Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto, and written by Koji Matsumoto, Takehiro Nakajima, and Kiyokata Saruwaka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Rentaro Mikuni (Boss Asagoro, a good yakuza gone horribly bad), Mizuho Suzuki (Shusui Ohara, a samurai labor leader/farmer), Kayo Mikimoto (Oyuki, a woman in trouble). Tatsuo Endo (Boss Tomizo, again a wicked yakuza), and Yuko Hamada (Oshino, a woman sold into concubinage)
Right there in big, bold lettering, the Zatoichi franchise announces that there’s a new sheriff in town.
Daiei essentially went under in 1967—the Zatoichi movies were the only thing holding the studio afloat—and so the franchise’s main attraction decided to take over the series. (Hey, it was his cash cow, too.) So, Zatoichi the Outlaw is the first feature of Katsu Productions, the first Zatoichi movie under any production company other than Daiei, and the first Zatoichi movie under the financial thumb of, um, the guy playing Zatoichi. Stakes is high.
Director Satsuo Yamamoto and star Shintaro Katsu rise to the occasion by going for broke, even though the film sometimes looks like it was made on the cheap. Outlaw doesn’t lack for style—it’s as visually audacious as Kazuo Ikehiro’s contributions. The movie features overlapping frames, washed-out colors, a restless camera that often zooms in while it’s panning, shifting focal points, wipes, jump cuts, garish costuming and makeup, and easily the grisliest violence of the series so far. How violent is it? Here’s how the main villain—there are several, befitting this movie’s exaggerated sense of scale—meets his maker:
And that’s not even the first amputation in this movie. There’s torture, too, and thoroughly unjust punishments get carried out. It’s a bleak movie, one in which Zatoichi cuts down good people by accident, gets fooled by the charm of a good-sounding yakuza, and makes some terrible decisions that doom others. Good people get sold into prostitution, have their homes taken from them, are beaten terribly, stolen from, the works. The air of desperation lingers in the air, clinging to everyone. You can see it in the performances and costuming, in which the leads more disheveled and anguished than I’ve ever seen in this series:
In most Zatoichi films, the implied bleakness gets somewhat alleviated. The blind swordsman metes out samurai justice—the worst get their comeuppances, the best get saved. Not so here, or not exactly. The worst of it is that some of it, really the majority of it, is in some way Zatoichi’s fault. He must pay the consequences of his swinging sword.
The movie’s real hero, a former samurai turned farmer, more or less tells Zatoichi exactly this. Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki) is among the most interesting characters in the Zatoichi universe. He refuses to use swordplay, preferring nonfatal hand-to-hand combat, and using that only when necessary. He compels by his moral language—no drinking, no whoring, no gambling—and by actions that live up to his language. He’s persuasive enough that he’s organizing the village peasants into a labor force powerful enough to threaten the yakuza’s hold on the region. In much of real Edo-era Japan, feudal societies and yakuza clans—often hand in hand—ruled the territories. Indeed, the action of Zatoichi films pivots around these territorial disputes. Shusui offers another way, not one in which he openly challenges the yakuza but one in which self-reliance makes the yakuza unnecessary. He’s a compelling mix of Wendell Berry, Karl Marx, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The King reference is probably most apt. Zatoichi the Outlaw was produced in 1967, during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, and just before the European uprisings of 1968. In the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference, lots of African and Asian colonial territories were becoming postcolonial independent nations. This film’s director, even participated in labor protests against Toho Studios just after World War II. Revolution was in the air. Its possibilities, violent and nonviolent, makes its way into Zatoichi the Outlaw, and it’s the violent way that pointedly comes in for the harshest criticism.
Early on, Zatoichi tries to make the case for the yakuza way to Shusui:Shusui’s having none of it, and the most extended scene in the film—beyond the inevitable big swordfight at the end—is his philosophical conversation with Zatoichi. The two men respect each other, and Shusui has certainly lived his share of the wandering samurai’s life. But he’s also lived enough of the stay-put farmer’s life to know its pleasures and the ways in which it grows the soul and community alike. He asks Zatoichi a series of increasingly difficult moral questions, and the walk-and-talk becomes a rare confessional for our protagonist. It becomes so painful, so painful, that Zatoichi has to ask Shusui to stop talking.
But, and this is the kicker, Shusui refuses. Just because you don’t want to face the consequences of your actions doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to. For the first time in this series, Zatoichi is repeatedly forced to bear witness to the agony he causes with his blade. He begins to recognize that he’s morally at sea, and that the yakuza code of honor ain’t much of a code, and is dishonorable to boot. His reliance on this code blinds him to Boss Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni), who is so truly execrable his language of reform, chivalry, and goodwill toward the poor mirrors Shusui’s. Shusui, though, walks the walk.
For doing so, Shusui gets punished. Asagoro, at least for a time, flourishes. In his rise to power, gambling dens rise up, peasants go into severe debt, whorehouses crop up like dandelions, and taxes become exorbitant. It takes a year for Zatoichi to discover the depths of Asagoro’s treachery, and by then it’s too late for many of the townspeople.
Zatoichi the Outlaw is a tragedy, as much for the masseur’s soul as for the town he wanted to protect. But it’s an electric, antic tale of woe. Yamamoto’s experimental style isn’t as refined as it should be, and the movie bears the tonal disjointedness of having three screenwriters attached to it. There’s a long period of lewd slapstick among blind and mentally handicapped masseurs that feels like a lost reel of the Three Stooges. The transitions between scenes are jarring, enough so that I wrote in my notebook “WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS MOVIE?” more than once. Side characters and subplots fizzle out. The violence jolts more than it resonates.
Still, it’s the most openly political movie in the series so far, and the one most nakedly critical of the genre’s aims. It bears the bruises of trying to force the franchise account for itself. So, I accept the blemishes as acne scars, of an adolescent series molting into adulthood.