Zatoichi #18: Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

Zatoichi 18 (16)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Kinya Naoi.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Takashi Shimura (Junan, a generous but troubled doctor), Kayo Mikimoto (Oshizu, Junan’s daughter/assistant), Kyosuke Machida (Ogano, Junan’s prodigal son), Yumiko Nogawa (Oaki, a woman in trouble), Shobun Inoue (Kumeji, a genuine madman yakuza), and Hosei Komatsu (Boss Matsugoro, a corrupt deputy and silk merchant).

Dear Mr. Biggins,

Man, what’s the deal? You talk about Kenji Misumi’s cold, mathematical formalism all the time, noting all those right angles and high contrasts and straight lines in his shots. You sing hosannas all the time to Kazuo Ikehiro’s, let’s be honest here, batshit crazy experiments and leering eye. You spend a lot of time talking about Tokuzo Tanaka’s ambitious, ambiguous morality plays, like he’s some great tragedian of the series. That dude’s only directed two Zatoichi movies, and you weren’t even that crazy about the second one he did.

Meanwhile, I’ve now done four of these things—that’s as many as Misumi at this point, one more than Ikehiro, and two more than Tanaka. But the most you can give me is how much I like shooting in the autumn, and even saying backhandedly that maybe that’s all I know how to do. You’ve noticeably written the least on my films, with one essay being essentially a long paragraph and another one being a photo essay.

Is this even remotely fair? So, I like the natural world—the foliage, the passing seasons, the earth tones, the look of raindrops and clouds on the celluloid. So what? It’s a beautiful world, and I am a naturalist by design. Does this mean I don’t merit recognition as an auteur with a distinct, singular vision? Can you not recognize the wonder in a blade of grass? Or the swell of a thundercloud with a bellyful of rain?

I tried to mix it up this time. Instead of browns and reds, there’s green everywhere in this movie. Everything’s blooming. The trees riot in their colors. It’s fucking gorgeous. Surely you noticed.

Zatoichi 18 (3) Zatoichi 18 (7) Zatoichi 18 (8) Zatoichi 18 (10)

I’ll be the first to admit that my pacing is a bit slow. (Though not as slow as Misumi’s, thankyouverymuch.) But my fight choreography is solid. (Again, Misumi, ahem ahem.) I took a few cues from Ikehiro—the scene transitions are a little jumpier than my usual, and I fell in love with tracking shots, and with zooming in while tracking. I still like long takes with stationary cameras—but why fix it if it ain’t broke? So, that was fun. I gleaned from Tanaka that a downbeat ending, in which Zatoichi’s blade causes the death of a potential girlfriend’s brother (just like New Tale of Zatoichi), could be effective. I also took what I could from Tanaka’s sense of tense family dynamics as plot motivators.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—that my use of other auteurs’ key tricks only proves the point that I have no identity of my own. But you’re wrong. Along with being good with natural space and natural light, I also coax more naturalistic performances out of my actors than the rest. Katsu mutes his hamminess (a bit). The women—and, yes, there’s more than one significant woman in my features, which is a nice shift from the rest of the series—are engaging characters, and not just ciphers or damsels-in-distress. (Okay, okay, so I do that, too; blame the screenwriters and the studio heads, not me.) Old people get to do good work in my movies, as do children.

Zatoichi 18 (6) Zatoichi 18 (15)But, and I think this is most important, there’s no sense of heroism or nobility in my violence. With Zatoichi and the Fugitives, the fugitives are genuinely vicious, and I stop just short of having a yakuza slaughter an innocent baby. Zatoichi’s antagonist this time is, as with lots of these movies, a roguishly handsome but troubled samurai (Kyosuke Machida). But there’s no hidden light of goodness behind him. Yet, when Zatoichi kills him, there’s no sense of triumph in that death—the killing ends up alienating Zatoichi from the only people in the film who are good and who like him. I make violence resonate, and I de-mythologize it. That’s more than you can say about the other auteurs you love so much.

So, give me a little credit, please. I do lots of things right, and raindrops are worth noticing.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Kimiyoshi Yasuda

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Zatoichi #18: Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

  1. Pingback: Zatoichi #25: Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973) | Quiet Bubble

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