Zatoichi #24: Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Zatoichi 24 (2)

**First, two apologies, for the twelve of you who care. 1) I’m sorry this is almost two weeks late. I had a minor tragedy last week, and just couldn’t get my act together to finish watching this movie, much less write about it. And 2) I got happily blitzkrieged by D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and ended up writing both a song review and full-on essay about it, both for Glide Magazine. But we’re back, and I’ll finish this series up before Christmas Eve. Stay tuned.

Directed by Shintaro Katsu, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Kiwako Taichi (Nishikigi, a wily and gorgeous prostitute), Katsuo Nakamura (Ushimatsu, Nishikigi’s yakuza lover & a none-too-bright guy), and Asao Koike (Boss Mangoro, maybe the cruelest boss in a series full of them).

Around the time a group of yakuzas hold down a mentally handicapped man, jack him off until he cums on a samurai’s face, and the poor retarded guy laughs through it all, I realized that Zatoichi in Desperation has gone off the rails. Pleasurably so, but geez Louise. No, we don’t see penis-to-hand rubbing but it’s clear what has happened. At this point, we’re 45 minutes in. What’s to come? A little boy gets killed for throwing a stone at a yakuza, complete with a gruesome bashed-in head. The boy’s older sister, in grief, commits suicide by drowning. Zatoichi gets laid, with the hot hooker (Kiwako Taichi) riding him for all he’s worth. Zatoichi gets both hands impaled by a harpoon, ties his sword to his shirt sleeves, and comes out swinging for more.

What’s already happened by this point? An overheard sex scene in which the juicy sounds and soft moans leave little room to the imagination. An old woman falls from a bridge to her death in a jarring sequence, made all the weirder by the abstract collage editing of the scene.Endless dirty jokes about blue balls, STDs, orgasms, and big cocks. Zatoichi pees into a stream, zips up and turns around, pauses when he realizes there’s a drop or two, and then jiggles out a bit more.

Zatoichi 24 (23)

Zatoichi in Desperation
, set in a brothel town, is suitably lurid and over-ripe. Sex in this series has always been glanced at, hinted at, suggested. Not no more, kids. Oh, and kids? Y’all should go upstairs—you can’t watch this one. Japanese film censorship in the 1970s, or the lack thereof, allowed Japanese cinema to make the American renaissance look quaint by comparison. We don’t necessarily see any more flesh than usual—when Nishikigi and Zatoichi get it on, she’s wearing a kimono. But she’s also sucking his fingernails and riding him hard. Implication and suggestion are key in the visuals. We know we’re seeing ejaculate and urine in the respective scenes, even though the cuts are done delicately, because of the diegetic sound, and because Shintaro Katsu uses his dirty mind cinematically so that our dirty minds fill in the gaps.

I mean, really. Let’s say this again: There’s a gang-rape jackoff scene of a mentally retarded man, and it’s played for laughs. This is in a franchise film, a 23rd sequel featuring a household name in Japan. I’m trying to think of the equivalent in Western cinema of the 1970s, and… nope, nothing doing.

Zatoichi 24 (11)

There’s also a prostitute, Nishikigi, who’s both really good at her job and seemingly very happy doing it. (When Zatoichi frees her, she’s bored and complains to him. And she’s not pitied for it.) There are multiple sex scenes, and a whole lotta moaning, so much so that Zatoichi covers his ears as he accidentally eavesdrops on a couple slapping skins. As he covers his ears, the sound drops out, which is a cool effect.

Zatoichi in Desperation is in love with its cool effects: its Day-Glo color schemes…

Zatoichi 24 (28) Zatoichi 24 (29)

…and crane shots…

Zatoichi 24 (16)

…and extreme closeups…

Zatoichi 24 (18) Zatoichi 24 (19)

…and setting its camera on the ground…

Zatoichi 24 (15)

…and crazy angles…

Zatoichi 24 (24)

…and its silhouettes…

Zatoichi 24 (4) Zatoichi 24 (26)

…and wild use of reflections…

Zatoichi 24 (6) Zatoichi 24 (12)

…and its deep, crisp focus…

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…and abstract landscapes…

Zatoichi 24 (20)

This movie’s so busy. Can you tell that it’s a first-time director working here? Can you tell that it’s a movie star’s first time behind the camera? When actors direct their debuts, they tend to go in one of two ways. One: If they’re self-conscious about being seen as True Actors, they deify theatre as the Actor’s One True Art Form, and they tend to make stagy films in which the cameras rarely move, in which the takes are long and drawn-out, in which there are plenty of Big Moments for actors to show their chops—long monologues, symbolically portentous arguments between a Couple with a Long-Simmering Issue between Them. Or there’s option two, in which the actor is self-conscious about being seen as a True Director and not just a dilletante, and so over-compensates, trying out every experiment and stylistic flourish he’s seen.

Katsu went with #2. Zatoichi in Desperation dazzles, visually and sonically, even if it doesn’t really cohere. Neither rhyme nor reason exist in this film’s aesthetics—just razzle-dazzle. There’s a go-for-broke intensity about it—in the juicy sex and the gory violence—that’s at least intriguing. Sometimes, the movie astonishes. By this point, Katsu had certainly been on-set enough to know how a studio lot worked, and had co-written a few Zatoichi entries before Desperation. So, plot-wise, it’s standard, though with a brutality that makes me think Katsu had a bit of the masochist in him. Toho Studio probably figured that, so long as Katsu got the story to the expected showdown at the end, and kept the whole thing around 90 minutes, he could go a little nuts with the color processing and the scissors.

So, Zatoichi in Desperation allows its director/star to channel the pop-art wildness of Seijun Suzuki. There’s even an organ funk soundtrack to modernize things here. And sometimes, just occasionally, Katsu gets off a still, non-crazy shot in which everything in the frame is dynamic and arresting.

Zatoichi 24 (1)

I can’t say, in good conscience, that the movie works as a narrative or as a cinematic experiment, but it sure gives a jolt. Lots of them, actually.
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**P.S. Next week’s entry will conclude this series. If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much for reading. Spread the word, and visit the archives.

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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