Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Shintaro Katsu and Takayuki Yamada.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Reiko Ohara (Okiyo, a woman swayed by Zatoichi), Masayuki Mori (Boss Yamikubo, blind like Zatoichi but waaaaay more vicious), Tatsuya Nakadai (Ronin, a samurai who’s waaaaaay too jealous about his wife), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Ronin’s wife—you kinda understand him after seeing her), and Peter (Umeji, a sexually ambigious yakuza-in-training).
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
I never thought Kenji Misumi had it in him. For this movie, at least, dude’s gone nuts. Bleak blood, grisly massacre, washed-out colors, skewed angles, elaborate tattoos, honest-to-God nudity (female and male), simmering eroticism, transitions so abrupt that I think I’m in a new film with every edit—yep, it’s all here in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival. The plot makes less than no sense but the visuals operate on dream logic, so it all coheres.
Well, sometimes it does.
Well, actually, only occasionally does the movie jell at all, once you stop to consider it. As it’s experienced, though, Fire Festival is a hoot, almost a Rosetta Stone of the Zatoichi universe. Loose women, evil bosses, big swordfights, gambling with dice, a psychotic rival samurai, Zatoichi stuffing his face—every formulaic element of a Zatoichi film is here. But it’s like Misumi is hitting the accents without first laying down the core beat. The plot seems dense and convoluted, until you realize how shaky the foundation is. Why, exactly, is this blind boss obsessed with killing Zatoichi? Why does he choose the most elaborate and error-prone ways to do so? What conceivable threat does Ichi hold to this guy? For that matter, why’s Ichi even there in the first place? Why is this weird, sexually ambiguous guy following Ichi around, even trying to get into bed with him? Why’s this psychopath going around killing everyone who might have slept with his wife? And why is Ichi involved in that, or in any of it? And is there actually a fire festival in this film?
All questions are basically answered with, “because it’s a Zatoichi film.”
Some of the fault lies with Katsu himself, as he co-wrote the screenplay. They clearly needed a script, so that the production company (Katsu’s the producer, too) would have something to film. So, Katsu called out an old chestnut from the bandstand, assuming that all his players knew the song and how it went. In a way, he was right. Kenji Misumi makes up the arrangement on the fly, which is why, perhaps, this entry loses a lot of Misumi’s customary precision and coldness. There are a lot of tracking shots, quick zooms (in and out), overlapping frames, and a scene of naked spa fighting. That’s right. There is a scene with lots of naked guys, with swords, slipping over tile and cutting through steam, in a spa. With a soundtrack that wouldn’t feel out of place on Hawaii Five-0. There is also a husband/wife fight, shot mostly in one take in which the camera whooshes around as much as the actors do, that’s the funniest moment I’ve seen in this entire series. Now, does that scene have a reason to exist here, other than to showcase the crackerjack timing and slapstick grace of Reiji Shoji (the husband) and his real-life wife, Utae Shoji? No, it does not. It’s just a whip-smart solo in a movie perhaps lacking a true melody.
Peter—nope, no last name given—plays a dude who wants Zatoichi “to make him into a real man,” with all the gender fuckery that that implies. Is there a reason for Peter’s presence in this film? Is there a reason why he essentially disappears from the movie midway through? No, and no. Just blowing solos, man.
The difference, maybe an unfortunate one, between Ikehiro and Misumi is a sense of elegance. Ikehiro’s experiments, no matter how nutty, are graceful. (Also, Ikehiro got better scripts than Fire Festival‘s dregs.) Misumi’s mathematics are equally—though differently—graceful. Without that control, Misumi grasps at straws. He’s trying on craziness for kicks but not for keeps. He’s having a ball on his stage but he occasionally seems to forget there’s an audience watching.
Or maybe he figured the audience would keep up with him. It’s a Zatoichi movie, after all—how hard could it be? And it’s not like the screenplay is giving him any help. So, might as well blow your horn.