. He uncovers corruption and, town by town, he destroys the savage feudal system with his cane sword.
The Zatoichi franchise, then, is largely a decade-long indictment of Edo-era Japan and its feudal structures. In Zatoichi’s Revenge, honest government officials are rare and are stamped out cruelly. (One noble tax assessor gets exactly one two-minute scene before he’s cut down.). The movie fits with the rest of the series, in which a good magistrate is as uncommon as four-leaf clovers. Here, we see this in close-up–there are lots of extreme close-ups in this movie–as most of the film takes place in a tight, interior space.
That space is a brothel. If director Akira Inoue wanted to drive home metaphorically how feudalism treats its underlings, well, there you go. Subtlety isn’t the movie’s strong suit–the situations are as miserable as can be, the prostitutes as sullen, the bosses as vicious, and the violence as ugly. Zatoichi’s Revenge is brutally effective, and gushily sentimental.
Thank goodness, then, for its equally broad sense of humor. Katsu gets off good physical humor when he eats way-too-spicy food. Norihei Miki steals the show as a down-on-his-luck dice thrower who, at the end, stumbles his way through a hilarious sword fight. There are bawdy jokes galore.
Does Zatoichi free the prostitutes? Does he return the tax money to the honest workers? Do the corrupt city officials get their comeuppances? Does the whole thing end with Zatoichi slicing through a horde of baddies? Seriously, do we still have to ask such questions at this point?
The larger question, though, remains: Is it worth all this murder? I don’t know but I’ll keep watching.