Directed by Kazuo Mori, written by Shintaru Katsu and Hiroyoshi Nishioka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Rentaro Mikuni (Boss Tetsugoro, a truly malevolent yakuza), Hisaya Morishige (Tobei, a rare, honest constable), and Naoko Otani (Oyae, a woman in debt)
I remember watching Spike Lee’s Girl 6, and saying to myself out loud, “I can’t believe a movie this bad could get made.” I got the same feeling reading Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, which was desperately unerotic, boring, and unimaginative, when it imagined itself to be exactly the opposite. I felt this when I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Watching Woody Allen’s September and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter left me the same way—dispirited, restless, sure that goodness had left the world forever.
It’s not the badness that left me so sad. Bad art happens all the time. It’s not even that these were great artists that made this bad art. That happens, too, especially when great artists try to stretch themselves or experiment with unfamiliar forms. I kinda like that kind of bad art, failures that are interesting and brave even in defeat.
No, it’s the worst when great artists make shitty art that doesn’t even try hard, as if they’re despondent over how bad this is, and that desolation infects the audience. U2 spinning its wheels on Rattle & Hum, Pedro Almodovar phoning it in for Kika, Bob Dylan grinding out a Christmas album for cash, practically every Christmas album ever… These are the sounds of men and women who just stopped caring. I’d rather have the truly terrible work that’s inspired by the artist’s temporary insanity than the paint-by-numbers piece that gives you exactly what you expect from that artist but without her soul.
Zatoichi at Large is just such a piece, at least in the first half. Kazuo Mori has directed one outright Zatoichi classic (#2) and one quizzical but impressive entry (Zatoichi and the Doomed Man). Both those movies are abrasize, with jagged cuts that shake up the rhythm, ragged plotlines that are left unresolved, a viciousness to the violence that’s less balletic than ramshackle, and photography that makes you queasy even as it floors you. All of that’s OK, because there’s a purpose there, a cohesion that undergirds the savage cinematics.
This one, though, feels like it’s going through the motions—rough-hewn not by design but because Mori couldn’t be bothered to sand down the edges. With Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, I staged my post as a series of questions, because 1) Mori left so much unfulfilled, and 2) I was genuinely curious about why he had done so. Here, I was just waiting for the end, and occasionally cringing at the carnage. There are more whip pans, extreme close-ups, fast zooms, shaky cams, overly dark lighting, foreground and background blurring in and out of focus, grainy film stock, and bleached-out colors than in any avant-garde diary by Jonas Mekas. But Mori’s not making a video journal, but just another entry in the Zatoichi saga. The style doesn’t resonate, and adds nothing. Those lens flares aren’t representative of anything but technical laziness. The poor form is disruptive enough to throw me out of the story, enough so that I pay attention to all the film’s snags.
This combo of abruptness and meanness is, sadly, a feature of Shintaro Katsu as a screenwriter. As with the nonsensical (but more exciting) Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, he co-wrote this one, too. He should’ve quit while he was ahead. There are three or four half-formed ideas here, and Mori can’t stitch them together, which probably would have required a director (ahem, Kenji Misumi) with more precision and order than Mori has. Mori and Katsu drill down on the ugliness, with bursts of blood, an excruciating but somehow inert round of torture, and a messy childbirth all present. That blood’s dull because we’re inured to it by now. That torture’s dull because it’s directed at our hero, so we know he’ll survive it. That birth, which opens the movie, is dull because we know the pregnant woman will die during it. Everything’s lurid, and nothing’s vivid.
(Even the film’s halfway-pimpin’ score, which mixes soft rock with Philly soul, loses its luster, because the filmmakers mix it too loud for it to blend into the movie.)
Honestly, it’s surprising that it took so long for this series to let out a true stinker—it’s the 23rd out of 25 entries altogether. Looked at that way, Zatoichi at Large‘s flaws feel less egregious than they are. Until you actually watch the thing.