Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Ryozo Kasahara.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Jushiro Konoe (Akazuka, a mysterious samurai), Takao Ito (Shokichi, an artist in trouble), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Osen, a boss’s mistress who loves Shokichi), Miwa Takada (Omitsu, a potter’s daughter who also loves Skokichi), Yukiji Asaoka (Tomoe, an actress and troupe leader), and an unknown child actor as Ryota.
In Zatoichi Challenged, it’s springtime. Well, maybe it’s autumn. Some shots, things are blooming. Other shots, the leaves are browning. In any case, fruit is plump and shining. In any case, the cinematography emphasizes lush natural colors. Bees buzz, and grass shoots out. For most of the film, no one seems cold. People wear straw sandals—there’s even a sequence about this—instead of boots, and are in loose, light clothing. We don’t see clouds on anyone’s breath. There’s no shivering or commenting on the frigidity. The final, stunning, fight sequence, though, features the duelists whipping swords and panicked motion around amidst heavy snowfall. Is this a sudden last gasp of winter? Did the script girl take a day off during shooting? Am I missing visual cues that might’ve let me know this was coming? Or did director Kenji Misumi just decide, “Fuck it, I want a swordfight in the snow”?
I’m going with the last option. Everything that bookends that swordfight looks spring-like. It’s jarring, after that thrilling climax, for the next shot to be a warmly lit crowd scene with no snowmelt or packed ice in sight.
Good for Misumi. I’ve cast him before as the chilly formalist of the Zatoichi series, so it’s good to see him letting loose of the reins a bit. The colors pop so much, and are so vividly composed, that we can forget that Misumi is one of only two filmmakers to direct a Zatoichi movie in black-and-white. He introduces other chaotic elements to the mix. A young boy, whose tubercular mother dies early on, throws Ichi’s life into humorous disarray. The kid’s a bratty, smart prankster, and he gives Zatoichi Challenged an anarchic spirit that makes me laugh. There’s more evidence of wild pop here. Ichi gets his own theme song and, early on, a woman (Mie Nakao) sings a pop song that sounds like surf rock combined with lounge-lizard marimbas—the first instance of anachronistic music we’ve seen, seventeen films in. For the first third of the movie, Zatoichi travels with an acting troupe, and it’s clear that its leading lady (Yukiji Asaoka) is a celebrity of the sort uncommon prior to the twentieth century. She’s known all over.
But how? Well, there are posters and fliers of her everywhere, signs advertising her traveling show wherever she goes. This movie takes full advantage of Japanese ukiyo-e culture. Reproduced art, prints, drawings, mass-produced visual culture reigns in Zatoichi Challenged. From painted screens and banners to woodblock prints and elaborate posters and luggage stamps, print culture is everywhere here—foreground and background. Indeed, the fate of an artist hinges—in several ways—on his ability to draw beautiful erotica that is then set in elaborate pottery.
His son Ryota, the aforementioned boy, can draw, too.
Indeed, it’s weird that it’s taken so long for the series to admit Japanese print culture. This print culture was the precursor to Japanese manga and anime, and was flourishing and refining itself during the late-Edo period in which Ichi is wandering the countryside.
The Criterion Collection went out of its way to ensure that the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set evoked the ukiyo-e that would become so influential. The slipcase and booklets feature the vivid colors, landscapes, and drawing style of 19th-century woodblock prints. In the booklet, each movie gets its own spot illustration, each done by a different cartoonist. The cartoonists ain’t lightweights but a who’s who of contemporary alternative comics—Paul Pope, Scott Morse, Vera Brosgol, Matt Kindt, Benjamin Marra, Bill Sienkiewicz. The box set’s production credits are as extensive as that of some of the films. This print culture, produced and consumed by the middle class, is the way in which most Westerners—myself heartily included—have come to know Japan. And, being a mass culture in the best and richest sense, it’s unsurprising that Criterion would use it to evoke Zatoichi’s world, seeing as Zatoichi is the ultimate underdog and cinematic champion of the underclass. But it’s a little surprising that it takes the seventeenth Zatoichi film for this culture to assert itself so forcefully.
Then again, maybe not. Like all culture, ukiyo-e existed in context of any number of tumbling lives, acts, politics, and desires swirling around it. There was other stuff going on. And then there’s that word—“seeing.” For all Zatoichi’s superhuman abilities, Shintaro Katsu never lets us forget that this character can’t see, and thus can’t read. Ukiyo-e, that most iconic force for comics/animation nerds like me, would mean nothing to a blind man.
So, let’s stop talking about print culture and pretty pictures on paper. I want to talk about Zatoichi Challenged‘s major theme, and that theme is mercy. To do so, I must note that spoilers are ahead. If that bothers you, go see this movie—it’s really good—and then come back.
Throughout Zatoichi Challenged, Misumi and company try to show mercy looks like. Ryota’s mother dies early on of consumption, and Misumi allows her the dignity of dying offscreen. Whatever world she’s going to next, he intuits that we don’t have the right to see the journey. The director also shows tact by refusing to sentimentalize the moment—no surging orchestral strings, no melodramatic swooning, no copious weeping by her orphaned son. (Ryota cries at the movie’s end, in a moment evoking Shane, but it’s earned by that point.) Zatoichi shows mercy on the boy by agreeing to protect him and to take him to meet his father, though our hero has no obligation to do so. The boy’s father is an artist named Shokichi (Takao Ito), who impregnated Ryota’s mother, fled before the child was born (or before he even knew she was pregnant). Nevertheless, he shows mercy, and agrees to take on fatherhood once he meets the kid, despite there being little proof that the kid is actually his. Problem is, Skokichi’s in trouble. He’s gotten into debt, and appears to be paying it off indefinitely to gangsters by creating erotic art that’s then glazed into ceramics. We see, and eventually so does Shokichi, that the gangsters will never free him, because Skokichi’s so damn good. (Great artistry being a form of grace.) The bigger problem is that, during the Edo era, the creation and dissemination of erotica is punishable by death. The lawman trailing this case, played by the fiery Jushiro Konoe, intends to do the punishing. He kills anyone and everyone who even knows about the erotic art, including the magistrate in whose district the art is being created—even though the magistrate doesn’t know about the erotica until the lawman tells him. That’s cold.
Even Zatoichi, a man who’s killed hundreds of men, knows the lawman is being too harsh, too sure of his moral rectitude. Though the two swordsmen admire each other tremendously, they’re at odds. Akazuka, the lawman, is morally sworn to kill Skokichi and his new family. Zatoichi’s sworn to defend them. The men know that the only way this will end is in bloodshed. Hence, the aforementiond swordfight, blanketed by snow.
Akazuka, though, has an ace up his sleeve—an accomplice. While Zatoichi is engaged in the duel, the lawman orders his deputy to kill Skokichi, Ryota, and Omitsu (Miwa Takada); Omitsu’s been merciful by taking on Skokichi’s love and his child, though the latter ain’t hers, and the former ain’t always been hers, either. The deputy lunges forward, and Zatoichi—from a distance—stops the guy in the only way possible. He throws his blade into the deputy’s back. This, of course, leaves Zatoichi defenseless against Akazuka, and facing certain death. He knows that as soon as he throws his sword.
But then Akazuka does something funny. Sword raised, Zatoichi waiting, snow falling, Akazuka can’t bring himself to do it. He can’t kill this man any more than he can kill this new family. He can’t follow the law if it mean unnecessary death. He suddenly realizes that there are greater things than the Law and, in acknowledging this, he shows mercy. “Ichi,” he says, “you win.” He sheathes his sword, and walks away.
Zatoichi realizes the enormity of what’s just happened–indeed, in this series, we’ve never seen Zatoichi act with such kindness. So, our hero does the only thing appropriate. He kneels.
I’ve got no sense of Kenji Misumi’s religion but, given the precision he’s shown in his previous directorial efforts, it’s hard to imagine those crosses are accidental.