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Review: Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker

*Warning!* There WILL BE SPOILERS in this review.

Written by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams, and directed by Abrams, “Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker” is the (supposed) end to the decades spanning “Skywalker Saga” as it is now called. Well, now that the film has opened and the saga is over, how does the Disney trilogy look as a whole? It looks messy, very, very messy. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff in there- but it is now abundantly clear that there was no discernable pathway or structure for the story of these three movies. I’m honestly amazed that Disney would purchase Star Wars for $4 Billion dollars, throw out George Lucas’ ideas, and just wing it. Seems like a huge down payment to have a teenager’s style of approach to story structure. Granted, that being said, I did not hate this movie. In fact, I haven’t really hated any of these Disney Star Wars movies, I’m just somewhat disappointed. Oh and tired, I’m so tired… the cultural discourse surrounding these movies has been exhausting. So, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? And was it worth it?

“The Rise of Skywalker” is a crash course is witnessing a studio freefall into panic mode after a few missteps in organization. In December of 2015 we got to see what J.J. Abrams could do with a studio endorsement and backing to craft the first film to feature some of the old characters we loved from the original trilogy. I still have a fondness for “The Force Awakens”, it was an enjoyable return to that Galaxy far far away, but within that film J.J. fell into his formula of crafting an enticing Mystery Box full of intrigue and mystique. We all wondered, what’s in that box? Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” shows us, it was filled to the brim with MacGuffins. The crawl opens with enough exposition for a whole movie itself! Apparently, Emperor Palpatine has been alive and broadcasting his presence throughout the galaxy, and Kylo Ren has been seeking the Dark Lord- so that he may destroy any threat to his power as the Supreme Leader of the First Order. Meanwhile, Rey is training under the guidance of General Leia as Poe and Finn manage the resistance from the Millennium Falcon. That’s the initial set-up, and from here on out I’m only going to go into specifics for sequences that I thought were noteworthy or where things got choppy for me personally. There’s enough plot for about six films crammed into this one so combing through the story would prove arduous at best.

There are things I enjoyed about this film. Some bits were excellent, but the pacing was so incredibly fast that the good and the bad whiz by you before you know what just happened, why it happened, or how it was relevant to the plot. For instance, I really enjoyed the sequence on Kijimi where Poe returned to his old gang’s headquarters to decode the Sith inscription that C-3PO read but couldn’t say aloud due to his programming. The location was, clearly, inspired by old Samurai films as the wintry steps of the mountainous planet looked similar to the Japanese layout of shops and homes through the design choices and aesthetic. I also really loved the practical effects used to showcase the later destruction of Kijima by one of the Final Order’s beefy Star Destroyers (Hope you saw that spoiler warning at the top). I also enjoyed the bits of characterization we got for Poe’s background, though sadly the same can’t be said for Finn. Which, truly, is one of the biggest disappointments of the new trilogy. Finn had the most interesting origin in “The Force Awakens” but they did essentially nothing with his character for the rest of his time onscreen. This film played with the notion that Finn’s force sensitive, but that one inkling of a character trait isn’t enough to be honest. I also really enjoyed the return of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, his inclusion was a delight throughout the film. However, the very best portions of the film belong to Kylo Ren in my opinion, honestly, he’s been the most interesting character throughout the sequel series. Adam Driver’s a damn good actor and his turn to the light side wasn’t just an excellent scene, it was believable because of Driver’s commitment to the emotional requirements of that moment. Admittedly, I saw the film a second time and I noticed a lot more nods and nuances to the other films and trilogies. Even if they were only reflections mirroring themselves through visuals, ie Kylo and Rey’s lightsaber battle on Endor mirroring the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar through opposing elemental forces with color palettes of red lava erupting everywhere versus titanic waves crashing on the second Death Star’s wreckage. I also enjoyed the visual callback to “Return of the Jedi” with the Emperor opening the ceiling of his cavernous ruins on Exogol similarly to the way he tried to pressure Luke into giving in to the dark side by showing both protagonists’ friends being blown to smithereens by his vast armada. Ole Palpy hasn’t changed much in those thirty years it seems, and I’m okay with that.

Then there’s Rey. Rey, as it turns out, is a descendant of Emperor Palpatine himself! Kind of a neat idea, though it seems to challenge the ideology of the last Star Wars movie. Which, if you hadn’t noticed, is the theme of this film. Or at least, it sure as hell seems to feel that way. Anyways, Rey, is an incredibly powerful Jedi, and it seems it’s mostly due to the fact that she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter. She can do things in this film that Jedi of the past could only dreamed of, and no, I’m not one of those fanboys crying “Mary Sue”, it’s fine, she’s really powerful, we all get that. Though, I feel like she would be a more relatable character if she had suffered any real losses in this trilogy, other than her new friends getting killed by lasers. I actually like Daisy Ridley’s performance quite a bit and she does a lot with what she’s given, but, things just seemed to work for her at almost turn. Characters evolve and grow through failure and their struggle, whereas Rey seems to “just be really good at everything”, I’m not gonna protest outside of Lucasfilm because of this- I just wish the filmmakers had more time to thoughtfully consider her character, and her arc through this trilogy. I mean, I don’t really know anything about Rey as a person- and hey, I guess we didn’t know all that much about Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy either, but I don’t know- maybe it was simply the insane pace of this film or the fact that the other two movies were so mired in the mystery of who she was and who her parents were. It felt as though we were only just starting to get to know a few of the new major players by the time this film ended, and it felt a bit strange for a “Star Wars” film.

For me, this wasn’t a bad “Star Wars” film, but it wasn’t a great one either. I don’t envy J.J. Abrams for having to course correct and react to everything that “The Last Jedi” did. To be fair, I don’t blame Rian Johnson for this new sequel trilogy being as bumpy as it is either. He tried to break the mold and do something new with “Star Wars” and that’s an admirable effort. Honestly, I blame Disney for not having the wherewithal to plan the trilogy out. They also should have put far more consideration into which writers and directors they hired for their newly acquired property, Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams are nearly complete opposites in style and tonal creative decisions. So, with the end of the Skywalker Saga comes my end with Star Wars films. I’ve got to be honest here, I think I’m just done with having my nostalgia milked for all its monetary value, and the cultural conversation surrounding these films is just death now. May the Mandalorian save us all.

Final Score: 9 Episodes

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My Top Ten Favorite films of 2019

This was an excellent year for movies. There’s a few movies I have yet to see that may have knocked others off this list, but hey, there’s a lot of movies out there and this year I’ve watched an inordinate amount of old and foreign films thanks to the Criterion Channel streaming service (I highly recommend it!). There’s only so much time in a year, what can I say? The films listed below have some reviews all to themselves, but there’s also several here that I saw and loved but never got around to writing a review of it.

10 Joker

Joaquin Phoenix certainly committed to this role, and it paid off incredibly well. When I initially heard about the concept of Joker origin story with no Batman to counterbalance the chaos, I wasn’t interested. To the filmmakers’, and performers’, credit- I actually really dug what they were able to do with the premise. The world building was excellent, the brooding tension was palpable and damn near overwhelming at times, but the best part was Phoenix’s incredible descent into madness. He carried this film and should, at least, be nominated by the Academy for this role. He earned it.

9 Ad Astra

I did not expect to love this sci-fi adventure as much as I did. Brad Pitt’s performance as Roy McBride was one of my favorites of the year. This “Apocalypse Now” meets “2001 Space Odyssey” vibe worked insanely well in my opinion. The irony of an Astronaut traveling to the furthest reaches of the solar system to reach his father is a fascinating inward character drama for Pitt’s McBride. Usually heavy-handed narration could sink an otherwise decent film, but here it not only enhances the drama, it’s essential to understanding who Roy McBride is. This journey to Neptune was an evolving and engaging one that I really dug.

8 The Wretched

I caught this film at the Traverse City Film Festival over the summer and it was one of the best original horror films I’ve seen in years! Set in Northern Michigan, a teenager visiting his father for the summer notices his Dad’s neighbor is a bit… off. I don’t want to ruin anything about this movie, but just trust me on this one, go watch it! Smart characters, awesome practical effects, chilling sequences, and literal edge-of-your-seat intensity- this film knocked it out of the park for me and I highly encourage every horror fan to seek this one out!

7 Ford V Ferrari

I recently caught this one with my Dad, I mean it’s the perfect Dad movie and the marketing worked for me. What I didn’t expect was that this one would be one of the best damn movies of the year in every conceivable category. Acting. Pacing. Heart-pounding thrills. Funny, sad, and powerful. The story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles working with Ford to beat Ferrari at the 1966 24-hour Le Mans race in France was compelling and once fully immersed, I didn’t want to exit the car when the credits rolled. It was incredible. They don’t make many movies like this anymore, check it out when you can!

6 Godzilla King of the Monsters

Look, I’m a sucker for giant monster movies, Godzilla especially. I grew up on those old Toho, man-in-a-suit, relics. I have a warm nostalgia and earnestness for these cheesy flicks, and this American sequel brought a lot of heart to some old favorites. The use of classic Toho movie monsters Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were 100% on point for their larger than life personalities. This movie, correctly, recognized that the monsters are the stars, and the human cast is just there to react to their mayhem. Lots of solid throwbacks to the fifty plus year history of Godzilla. I wholeheartedly loved this movie.

5 Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Is it just me, or is Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a writer/director aging like a fine wine? While this isn’t my favorite outing from the filmmaker, it is an excellent film. This is Tarantino at his most relaxed and most meta, his love for Hollywood, filmmaking, and the people who made them is made crystal clear here (if you haven’t already noticed). Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio excel as stuntman, and eternally cool, Cliff Booth and the internally wrought actor Rick Dalton. This is a film that’s completely at ease with it’s characters and lackadaisical with it’s pacing- though I’d argue that the relaxed speed of the plot was finely tuned for maximum enjoyment. The two friends can feel their time passing them by, and their conflicts come with meditative questions about how to evolve with the transitioning film industry. How do they stay relevant? Does it matter? It’s all good man, just kick back and enjoy the ride with Cliff through the Hollywood Hills, it’ll all work out.

4 The Irishman

This decades long Gangster epic is one of the finest films from Martin Scorsese in the 21st century. Granted, he has consistently made challenging, intimate, bombastic, and truly cinematic work that will stand the test of time- but this one may be my favorite film of his since “Gangs of New York”. Getting Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci together for this beautifully tragic film was a true delight. This is a film, obviously, made by an aging master of the craft. His directorial touch in this film could only be informed by someone that’s made movies for thirty years or more. He doesn’t just love these characters, he has empathy for them, and it feels as though he may pity these characters and the power structures they live and breathe in. It may be three and a half hours long, but it’s well worth the time sink. Easily one of the best movies of the year.

3 John Wick 3

The John Wick movies just keep getting crazier and more intense and I’m here for that. Keanu Reeves has helped to turn the tide of action movies away from shaky-cam noise and darkly lit confusing brawls into an evolution of clean wide shots with well choreographed, but not defined by dance or ballet, action. This is a film series enamored with the history of action shown onscreen, and I fucking love that. The story may be simple, John Wick is out for revenge against the dirty bastards that ruined his retirement, but the devotion to grisly, eclectic, and unnerving violence is admirable to say the least. This film cracked open the underworld of John Wick’s assassin’s guild and expanded the lore in a few really cool ways. Also, that knife fight will go down as one of the best fight sequences in modern film history.

2 The Lighthouse

Yet another film has confirmed the manic brilliance of the A24 film studio. I will watch every and any film that comes from A24. I didn’t think Robert Eggers could top his first feature, “The Witch”, but this film took huge, gigantic, creative swings and for me, it worked wonders. “The Lighthouse” is a miracle film in my opinion. Not that it’s “so good it’s miraculous” but rather, it’s a miracle that it got funded and made at all. A black and white film shot in an ancient 1.19:1 aspect ratio with a clear and unavoidable admiration for turn of the century silent film work- I mean, this is a film for film nerds if there ever was one. The performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe were both exquisite and legitimate tour de forces- and I don’t take that term lightly. They employ the grand range of expression in their descent into madness. This is one of the standout films I will remember fondly when thinking back on this year’s creative output.

1 Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseam? It sits atop the box office throne, and it earned that spot. I’ve always been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe- since Tony Stark himself was tagged by shrapnel from his own bombs, I’ve been there. I grew up reading a wide variety of the Marvel comic book characters, and the sheer devotion that this studio has had in crafting incredibly accurate adaptions of their superheros has been downright amazing. These films work because of the focus on the characters themselves, about what motivates them, who they are as people rather than what they can do with their various “science gone wrong” superpowers. Endgame is my favorite movie of the year because it paid attention to every detail about their string of movies past and present, and they kept evolving their characters over time. Sure, the world saving stuff is bound to be fun, but I’m more fascinated with who these larger than life characters are and how their heroics, or failures, effect them. Besides, I will never get over the fact that the biggest movie of all time features Captain America, with Thor’s Hammer in hand, saying “Avengers Assemble”. As a longtime comic-book nerd, I will always cherish that very silly and quite amazing moment.

*Films I missed, but wanted to see: Uncut Gems, Knives Out, Parasite, Marriage Story, 1917, The Good Liar, Motherless Brooklyn, Honey Boy, Dark Waters, The Farewell, Midsommar, Rocketman, Shazam, Us, The Dead Don’t Die, Always be My Maybe, Aladdin, Yesterday, Missing Link, Rambo Last Blood, Dolemite is My Name, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The King, and El Camino.

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #25 Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

Writer/Director: Yoshiko Hattori/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (6th film)

Summary: Zatoichi returns to his home town again in this final film of the series (More on that later). Initially, he’s mistaken for another former citizen returning home, Shinbei (Eiji Okada), a former childhood friend of Ichi’s and now a successful businessman. While Zatoichi meets with old friends and familiar faces of the village, Shinbei sets up meetings with the local government to see what he can do to help with the town’s finances. The villagers and farmers had endured several years of poor crop yields and couldn’t afford their taxes, so Shinbei decided to help and paid off their fees. Zatoichi visited the grave of the woman that raised him, and checked on the ruins of her home, the house he grew up in. He also met with Sakubei, the local potter in another authentic and engaging role from legendary Japanese actor, Takashi Shimura. Zatoichi’s also followed by a small group of charming rogues that pestered him constantly, though he never seemed too bothered by them- that is until they got caught up in the mania caused by the huge bounty on Zatoichi’s head. Zatoichi eventually paid Shinbei a visit to give him a complimentary massage and see what kind of man his childhood friend had become. To his disappointment, the man had become cold to the world, deeply analytical, and focused on monetary gain over ell else. Which, clues the blind swordsman in to the fact that Shinbei’s subtle interest in the local quarry may not be as altruistic as he first seemed. For generations, the quarry was recognized by the Magistrate’s office as being owned by the people of the village. However, when word got to Edo that those mines were far more profitable than realized, Shinbei was sent home to win the villagers loyalty before forcing them to hand over the quarry and all it’s money-making abilities. On top of that- they also participate in a rice heist scheme that doubles down on their cruelty. As you may have guessed, Zatoichi is eventually pushed into a massacre of bosses, henchmen, and of course- Shinbei too.

My favorite part: This film returned to the major overarching theme of Melancholy that ran throughout most of the films in the series. While this entry in the series kept the exaggerated violence from the last ten (or so) films, it was the perfect blend of tone, story, and style from both halves of the series. The villains were despicable and cruel to the people beneath them, stealing what wasn’t theirs and proudly defending their decisions- that is until Zatoichi comes for them.

Why it’s great: Well readers, we did it. Twenty-five films and twenty-five reviews in twenty-five days. It may have gotten close to falling behind for a few days, but I’m glad to have gone on this film journey with you. Hopefully I’ve encouraged at least a few of you to seek out films you might not have come across or known about before, or a fun reminder to those who have seen the Zatoichi films. I had a great time with this, and who knows, I might go through similar film analysis challenges in the future. There’s always more movies out there!

Final Score: 25 films

*For a final treat to end this saga of Zatoichi, check out this incredibly silly youtube fan made video in which Zatoichi meets The Predator:

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #24 Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (7th film)/ Shintaro Katsu

Summary: With Shintaro Katsu himself directing this Zatoich film, I was curious to see if his work would stand out from the rest of the series. I’ll cut straight to the case here- it’s massively unique for it’s tone and specific camera choices. I’m pretty sure this is the most inventive camera work within the whole series, here the camera glides, pans, and generally moves more than any other Zatoichi film. Anyways, in the beginning of this film Zatoichi is crossing a bridge when he meets a shamisen player, who mentions that she’s headed to see her daughter in a nearby town. Unfortunately, right when they depart Ichi decides to offer her some money, as he appreciates musicians, but she falls through a gap in the bridge and to her death. So, with only the name of the town she was headed to, and the shamisen she had been playing, Zatoichi heads there to inform her daughter of the news. Eventually Ichi finds the young woman, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), who works as the prized prostitute of the local brothel. While there, Ichi overhears a young man, Ushimatsu (Katsuo Nakamura), breaking in to see Nishikigi, who wishes to buy her freedom from the brothel. Zatoichi inserts himself in the situation, namely by hitting up the local gambling house and taking the establishment for everything it had. He frees Nishikigi, but both she and Ushimatsu aren’t content with freedom alone. Ushimatsu claims his honor slighted due to Zatoichi’s involvement, and Nishikigi’s eyes twinkle at the thought of the one-hundred ryo bounty on Ichi’s head. Eventually the bosses from this seaside town, and Lioka (the village from the first movie where Ichi played a part in the war), and the Magistrate himself all descend on the town to crush Zatoichi and the local fishermen from rising up. These criminals were smart though and used Nishikigi as bait against her will to entrap Zatoichi- and they almost kill her to get Ichi’s cane sword out of his hands. Surprisingly, he’s forced into placing his hands on the table in front of the Yakuza, and they immediately stab both of his hands with harpoons! Thus putting Zatoichi in the most desperate and dire situation he’s ever been faced with before the third act fight. Confident with their scheme, the bosses, the magistrate, and dozens of henchmen mob Zatoichi’s known location. Luckily, the blind swordsman is nothing if not creative, and he strides out of hiding with his blade tied between both of his bloodied palms- as he begins to slay them all in one of the bloodiest battles of the series. It’s a great way to end this dark chapter in the Zatoichi series.

My favorite part: The best parts of “Zatoichi’s Desperation” were the extremes that the criminal Yakuza went to in order to grab power and crush anything or anyone standing in their way. This film is easily the darkest and bleakest entry in the Zatoichi series. Right from the opening, a man who had committed suicide by hanging is discovered by family and friends- this has nothing to do with the plot or the story except to establish the dark tone that this film will be immersed in. Boss Mangoro (Asao Koike) even kills Kaede’s (Kyoko Yoshizawa) younger brother (a mere child) for throwing rocks at him whilst he chastised the local fisherman. When Kaede is told of her brother’s death, she goes to the beach where he was killed and takes his body, and walks into the ocean to die with him. Damn, that’s Dark… It’s a downright evil group of gangsters and government officials trying to destroy the local fishing community by implementing their own expensive infrastructure that forces locals to take part in their monopoly.

Why it’s great: This film, in my opinion, is great because of its risk taking. There’s more of a descent into depravity in this one, with lots of shots lingering on sexual intimacy, death, and menacing laughter in the gambling houses when all the patrons believe they’re tricking a blind man out of his money. This film can get uncomfortable at times, it’s not afraid to show a brutal Yakuza beat a child to death, or to showcase that just because someone is in a bad situation, freeing them doesn’t always mean they were a good person to begin with. I really appreciated putting Zatoichi’s back against the wall with this one, pushing the character to his limits and forcing him to handle horrific scenarios was an interesting choice.

Final Score: Dozens of burnt fishing nets and boats

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #23 Zatoichi At Large (1972)

Writer/Director: Kinya Naoi (2nd film)/ Kazuo Mori (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi at Large” begins with the blind swordsman helping a wounded woman deliver a baby. She gives him the name of the baby’s father and the village where he should be just before she dies, and at once Ichi has stepped into another familial drama that will consume most of the runtime. As Ichi heads to town he’s followed by another small boy that likes to throw rocks directly at his head. When he gets into town looking for the father, Ichi bumps into the more interesting storyline in the film (in my opinion). When a young man jokingly brings Ichi to his home for a few Mon (small currency), the young man’s father, Tobei the Deputy Constable (Hisaya Morishige) directs him to the only known relative of the newborn’s father, his sister who works at an inn. Later we discover that Tobei, now an old man, had once driven a deeply rooted Yakuza clan from their town in his heyday through humanistic methods driven by a need to help others. And when he witnesses Zatoichi handily shaming the new Yakuza threat in the form of Boss Tetsugoro (Rentaro Mikuni) and his band of ruthless underlings, the old Deputy’s eyes widen, and a smile begins to form on his face- impressed with the blind Masseur’s techniques. There’s a few moments where misinformation and hasty reactions threaten to turn everyone Ichi had helped against him, but through shear intimidation and cooler heads for some, he gains the upper hand and saves the town from Tetsugoro’s wrath! Oh! There’s also another ronin challenger in this film, though he’s unique in that he witnesses Ichi’s skill and is so impressed that he commits to fight Zatoichi in the future, no matter what. The ronin even saves Zatoichi from being bound by multiple ropes, just so he can get that fight- and he does get that fight in the final shot of the film with a quick but visceral kill. It’s a fairly standard Zatoichi film in it’s structure, but it’s executed well and has enough style and panache to merit it’s worth.

My favorite part: Honestly, my favorite parts of this film were some of the unique set-pieces and the imagery of a few scenes. The dancing monkeys in one of the villager’s rehearsals for Boss Tetsugoro to see if they qualify to perform at the local festival was silly and unique for the series. Though, admittedly my favorite visual came from the end fight sequence where Zatoichi is fighting Boss Tetsugoro’s men on a raised platform that’s been covered in lantern oil. Initially it’s a friction-less and chaotic scramble for stability while fighting, but the platform is eventually set aflame with only Zatoichi trapped amidst the fire. When he finally gets out of the blaze, he’s still on fire and smoldering with intensity as he walks towards Tetsugoro, striking demonic fear into his eyes. It was a fun visual that played well into his own previous myths about escaping from Hell just to strike down injustice.

Why it’s great: While this film wasn’t exactly a knockout within the series, it doubles down on everything that has worked in previous films, with a twist of style thrown in for good measure. “Zatoichi at Large” works because the filmmakers, production crews, and actors all know what’s proven to resonate with their audiences by now. Twenty-three films in, the bumps in the process have been mostly smoothed out by now. Though, I tend to prefer the Zatoichi films that take chances and swing big- they may not always land- but I respect them for trying something new rather than totally relying on the proven formula, even though I did rather enjoy this film.

Final Score: Two Performing Monkeys

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #22 Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Writer/Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda & Takayuki Yamada (2nd film)/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (5th film)

Summary: “Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman” was truly a delight! Not only is it my favorite film from Kimiyoshi Yasuda within the Zatoichi film series, it’s also one of my favorite Zatoichi films in general. This one harbored a far more lighthearted tone than the most recent films, hearkening back to the first half of the film series, while maintaining the exaggerated violence from the more recent evolution that’s taken place since “Zatoichi The Outlaw”. This film is another crossover similar to Zatoichi’s encounter with Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo. I’d only recently heard of Jimmy Wang’s Hong Kong action oriented character “The One-Armed Boxer”, which is a ridiculously entertaining and over-the-top Kung Fu style film (I’ll link the trailer the below, it’s worth a watch!). Which, in doing some light research just now, is not the same character as the “One-Armed Swordsman” despite both characters being portrayed by the same actor and both only having one arm. Huh. In any case, when the One-Armed Swordsman travels to Japan, he encounters a family of fellow Chinese nationals now living in Japan. The mother, father, and child, offer to guide him to his destination- a temple devoted to the study of martial arts. While on the road, the family and One-Armed Swordsman encounter a procession of Samurai transporting a tribute to the shogun. As the father explains to the One-Armed Swordsman, the law requires that any and all travelers kneel at the side of the road to let them pass. As they do so, the child’s kite flies from his hands and under the foot of the first Samurai. The kid runs for his kite and the Samurai raises his sword to slay the offender- but the mother and father run to save their son, but end up being slain instead of the boy. The One-Armed Swordsman jumps into the fray killing several Samurai before escaping, though he loses the boy in the chaos. Several bystanders witness the carnage that followed as the Samurai killed every innocent bystander kneeling by the road, farmers, peasants, everyone. Of course, they then blamed the slaughter on the One-Armed Swordsman, a Chinese citizen that speaks very little Japanese, the perfect target for such corruption. Initially, even through the language barrier the two swordsmen formed a fast friendship with the young boy roughly translating for them. Later, when scheming Yakuza bosses and misinformed side characters persuade Wang Kang into believing that it was Zatoichi that sold them out to the Yakuza, the two are set against each other. Unfortunately for the One-Armed Swordsman, he didn’t figure out that Zatoichi was a good man until it was too late.

My favorite part: Jimmy Wang’s One-Armed Swordsman was a real treat within the Zatoichi series. He’s the only combatant that Zatoichi’s ever faced that can move the way he did in battle. Wang Kang, as he’s referred to formally, performs some high level acrobatics- jumping from his enemies shoulders like Legolas, and he’s also incredibly powerful with his punches and karate chops- slicing trees in half with his bare hand! His wuxia antics were enjoyable, and he was a heroic character that was manipulated into fighting Zatoichi by the end of the film. He was tricked and lied to by his closest Chinese friend in all of Japan, clearly he had not encountered the type of double-crossing that’s often utilized in the Zatoichi films. Since he was even portrayed as a Chinese character, and spoken in Mandarin mostly, there were some great conflict and confusion that came from the misunderstanding of intent between him and Zatoichi. In fact it’s the main source of conflict between the two major characters, with lots of misdirection and scheming by Yakuza bosses- which comes with the territory in Zatoichi’s world.

Why it’s great: The crossover effect between not just two cinematic icons, but of two different countries and languages, worked excellently! This one may have been more playful and not quite as heavy as recent Zatoichi films, but it earned it’s place with the inclusion of Wang Kang’s wuxia, martial arts, and moral character work. This film has the most snap-zooms out of any Zatoichi film this far, and since it was filmed in 1971, there’s a funk insurgence within the soundtrack that plays into the nature and tone of this film well. Reportedly, the Chinese edit had more wuxia content with scenes showing Wang Kang walking across the tops of trees, and also featured a different ending where instead of Zatoichi it was the One-Armed Swordsman who was victorious in their final fight, and he didn’t kill his opponent. This was a fascinating experiment in the Zatoichi film series, and I had a great time with it!

Final Score: One Arm

Trailer for “The One-Armed Boxer”:

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #21 Zatoichi Goes to The Fire Festival (1970)

Writer/Director: Shintaro Katsu & Takayuki Yamada/ Kenji Misumi (6th film)

Summary: This being the final film from Kenji Misumi in the Zatoichi series, and co-written by Shintaro Katsu, I had a lot of anticipation when the opening credits began. While this one may not be my favorite film from Misumi in the Zatoichi series, it still has a lot to offer. There’s some voiceover in the opening describing the situation that’s developed across many provinces, a lone Yakuza Boss has accrued an insane amount of power through brutal tactics and elaborate tax schemes through the many associated gambling houses in his network. Big Boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori) may be the smartest villain that Zatoichi’s faced thus far. He’s a skilled Orator, meticulous planner, and he just so happens to be blind as well. There’s a few interweaving storylines that interconnect throughout the runtime, and there’s a good deal of excellent action sequences with Zatoichi taking on crazy numbers of opponents. This one may not hit the heights of the series, but it is a very good Zatoichi film.

My favorite part: Following the inclusion of several other big name actors from Akira Kurosawa’s ranks over the last few films, Tatsuya Nakadai, (Famous for his roles in “Yojimbo”, “Sanjuro”, and “Sword of Doom” to name a few) plays the ronin challenger this time around. The film leaned into Nakadai’s skill in portraying pensive and lethal villains that harbor an almost ghost-like presence. He even gets a quick series of abstract shots during a sake bender that perfectly and precisely show us his motivation for following and promising to kill Zatoichi. His monologues, eerie presence, keen swordplay skill and impressive fighting styles all combine to make a truly memorable ronin challenger.

Why it’s great: The villains of the film were incredibly well organized. This was the best display of Yakuza gangs trying to deceive and kill Zatoichi. They tried to kill him in a bathhouse resulting in a goofy but wildly entertaining action sequence. Yamikubo had several plans in play trying to undermine Zatoichi’s skill by weaponizing love and hiring the largest number of henchmen yet! There’s also a fun sequence trapping him on a small platform, surrounded by water, with walkways that retract, while the villains had long bamboo spears swinging wildly before they lit the pool with a massive fire. The attempts made on Zatoichi’s life in this film definitely falls in the category of “Most creative”.

Final Score: Hundreds of Henchmen!

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #20 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Writer/Director: Kihachi Okamoto & Tetsuro Yoshida (2nd film)/ Kihachi Okamoto

Summary: “Sword of Doom” director Kihachi Okamoto brings his stylistic and nuanced touch to this excellent crossover. Heavily inspired by Westerns, crafting heavily satirical and critical Samurai films, and even a few musicals, the man has an incredibly varied background in cinema and he brought it all for this one. Opening with an eerily beautiful scene, the frame filled with blowing reeds and rain, Zatoichi “watches” a group of men kill a man amidst the flurry, and fury, of nature. He’s grown tired of “living in Hell” as he puts it, and decides to head home for the first time in the series. The blind swordsman only wishes to hear the flowing stream and smell the plum blossoms, he longs for the days of spring and the familiarity of home. However, when he arrives the cinematography wisely pairs Zatoichi’s returning nostalgia with death and troublesome things seeping into the frame. As he crosses the river, a dead body floats in a pool almost outside of the frame, and when he enters the perimeter, he can sense the familiar sounds and smells of home but everything else about the situation clues the audience into something being not quite right, that something foul is afoot. Zatoichi follows the habitual sounds of the local blacksmith, and stops to see how he’s doing. Surprised by Ichi’s unannounced visit, the metallurgist is clearly not alright by judging his facial expressions, the rhythm of his work, and by what he was making. Things have changed drastically since Zatoichi’s departure years ago, when he goes looking for the village headman, Hyoroku (Kanjuro Arashi), he’s met with confusion, “Ooooh, you must mean the old man that makes coffins“. Years ago the village and surrounding areas were hit by a famine, and their town had survived the worst of it- until the surrounding areas heard word of their large stockpile of rations. The town was ravaged for it’s goods and in the aftermath the headman had no choice but to abdicate his power to the Yakuza gang that came in and provided the town with structure. Even if that structure was a slow power-hungry virus that would change the very nature of the town for the worst. By the time Zatoichi returns, the town is at a boiling point, tensions are high as a feud between the new Yakuza headman and his two sons simmers. There’s also a rumor being spread around that a stash of gold is hidden somewhere in the town, and it only fuels the greed of the Yakuza involved. Which is the perfect setup for involving one of the best characters in all of Samurai cinema, the gruff, sly, and blustery Yojimbo as performed by Toshiro Mifune. Granted, in this film he goes by the name Daisaku Sasa, but his name has never really mattered in any of his past appearances anyways, though a couple of times his legendary alias of “Yojimbo” is only spoken in half utterances and never fully said aloud. I appreciated the notion of keeping the sense of mystery surrounding Mifune’s character intact. Yojimbo was utilized incredibly well in this film, everything about his personality, tactics, and scheming ways were perfectly executed, and I loved every second he was onscreen with Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi. The film goes to great lengths to milk every possible interaction between the two characters and to show their differences and similarities. I don’t even want to go into great specific details about the plot here because it was a true delight and the film that I recommend most so far in this series. Though I would suggest watching at least a few Zatoichi films and Yojimbo or Sanjuro as well to get an idea of who these characters are before indulging in this one, otherwise there’s a lot of subtlety that you could miss out on.

My favorite part: The whole damn thing. Upon seeing the later titles of the film series when I started this endeavor, “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” was easily my most anticipated film of the series and it did not disappoint. I’ve seen both “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” before any Zatoichi films, so the character’s introduction to Zatoichi had the intended effect on me, as I imagine it to be. This film feels the most epic, with its two hour runtime and large scale battles with an insane number of participants, this film had everything I could have imagined that would be needed or wanted with these two legendary titans of the screen meeting. Toshiro Mifune was, as expected, pitch perfect as the “two-bit samurai” driven by his ever present thirst for money. I loved the way the world of the Zatoichi films responded to Mifune’s bombastic outbursts. Several characters are shocked by the gruff ronin’s volume and seemed annoyed by his shouting, “What are you shouting about?”, “Why so loud?” I loved every bit of clashing that came from the two opposing personalities and the fanfare that comes with each interaction. For instance, Zatoichi is in the process of giving a massage on the local boss when they’re interrupted by Mifune’s shouting three floors beneath them. Both characters were gathering information, but their respective styles in doing so couldn’t be more opposite. You get every type of interaction between the two icons that you could want: They clash based on opposing ideologies, they team up to investigate and protect a mutual friend, they even have a duel that essentially ends in a draw in the third act, and they end the film with a mutual respect for each other despite their obvious differences.

Why it’s great:I feel as though I cannot further explain why this film worked so well for me, without getting into an incredibly deep dive into an analysis of the film itself, however, that being said I have to take a moment to talk about the look of the film as it drastically stands out from the visuals of past films. The lighting and color palette make many of the scenes feel as though they were ripped from renaissance period art. It’s a darkly lit film that’s comfortable living in the shadows, and the production heavily favors earthy browns, muted blues, the color of the film seems to be heavily inspired by nature. There’s excellent composition of the frame in most (if not all) of the shots in the film. Anyhow, if you’re so inclined, I highly recommend this one!

Final Score: 2 Swordsmen of Legend

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #19 Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Writer/Director: Hisashi Sugiura & Kiyokata Saruwaka (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (5th film)

Cinematographer: Fujio Morita (I felt the need to include the Cinematographer again here because this film is gorgeous, there are some inventive shots, and the use of colors overlaid on certain shots to characterize Osode’s feelings and intentions was a fascinating choice)

Summary:

Zatoichi is hired by local Yakuza boss Kumakichi (Akira Shimizu) to “be a witness” to his men as they try to retrieve money owed by a young gambler. When Kumakichi’s men fail to kill the debtor, Zatoichi offers his assistance. Ichi even gives the man an opportunity to get out of this alive, but he rejects it, and calls out from the darkness in measured panic that if he wants to kill him, he must come and get him. Guided by the old Yakuza code, Zatoichi accepts his offer and descends into darkness, only to have the debtor streak from the shadows and be cut down by Ichi in seconds. Moments later, the debtor’s sister arrives with the money he owed for his life and Zatoichi is again met with the consequences of his violence. When Osode (Yoshiko Mita) sees her brother’s body she throws the blood money at their feet crying out that “You have your money, now give me back my brother!“. Merely a moment later when the boss’s men collect the money and grab Osode anyways, Zatoichi steps in, sensing foul play, and protects her from the local government’s grasp for the majority of the film. Throughout the film, Osode’s relationship with Zatoichi becomes more complex than usual. She sways between admiring Ichi’s skill and an urge of overwhelming grief to get vengeance for her brother. Osode knowingly admits in one scene that if it weren’t Ichi, her brother would have met the cold steel of a sword sooner rather than later anyways. However, she also tries to kill him in one scene and in another as she’s watching the blind swordsman win a challenging carnival game she has nightmarish fantasy flashes of his same quick movements transferring to how she imagines that he killed her brother. It’s a series of fascinating character choices for Osode, and I appreciated the depth they brought to her and the story as a whole. There’s also the power dynamics between boss Kumakichi and inspector Sosuke Saruya (Kรด Nishimura) which brought great tension to their scenes and excellent character moments from both actors. I didn’t expect Kumakichi to be as outwardly rebellious as he eventually becomes! There’s also Yasaburo Kashiwazaki (Makoto Sato) as the ronin challenger of this film, though far more of a sociopath than the usual character archetype seen in previous films. In fact, I’d say that his fight with Zatoichi at the end is one of the best duels in the series, though the fight at the end of “Zatoichi Challenged” still ranks as the best in my opinion at this point. This is also the first time we see Zatoichi truly represented as the gangster that he’s often referred to. He’s still concerned with the greater morality of life and death scenarios, but he seems less concerned with things he used to point out to other Yakuza- like cheating at gambling with weighted dice. Though he’s probably weighed the amount of times sighted people have tried to trick or hurt him over the years and figured some light cheating for a few Ryo wouldn’t hurt.

My favorite part: Zatoichi gets a partner swordsman in the form of Shinkichi (Tatsuya Fujioka) who helps the blind swordsman protect Osode from imminent danger. It was great to see Zatoichi partake in some camaraderie without that character dying, or deceiving Zatoichi, or anything bad at all really. Shinkichi’s scenes with Zatoichi were pitch perfect blending comedy, tension, and thrilling fight sequences altogether! It was a simple friendship that bookended the film and I was happy to have it, though I was worried for Shinkichi’s life nearly the entire time he was onscreen.

Why it’s great: This film is another excellent argument for Kenji Misumi’s incredible skill as a Samurai film director. I’m not sure if it’s just the choice of lenses, cameras, or the specific cinematographers that Misumi prefers to work with, but his films look amazing, blending intense close-ups with beautiful wides for fights and landscapes. This entry in the series continues the wonderful evolution, and in my opinion elevation, of not just the world of Zatoichi- but of the character himself. Time has waned and aged the blind swordsman several ways, he may be wiser to the trickery of everyday villains, but his mood seems to have been darkly affected as well. He’s a bit colder to people, his idiosyncratic laugh feels more knowing, and it feels earned after all this time. How could someone who’s experienced a life like Zatoichi’s, not become a bit numb to the trivial matters of life?

Final Score: 1 Dynamic Chase Scene on Horseback!

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #18 Zatoichi and The Fugitives (1968)

Writer/Director: Kinya Naoi/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (4th film)

Summary: The Zatoichi films may all share a sense of tragedy among their various plots and journeys, but “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a particularly dark entry in the series. As it usually goes, Zatoichi happens upon a small rural town, this one with a dedicated and honest doctor working amongst the silk farmers in the form of Takashi Shimura as Dr. Junan. As you may have expected by this point, yes, there’s corruption by the local authorities here too, but with the added layer of indentured slavery in the local silk mills to pad the villain’s resume. The driving force behind the structure of servitude is Boss Matsugoro (Hosei Komatsu), who’s ongoing racket at the mill gets exponentially worse when he’s forced to incorporate the fugitives into the mix. These villains were great throughout the film, initially Zatoichi bumps into them at the inn he’s staying at, the owners request his masseur services for a rowdy bunch and it turns ugly quickly. These villains aren’t even Yakuza, just a bunch of heathens who were almost slaughtered early on. Luckily enough for them, Ogano (Kyosuke Machida) stepped in and urged Zatoichi to leave. His comrades defiantly brush aside his warning that they’d be dead if he hadn’t arrived just then- for he had witnessed Ichi’s skill earlier on the road. This happens a couple more times before Zatoichi is given full justification to unsheathe his sword. Both Zatoichi and the fugitives leave the inn that night, but while Zatoichi is invited to stay with Dr. Junan, the fugitives pressure Boss Matsugoro to let them hide out until the provincial inspector passes through. Knowing that he’s got quite the illegal setup going, they use this information to persuade Matsugoro to let them stay until the coast is clear. While a few of the fugitives have personal scores to settle with Zatoichi, he had killed two blood brothers at the beginning of the film when they harassed him on the road, Ogano keeps them from getting themselves killed more than once. One of the fugitives is skilled with throwing knives and he offers some of the more unique clashes with Ichi because of this- thankfully for him, the one time Ogano wasn’t around Zatoichi was feeling a bit grateful and only embarrassed him greatly. Eventually, after Zatoichi has freed a young girl from the mill and shamed Boss Matsugoro in front of his men, Ogano reveals his importance to the story. He had picked this small town in particular, not only to hide from the inspector’s eye, but also to come home and see his sister Oshizu (Kayao Mikimoto) and his father, the good doctor Junan. This scene was easily one of the most powerful in the whole movie and it brought any notions of a ‘larger than life’ narrative and shrunk it down to something eminently relatable, the familial drama. Outside of the country doctor’s household, tensions begin to mount. Matsugoro, feeling the need to reinstate his power due to his bruised ego, steps up his brutality on the townsfolk and cracks down on a local cocoon market. When the village headman defends the rights of his people and vocally challenges the boss by saying he’ll go above Matsugoro’s jurisdiction and take this issue straight to the magistrate, the embattled Matsugoro calls in his favor from the fugitives to kill the headman. The fugitives don’t just kill the headman, but the entirety of his household in a bloody massacre. Things continue to escalate until Zatoichi’s put into a desperate situation when all six of the fugitives attack him at once with a variety of weapons, he barely escapes back to the doctor’s house, but there’s one fugitive who knows where a wounded warrior would go in desperation. In one of the more climactic endings, at least since the second film in my opinion, Zatoichi fights Ogano to the death just outside the doctor’s home. With his cane sword sheathed and Dr. Junan looking on in shock and horror, Zatoichi wanders off, bloodied and battered.

My favorite part: This film is a particularly dark one. It’s got Zatoichi at his most desperate (so far), when he’s shot by one of the Fugitives! He even digs out the bullet with the tip of his blade like so many American action stars would do roughly fifteen years after this. This film has to be the bloodiest one of the bunch that I’ve seen, we even get a limb sliced off an unfortunate villain. The villains here are so dastardly that the film wastes no tears for their fate, enslaving a small town in their silk mills and refusing to let the besieged rest when they’re ill- yes, the fugitives and local government definitely got what was coming to them. There’s also the added dramatic weight of Zatoichi describing how he forgot what colors were like to him, initially a sacred memory to pull from, but eventually they too faded into darkness. Drawing out further, crushing, pain for the blind swordsman is what this series thrives on.

Why it’s great: “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a great expansion on the evolution that began with “Zatoichi the Outlaw”. This entry in the series wisely narrows the focus on a small country doctor and his family, while avoiding unnecessarily complicated side stories. This allows for the story reveals to hold more narrative power, and the danger that Zatoichi must stand against in the face of injustice to be that much more resonant. The presence of Takashi Shimura, known for his many roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa, does wonders for the film’s emotional weight, the “Ikiru” actor knows how to play emotionally and psychologically battered men to great effect. Seeing the man convey deep sorrow with class and subtlety adds a great deal to Shintaro Katsu’s oeuvre of Zatoichi films.

Final Score: 1 surprise snake