Tuesday, November 4, 2014

#679: Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

(Various, 1962-73)

This massive set represents the single biggest viewing challenge in the Criterion Collection to date. Twenty-five feature-length films, all with the same spine number. When it was announced, I felt a wave of resigned determination come over me. After all, I had just claimed victory in my Criterion battle, and had just three yet-to-be-released movies left before I had a clean slate. But here it was, nearly 40 hours of viewing time dumped on me in one fell swoop. Fortunately, these are really fucking good. Rather than dedicate just a few paragraphs to so many movies, I've decided to review them in order, immediately after I watch each one. I began writing this in August, 2013. Hopefully, you're not reading it in 2015. [Note: just made it!] I've bolded all the films that are worth watching if you don't plan on seeing the whole series.

The Tale of Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1962)

This movie is pure fun, the kind of film you can't help but want to watch. Yojimbo had just been released the previous year, and though this is not the cinematic tour de force that one was - after all, Kurosawa was at that point an international sensation at the height of his powers - it's nearly as entertaining. Misumi has a populist way with his camera, plunging into melodrama when needed yet exhibiting a perfect amount of restraint in the climactic fight sequence. As for the character of Zatoichi, it's easy to see why a franchise was built off of him. Like Mifune's ronin in Yojimbo, he is reserved but cunning and always a pleasure to watch and see what he does next. Getting through this collection is a major project that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz look like a walk in the park, but if every film is as entertaining as this one, I'm certainly going to enjoy the ride.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues
(Kazuo Mori, 1962)

The second film in the Zatoichi series is not the first film's equal, most likely a victim of the rushed production after the original's surprise success. Obviously still indebted to the first movie but with an eye to future films in the series. Shintaro Katsu is just as charming, though, and the movie remains enjoyable throughout.

New Tale of Zatoichi
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963)

Number three is better than two, and features some really great moments, most notably when Ichi must roll dice to determine if he gets to keep his arm (spoiler alert: he still has two arms in the fourth movie). I don't know that I really bought that the person who taught this truly honorable dude would be such a scheming asshole, but as an installment in the series it worked pretty well. I am hoping later movies in the series have a little more style to them, as everything has been somewhat conservative up to this point, but overall I am definitely ready to keep going.

The Fugitive
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963)

The fourth film is the first not to have his name in the title (at least according to the subtitles) - and the first to repeat a director, as Tanaka also directed the third film. It's also probably my favorite movie in the series to date, mostly thanks to a totally kickass sword fight at the end between Zatoichi and a rival samurai. At this point, two things are clear about the series.

First, it's settled into a nice formula, which is basically that Zatoichi arrives in a new town where he quickly gets into trouble, often because his past catches up with him. What follows is Zatoichi peacefully trying to resolve that trouble before succumbing to killing everyone in sight. This naturally mucks things up with whichever woman had fallen in love with him or with which he has fallen in love, and Zatoichi is left once again to roam the countryside alone and one step ahead of trouble.

Second, though, is the series' continuity. Unlike a similarly long-running (though not as prolific) series like James Bond, Zatoichi has a continuing story that carries over from movie to movie. You can certainly watch any of them on their own at this point, but all three sequels to date have featured at least one other character from a previous film. This makes the series feel like less of a serial and more of television series, and in this context the boxset Criterion is releasing is not especially long. With most of the films coming in at less than 90 minutes, this 25 film set amounts to less than two seasons of a network drama. This is a much more comforting way to think about the road ahead, even if I'm certainly enjoying the journey.

On the Road
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963)

Unless I'm forgetting someone, On the Road is the first film not to include any other characters from earlier films. It's also the most routine, though it's a fun routine, for sure. I'm definitely hoping the woman who is plotting revenge against Zatoichi is going to reappear in later films.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

The jump in filmmaking from On the Road to Chest of Gold is startling. Every film before this was directed in a serviceable manner - think of them as television episodes rather than cinema and you'll get the idea. There were a handful of flourishes here and there, but mostly the camera's job was to show you what was happening and help you understand the action. Kazuo Ikehiro's take on Zatoichi is akin to Cuaron's take on Harry Potter; he's reading between the lines and improvising in those spaces, while still retaining the basic rhythm and not straying too far from the familiar riff. This makes Chest of Gold the first truly cinematic installment. The script is less appealing than some of the earlier work, however, which keeps this from being my favorite in the series to date. But I'm interested in seeing where the series goes as it gets deeper into the 60s.

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

Flashing Sword is one of the more violent installments to date - but that's not saying much considering the fact that the early films didn't show blood of any kind. The movie isn't as flashy as its predecessor, but there are some great stylistic flourishes, and one of the best moments in the series involving Ichi killing a bunch of dudes under water. The climax involving dark corridors and candles is also very well-executed, and brings some fresh fighting concepts to a series that in America would be quickly turning into a routine. Although the stories in the Zatoichi films have certainly settled into a formula (as has Shintaro Katsu's performance), there remains something new to offer viewers in each entry, even if you mostly know the dance.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!
(Kenji Masumi, 1964)

After a few out-of-the-box installments in Ichi's series, as directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, Kenji Misumi, director of the very first installment, takes back the reins in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. While the results remain entertaining, this installment is the first to feel extraneous. Maybe it's the absurd baby-centric premise that has been used in countless films before and after (he even pees in his face - comedy!), or maybe it's that the one original fight sequence here - in which Ichi is attacked by men with torches to block out his hearing - fails to electrify and is shot in a rather pedestrian manner. There's still plenty to like here, but I'm hoping the next movie has a little bit more energy.

The Adventures of Zatoichi
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964)

We are back on track with the ninth feature. Interesting backstory for Zatoichi with a potential reunion with his father combines with a standard but well-executed version of the typical Zatoichi-against-the-machine conflict, but the stand out here is the impeccably shot and totally fucking awesome sword fight in the climax. This is the second kick-ass faceoff in the series to rival anything I've seen in more "artistic" Japanese samurai films, and it's a real pleasure to see such great work in a simple studio product. Another note here: aside from the occasional honorable samurai (which Ichi inevitably has to kill) pretty much every guy in these movies other than Ichi himself is a real jerk. Weren't there any decent men in feudal Japan?

Zatoichi's Revenge
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

Another routine outing, though Akira Inoue does bring some interesting flashback/montage techniques into the mix. Shintaro Katsu gives a very strong performance in this entry, but the fight scenes are standard and the villains are so weak that there's hardly any suspense. A redeemable non-samurai man does finally show up, but he starts out trying to betray Zatoichi and only turns toward the light after being confronted by the swordsman. The entertainment is not as constant, but the spark is still there long enough to carry us through to the next installment.

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

I took a long break from Zatoichi in between the last installment and this one, for no real reason other than life is busy. Coming back to it I am reminded how impressive the series is. This is the second movie in 1965 to feature the character, and yet they managed to deliver a fresh concept that makes this movie stand out from all before it. Here, what felt new was the character who decides to impersonate Zatoichi, a clever plot that builds on the challenges of the earlier movie but also serves as a shrewd reminder of how honorably the blind swordsman uses his powers. I'm not sure if the break renewed my vigor for the concept, but Zatoichi and the Doomed Man was one of the most fun offerings yet.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert
(Kenji Misumi, 1965)

Despite an interesting premise, this was an average installment in the series that lacked any really compelling moments. I did enjoy Zatoichi's relationship with the chess player in the film, but it never really felt like anything beyond the typical Zatoichi movie.

Zatoichi's Vengeance
(Tokuzo Tanaka, 1966)

Tokuzo Tanaka directed one of my previous favorite movies in the series, The Fugitive, but Zatoichi's Vengeance felt much more routine. The key differentiating feature here was the blind monk that Zatoichi meets, who convinces him that he should not be corrupting the young boy Zatoichi must protect. This is a clever enough take on the series, but it doesn't go very far beyond that. Another good movie - and I probably liked this one slightly more than the last one - but nothing special.

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966)

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is the first movie in the Zatoichi series that I feel genuinely reaches classic status. This is a perfect execution of the concept and a stunningly beautiful movie, both emotionally and technically. The movie makes a statement early on with an opening sequence that ups the ante in terms of gore in the series when a thief gets his hand cut off, but the rest of the movie doesn't maintain this shock value, and instead turns into a confident retelling of the Zatoichi template. Zatoichi's Pilgramage often reminded me of the strongest episodes of my favorite television shows - not the ones where the most significant things happened (although those can often be great, too) but the ones where it feels like everyone associated with the series is firing on all cylinders and the director really gets what's at the core of the series thematically. Tanaka's beautiful cinematography and straight-faced delivery of the story is a reminder what can happen when craftsmen refuse to settle and instead elevate their popular art to graceful levels. If I had hated all of the films up to this point (and I liked all of them) it would have all been worth it for this one.

Zatoichi's Cane Sword
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1967)

How are these still this good? I mean, I know TV shows can be good or even getting better 15 episodes in, but these are 90 minutes and they release two or three every year. Movie sequels get made every few years and are always terrible. Anyway, Zatoichi's Cane Sword doesn't reach the cinematic heights of its immediate predecessor, but it's just as compelling as a narrative. This time, the series focuses on Zatoichi's underrated supporting character, his sword. There's a twist here that matches any plot development that's come before, and the movie as a whole has some great character swings for Ichi. These are all a real pleasure, but they seem to be only warming up 15 in.

Zatoichi the Outlaw
(Satsuo Yamamoto, 1967)

This one was a bit routine, with the only interesting moments coming from a boss who manages to deceive Zatoichi's usually impeccable sense of character and a brief musical montage that feels very much of its time in the best way. The plot is overloaded with characters, perhaps a recognition that the core story is not especially interesting or special within the series, so we get just about every archetype we've seen to date: the evil corrupt bosses, the star-crossed lovers Zatoichi attempts to shepherd, the reformed ronin, etc. Still not a bad movie, but I'd put this near the bottom of the pack.

Zatoichi Challenged
(Kenji Misumi, 1967)

A perfectly serviceable entry in the series, Zatoichi Challenged was neither especially noteworthy nor memorably off. Again Zatoichi is tasked with transporting a child, though thankfully we are saved most of the dumb humor of Zatoichi and a Baby!!! The final fight sequence is especially beautiful and the samurai's change of heart was pulled off rather well, I thought. But there's nothing here to remember or that makes it different from the rest of the series - which, in a way, makes it different from the rest of the series. Zatoichi Challenged is as formulaic as the series gets, which is a pretty good thing.

Zatoichi and the Fugitives
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968)

Another generic entry, with only a few saving graces: the fight scenes were particularly bloody and the death faces were incredible. Do they have a school for those people? There should be an Academy Award for best death face. Although Zatoichi Challenged was actually pretty good, the last three in the series have taken a notable step down - though I wouldn't put any of them at the very bottom and they are all still pretty entertaining as far as samurai movies go.

Samaritan Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1968)

And we're back! Samaritan Zatoichi doesn't reach classic status but it is one of the must-see films of the series. Misumi delivers just enough cinematic style and variation in formula to make this installment the best since Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. The best part, though, is how focused the plot is, with minimal side stories and a contained universe of characters, all swirling around Zatoichi in an elaborate dance of corruption and honor that defines the series. This one was a real pleasure.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
(Kihachi Okamoto, 1970)

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is a significant departure for the series. First, there are all the superficial differences; it took nearly two years for the film to be released after the previous installment, when previously there had often been two films in one year; the film runs nearly two hours, while most of the series' films clock in at under 90 minutes; and finally the film features another towering figure in samurai cinema: Toshiro Mifune's Yojimbo. Yet the film also feels different. While the basic template of the series remains - in this case, Zatoichi returns to a town he loves only to discover that it has been taken over by evil yakuza - the story is more sprawling, the characters more complex, and the pacing more cinematic and less episodic. Although Zatoichi is certainly still the protagonist, he spends most of the film sharing screen time with Yojimbo, who drives as much of the story as anyone. Obviously, it's a real pleasure to see both of these characters onscreen at once. We don't get to see a true battle between the two (since neither could possibly kill the other) we do get a few great exchanges and some brilliant dialog. The plot might be a little overly complex, and there are a few scenes that probably could have been excised. But overall this film lives up to its promise and kicks the cinematic ambition of the series up a notch, refreshed after its longest break and ready for the homestretch.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival
(Kenji Misumi, 1970)

BADASS. After a two-year hiatus, the Zatoichi series had a one-two punch in 1970 of a strong crossover with an iconic character and then this, certainly one of the best films in the series and arguably the best overall after Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. This one has everything we expect of a great Zatoichi movie: sullen women pining after Ichi's honor, prideful and petty villains who wield power over towns of peasants, naive men and/or boys who mistakenly choose the path of the yakuza, and Ichi himself, alternately humorous and powerful. But it also does everything the previous installments did so exceptionally well that it seems to be on another level. Ironically, as the series gets closer and closer to its move to TV the films are becoming more and more cinematic. Check the epic bath house fight - a clear influence on Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and every bit as gripping and memorable. Or the climactic sequence, an incredible mix of impressive suspense (the dice without marks) and stunning visuals (Ichi in the fire). The villain, too, rivals any of the previous heavies for a place as the greatest in the series, a blind man who has consolidated power and fears Ichi's similar drive. If all of this wasn't enough, we get Tatsuya Nakadai, one of Japanese cinema greatest stars, as a ronin desperate to avenge his wife and convince Ichi was her undoing. If I had to recommend only one Zatoichi film to someone who had never seen one, it would be this. It's just that good.

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Man
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1971)

This installment was one of the most fun from a stylistic perspective. A guest appearance by Hong Kong kung-fu star Jimmy Wang Yu not only gives the series a bit of hand-to-hand combat to mix in with traditional samurai action - it allows the filmmakers to have some fun with the usual flourishes found in that region's cinematic grammar. This means awesome rack zooms, quick cuts matched with impossible stunts, and sparse, even abstract set design. The story itself is passable but certainly beside the point, as everything leads up to the big showdown between Zatoichi and the one-armed swordsman. All in all another fine 1970s entry that distinguishes itself from anything else in the series.

Zatoichi at Large
(Kazuo Mori, 1972)

Oh dear, another baby. Although it is definitely handled better than it has been in previous films, this has become such a contrived driver of conflict in these movies that it was disappointing to see it in the later editions. All of the previous films of the 70s have been so different from what came before, so this routine entry was a bit of a letdown. Still, there were components here that weren't strictly routine, the most amusing of which was the final, last-second fight - fit in as if the movie was ending and the filmmakers thought "oh no, we forgot to close that plot thread!" The least impressive film since Zatoichi and the Fugitives four years earlier.

Zatoichi In Desperation
(Shintaro Katsu, 1972)

This is the first film in the series to be directed by star Shintaro Katsu and the actor's enthusiasm and inexperience both shine through. The film is visually busy, making for a constantly engaging installment but without any real heft behind it. He certainly has some great moments behind the camera, but they rarely serve the story, which has another fairly routine central conflict (Zatoichi accidentally causes a woman's death, leading him to make amends by freeing her daughter from prostitution). The difference here - and the thing that allows the movie to join most of its 70s associates as a singular entry in the series - is that the film is almost oppressively dark. Just the fact that the woman isn't especially interested in leaving the oldest profession is something that would not have happened in early Zatoichi films, where just about everyone who isn't yakuza or government is pure of heart. What Zatoichi is up against here is notably more complex than what we've seen in earlier films, and so too is the challenge bigger at the end when his hands are pierced, the kind of injury we've never seen from the seemingly invincible hero. Add in a dead kid as a sideplot and you've got a pretty depressing popcorn movie. But after 24 of these movies, seeing something different can be just as enjoyable as seeing the same routine executed more efficiently.

Zatoichi's Conspiracy
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1973)

A fine ending to the series. Although the film is rather typical, the central conflict carries an emotional heft that earlier films lacked, and Zatoichi's journey - while unfinished - feels like it has come to a resting place. There are a few really great fight scenes here, and the candle sword trick is pretty cool. Overall, the films in the 70s showed a huge maturation from the earlier phase. Certainly these movies were more explicitly sexual and violent (blood spurts everywhere in the last few movies), but they also featured more nuanced characters (relatively speaking) and bigger threats. While the earlier films had settled into an episodic rhythm, where each movie could be subbed out for any other, these last six films each felt like they were trying to separate themselves from the pack, so it seems surprising that this was the last stretch before the series made the jump to TV.

Thoughts on the series:

Zatoichi is wholly deserving of its place in the Collection. These movies represent not just a significant chapter in Japanese film history, but one of the most impressive runs of any serial. Although there are certainly some mediocre entries in the series, none of them are truly bad and all of them would make perfectly decent standalone films. And then there are the must-sees: the first film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, Samaritan Zatoichi, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, and Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival are the movies every film lover, and especially every lover of samurai movies, should not miss. This was a massive undertaking, but it was also never a chore and I could certainly see myself going back to these at some point in the future (especially with all of them up on Hulu). This is the sort of set Criterion does best, and I'm glad they are still doing it.

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