Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Kaneto Shindo.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Michiyo Yasuda (Okichi, a young farmer in over her head), Isao Yamagata (Tohachi, a horse trader & evil yakuza), and Masao Mishima (Gonbei, the cheerful but wily village headman)
Smutty talk and bathing beauties? Check.
Crazy whip pans, oddball camera angles, and birds-eye views? Check.
Jolting cuts and breakneck transitions between scenes? Check.
Vibrant colors, overlapping frames, wipes, and psychedelic compositions? Check.
A nutso flashback that just might conflate toddlers splashing in a river with a fevered sex dream? Check.
Fight sequences that are almost unbearably tense but also aesthetically unsettling? Check.
Lots and lots of shots of feet? Check.
Is Kazuo Ikehiro back in the director’s chair? Check, check, check, and thank God.
Just as a film has a cast and characters, so too does a film series have its set roles. In terms of directors, Tokuzo Tanaka is Zatoichi‘s nuanced moralist, Kenji Misumi its cold formalist, and Kazuo Ikehiro its wild stylist. Ikehiro brings the visceral—the blood, the sweat, the greed, the money worries, the skin-to-skin friction, the throat-tightening pauses. In a series featuring a swordsman who’s mowed down hundreds of men in his time, Ikehiro’s entries—Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, and this one—are the only ones that actually include blood and cut flesh. Zatoichi gets slashed once on the right arm, and later shot by an arrow in the left arm, and the pain forces him to improvise his way out of trouble. Gone is the mathematical precision of the series, the cinema as classical music. Ikehiro makes everyone onscreen play jazz.
From the moment of the first fight, in which Zatoichi and his assailant tumble off a bridge into a river, our hero’s scrambling. The quick swordplay takes place underwater, and of course this director shoots it underwater, too. (It’s murky but the action’s clear enough to sing the sword swing, and the blood billowing.) Ichi seems genuinely surprised by the capacities for kindness and cruelty in the people he meets, and it jars him. He’s unsettled, and almost undone (in a good way) by a woman’s love. In the final showdown, he looks as alone and restless against his foes as Gary Cooper in High Noon, which this movie evokes in both its set design and a woman desperately exhorting her townsfolk to help the blind samurai. They stay inside, just like they did for poor Gary Cooper.
The toll of being alone is felt here more than most Zatoichi movies. Though the film often frames Ichi amid crowds and tight-knit communities, he doesn’t belong. During a feast at a gangster’s hideout, he’s scoffed at for his differences, and then shot at. Though he stays in a town for a week, no one seems to want to associate with him. At the movie’s beginning, he’s in a boat with a group of travelers, all of whom are invested in a storyteller’s bawdy yarn. Even here, Zatoichi’s set aside, with a blank expression—even when he cuts off a thief’s hand—instead of joining in with the gasps, smiles, and enthralled faces of the other listeners. He connects only with Okichi (Michiyo Yasuda), the lovely woman who gives him a place to stay. Even there, he rebuffs her increasingly clear advances, keeping himself from even touching her.
Of course, there’s always been something of the traveling ascetic about Ichi, from the drab, cheap clothes and homelessness to his shuffling gait and begging. But Ikehiro heightens our hero’s monk-like nature, and absorbs us in his quiet solitude. The filmmakers create this sense of intense loneliness not by mimicking Ichi’s internal state visually but by doing the opposite. Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage shows us what Ichi’s missing, what he literally and emotionally can’t see—the vibrancy, lushness, and wildness of the world. The film’s shots are as stunning as its edits are jarring. They glow with light and shadow. The photography feels as alert as Zatoichi’s pricking ears.
Even the violence is feral and lucid.
Only in Ichi’s dreams does he get to feel the big, beautiful world in all its strangeness. As he goes to sleep, warmed by Okichi’s voice and her stare (and probably imagining her naked and on top of him), he drifts off this way:
This transition, seamless but utterly bizarre, operates on dream logic. We understand it as we watch it but good luck explaining it. Is Zatoichi dissolving into a memory here? Or daydreaming about a joyous past he never had? Why do the shots overlap? Why does water matter so much here that it’s overlaid over the young boy and girl? And, since we half-know Ichi was thinking of adult love as he fell asleep, should we be a little icked out? Why is this short dream so immensely appealing and arousing?
Zatoichi would shrug at these questions. I suspect the director would, too. It just is.
So many of the cinematic decisions here seem, well, jazz-like—made in moments of inspiration, called forth by desperation. That can’t be the case, of course. This much genuine nuttiness and raw emotion takes practice, planning, and blocking, especially for cinema. So, kudos for Ikehiro, Katsu, and company for making it look easy.
Kudos especially to Yasuda, who gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic—as realistic as samurai flicks get, anyway—rather than crazed. Her smoldering, laughter, yelling, and fortitude—the woman’s not the shy, retiring type, thank God—are infectuous. We’re drawn into her, and we can see why Ichi is, too.
What I can’t see, exactly, is why he resists her. But he does, because he is Zatoichi. His opacity, whether awake or in dreams, is maddening but, alas, all too real and ever-entrancing. So’s his movie—this time around, anyway.