Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, written by Hajime Takaiwa.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shigeru Amachi (Kurobe, another handsome, doomed rival samurai), Mayumi Ogawa (Ocho, Kurobe’s troubled, gorgeous lover), Jun Hamamura (a blind priest), and an unknown actor as Taichi, a young boy who is wowed and disillusioned by Zatoichi.
Thirteen films in, I’m not sure I’ve seen a single kiss in the Zatoichi series. There’s been peeping toms, suggestive glimpses of bathing beauties, massages galore, brothels and prostitutes, smoldering stares, and wink-wink fades to black. But everything sexual has been implied, not shown. As viewers, we’re always filling in the gaps. Same goes for the Criterion Collection’s box set, which isn’t quite as complete or definitive as it bills itself as—it’s a tease, too. Sure, I appreciate having the chance to watch all of these films on Blu-Ray, but the lush design hides some of the glaring omissions and delicate caesuras. Zatoichi’s Vengeance draws attention to the gaps. First, there’s the lack of full cast listings. Sure, I haven’t listed every cast member in my posts but then again I’m not claiming to offer a definitive version of Zatoichi. I try to list the important characters, the ones who pivot the plot and the actors who give marvelous performances. In Zatoichi’s Vengeance, the moral pivot is a ten-year-old boy named Taichi, who becomes enamored with Zatoichi’s swordplay. The boy hasn’t seen his father in years; his family’s been plagued by an evil yakuza gang; he sees his grandmother and uncle humiliated regularly by the gang; and the poor kid sees his whole useless life ahead of him. Suddenly, Ichi enters town, shaming the gang deftly. Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is—the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. When you’re a boy, you dream of being a cowboy, a badass cop, a ninja, a samurai. You register dreams through violence, in which (of course) you’re always the victor and savior. The girls flock to you. You can’t imagine any other scenario, and the popular culture—crime dramas, superhero comics, samurai movies—doesn’t discourage your fancifying. So, Taichi is beginning to see light in the samurai path. The film is delicate enough to register irony, to understand the distance between what Taichi sees in Zatoichi and what Zatoichi’s reality actually is. Zatoichi “sees” it, too, and so allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. The boy playing Taichi shows this initial wonder, then his disillusionment, then his wonder, and finally ends the film on an ambiguous note—we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique. So, it would be nice to know who the actor playing Taichi is, wouldn’t it? The Criterion liner notes give away nothing, and the internet basically replicates the scanty info of the box set. So, there’s a gap. Next, I wonder about the fight choreography, which is almost uniformly brilliant throughout the series. In Zatoichi’s Vengeance, the fight scenes—shot mostly in single takes without cuts—astonish, and even add a dose of wit. Are the directors responsible for this staging? In Chinese wuxia movies, there’s usually a separate person responsible for all this. Given the high speed of Zatoichi productions, I imagine the same’s true here, too. But the booklet and liner notes are unclear and—odd for a samurai series—don’t seem particularly interested in clarifying this point. If I’m harping too much on technical gaps, it’s because the narrative spends too much time filling them in. There’s too much expository dialogue, too many long pauses that drag scenes on to the requisite 80 minutes or so, and too much repetition. Tokuzo Tanaka, who helmed the masterful New Tale of Zatoichi, gets bogged down in the plot here. Still, there are pleasures—the aforementioned fight scenes, which are elegant and well-paced; the ferocious performances, particularly by Mayumi Ogawa and Shigeru Amachi (back from #1, in another doomed, melancholy samurai role) and the unknown actor who plays Taichi; and the vivid night-and-twilight photography. But there’s either too much of a good thing here, or not enough, and Zatoichi’s Vengeance is curiously unfulfilled.