Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, wirtten by Yoshiko Hattori.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Yukiyo Toake (Omiyo, a kindly woman with a connection to Zatoichi), Takashi Shimura (Sakubei, a kindly potter & grandfather figure to Zatoichi), Rie Yokoyoma (Yuri, a rough-and-tumble lass running around with rougher teenage boys), and Eiji Okada (Shinbei Hitachiya, a rice merchant with a heart of ice)
“An ending is just a new beginning.”
When someone says that to you, usually as your kid is dying of cancer or your mother is succumbing to dementia or your husband has left you for your yoga teacher, don’t you just want to fucking punch that person in the mouth? Maybe it’s just me. But I doubt it.
I’ve hesitated to watch Zatoichi’s Conspiracy because I knew it was the end of my time immersed in Edo-era Japan. Well, the filmed, mythic version of it, anyway. I suspect the filmmakers and Shintaro Katsu knew it, too. This 25th film in the saga takes our hero back to his hometown, coming full circle in the series. Kimiyoshi Yasuda, well-known for orchestrating the series’s most autumnal and wintry works, is in the director’s chair. The tone is elegiac instead of bouncy, and the music—so funky and modern in the last two or three movies—returns to a somber, classical air. So too does the color palette, which returns to earth tones—browns, reds, maroons, yellows, deep blacks, dusty pinks, thick greens—as those of falling leaves. In spirit, the movie has Ecclesiastes 12 in mind.
The movie, until the spectacular ending, moves like an old man taking a last stroll through the neighborhood. Zatoichi’s Conspiracy begins with one of the series’s longest tracking shots, as Zatoichi shuffles through the fall countryside. There’s room for long, static takes through the film, and for scenes that develop slowly. Shiny-black shadows drape over everything, and the Rembrandt lighting seems to emanate from the characters and their furniture out of the sheer darkness.
The themes are dark and gnarled, a little hidden. A seemingly generous rich merchant (Eiji Okada) bills himself as his hometown’s savior but turns out to be willing to literally strip-mine it to death, and its village inhabitants along with it. His motives aren’t clear as the movie begins, to the characters or the movie’s audience. No one’s motives are pure. Everyone keeps something inside. The film’s narrative is genuinely a conspiracy, which is to say it’s genuinely well-crafted. The plot points click along satisfactorily, despite the slow and even pace. If the series is gonna collapse after this, the filmmakers have decided, at least it’ll be a well-constructed building that falls.
This series has spent 25 films building up a rounded, deep character, and an exquisite world for him to stumble through. The narratives, though, became formulaic vehicles for slicing-and-dicing about three movies in. So, it’s refreshing to see Zatoichi’s Conspiracy give note to plot machinations, secret motives, mysteries that get resolved, character motivations that make sense, and a coherent political—um, anti-capitalist—vision. Finally, Yasuda seems to say, here’s what we can do when we take this seriously, when we take it to be more than just a star vehicle.
Here’s what we can do, and then here’s how we can tear it down. The collapse happens gradually. As tensions heat up, the shots get more expressionistic and less naturalistic. The scenes feel less sunlit and more ghost-lit. Once the violence finally starts happening, it’s a whoosh of gore, arterial spray, neck slices, amputations. There’s blood everywhere. All the conspiracy and interwoven plotlines just lead, as they always do in this world, to a bunch of guys getting mowed down by a blind dude. It ends, as these movies always do, with Zatoichi walking off into the distance.
In some ways, Zatoichi represents an endpoint of sorts, a culmination of Shintaro Katsu’s career. When the series began, way back in 1962, Katsu was acting in three film series simultaneously, sometimes appearing in four or five movies annually in his various roles. Zatoichi just happens to be the one that lasted, and the one he could never quite shake. Though he acted periodically in other franchises in the mid-1960s, the blind man is who he became known as, and he didn’t do much outside of that role from the mid-1970s until his death, and he seemed to circle back to Zatoichi. Katsu would reprise the character from 1974-1979 in a successful TV spinoff series. He would direct himself as the blind yakuza again, in 1989. Zatoichi was the beginning of Katsu’s fame but it was also effectively the end of Katsu’s ability to convincingly portray anyone else. A beginning, and an ending.
But was it really an ending after all? Katsu died in 1997 but Japan wasn’t done with Zatoichi even then. Beat Takeshi would direct a remake in 2003. A 2008 reboot, starring a woman protagonist, would appear, as would a 2005 stage production directed by splattermaster Takashi Miike. The latest Zatoichi iteration looks to be a film produced in 2010. There are allusions to the franchise all over Japanese cinema, and even a European cover version (Blind Fury) starring Rutger Hauer.
This certainly isn’t the end of my relationship with yakuza, samurai, and other Japanese “historical” films. Zatoichi has whetted my appetite. It’s rekindled my interest in Akira Kurosawa, sure, but I knew that going in. What’s got me excited, though, are the number of directors (Kazuo Ikehiro, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Kenji Misumi, Tokuzo Tanaka) to seek out. I’ve got a new set of faces to seek out in films of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And this exercise has gotten me re-engaged with film criticism, so there are discovered writers (Tony Rayns, Tom Mes, Donald Richie, Fred Schodt) whose insights into Japanese cinema will lift me up, and perhaps inspire me to write even more.
So, it’s true. In some ways, as much as I roll my eyes at it, an ending is a new beginning. But that’s only because nothing ever truly