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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #7 Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (5th film) & Shozaburo Asai (2nd film)/ Kazuo Ikehiro (2nd film)

Summary: In the beginning of this film Zatoichi is shot and injured by a young Yakuza gangster looking to make a name for himself. Luckily Zatoichi was hauled to safety and healed by a mysterious woman. Waking at a later date he asks his newfound caretaker what happened, and learns that the mysterious woman that saved his life was only a passerby on her way home for her village’s festival of fireworks. He decides to head there to thank her, and upon arrival he’s convinced to stay for the fireworks festival- even if only to hear them. Zatoichi quickly finds himself in-between two Yakuza gangs once more, he’s already pledged his support to the more benevolent Yakuza boss, as it was his daughter that saved his life. The opposing boss wants to take control of the heavily trafficked river between the two villages so he can gouge all who cross it. Things get exponentially more complicated when the young Yakuza that shot Zatoichi in the opening returns home and is revealed to be the son of the boss that Ichi’s been helping. Zatoichi tries to prevent more violence, but the opposing Yakuza boss both kidnaps his rival’s son and sends men to kill Zatoichi to get him out of the picture. Which leads into a really fun sequence where Zatoichi’s surrounded while attempting to bathe in the river, he slowly descends underwater and kills all of the men before coming up for air. Eventually the benevolent Yakuza boss is manipulated by his ambitious rival to send Zatoichi away before the fireworks, though he returns to the town’s border to hear the fireworks when he overhears some hired samurai camped out nearby and learns of the true nature of the relationship between the Yakuza bosses. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I really enjoyed it, however the second half was by far the more interesting portion for me as the filmmakers got real creative with their portrayal of Zatoichi.

My favorite part: Near the end of the film, when Zatoichi discovers the truth as to why he was asked to leave town, another familiar sequence begins- but with a twist this time. During the fireworks, Zatoichi hunts down and kills the corrupt Yakuza boss and his underlings in complete darkness. The way he’s framed, how the camera follows him, and how his victim’s react in abject horror, all combine to showcase the blind swordsman exactly like how a slasher horror movie would show and frame their villain or monster. It’s one of the most visually unique sequences I’ve seen thus far in the series!

Why it’s great: After the generally neutral/happy ending we received in the last film, it’s back to the humanist core of the character of Zatoichi. Meaning that morality drives the character with an inherent disillusionment at the state of humanity usually settling in at the film’s end. It’s that state of mind during most of the series’ endings that really stand out to me personally, it’s a unique quality that you don’t hardly see in other popular genres of film.

Final Score: 1 river crossing

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #6 Zatoichi and The Chest of Gold (1964)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai & Akikazu Ota/Kazuo Ikehiro

Summary: Maybe it’s the more streamlined sense of urgency, or the fact that this entry in the series utilizes Kazuo Miyagawa’s (The cinematographer from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’) talents to great effect, but I really dug this entry in the blind swordsman’s saga. Excellent imagery aside, this film follows Ichi as he travels to pay his respects at the grave of a man he accidentally killed during the Yakuza gang war from the first film. The village nearby was in a celebratory mood, having finally paid off their local taxes, they invite Ichi as he’s passing by to partake in the festivities. Things quickly turn sour though when a small group of Samurai rob the villagers’ transport of taxes and Ichi gets the blame for it. After he’s coincidentally spotted sitting atop the chest of gold and seen killing samurai by one of the villagers, Ichi gets mauled by the mob of townsfolk, now in a hysteria fueled by economic anxiety. He convinces the townsfolk that he’ll get their money back, and heads off to the mountains to see a local hero, Chuji, who oversees the safety of the citizens while hiding out from the provincial constabulary. After discovering that two of his men were part of the group that attacked the transport, Chuji becomes disillusioned with his way of life and decides to disband. Before leaving he asks Zatoichi to bring one of the troupe’s young nephews back to the village with him- with a dire warning to take an alternate route from his troupe’s departure as the local government’s men are likely scouring the main roads for them. Things only escalate from this point until Zatoichi follows the scent of corruption to the head of the provincial government’s office where the village headman pleads with the authority to give them more time to make up the loss of their taxes. Instead they accuse the villagers of trying to get out of their payment and as punishment they charge the townsfolk double (2,000 Ryo!) for their offense. Which only inflames Zatoichi further when he discovers that the provincial government was behind the initial crime of stealing the villagers taxes in the first place! As you might expect, Zatoichi’s flashing sword was quite busy that day.

My favorite part: Tomisaburo Wakayama (Brother of the lead Shintaro Katsu, later made famous by the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films) returns to the series to play another ronin challenger. While his antagonistic role might not have the emotional punch that his role in the 2nd film did, his role here as Jushiro is a lot of fun. Using a bullwhip as his identifying technique isn’t just unique for the series- it also sets up one of the more hair-raising final battles at the end of the film!

Why it’s great: In my opinion, what made this entry in the Zatoichi series so effective was the brash attitude and blatant corruption of the government as the main antagonists. The audacity of their oppression against a village of people just trying to survive was so transparent that it made their eventual deaths feel incredibly justified. Things aren’t always so black and white in this series, so having the villains clearly causing all of the havoc and chaos made Zatoichi’s actions ring true without question.

Final Score: 1,000 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #5 Zatoichi on The Road (1963)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (4th film)/Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Summary: “On The Road” is a typical entry in the Zatoichi series. Ichi’s renown with a blade gets him into almost as much trouble as his skill relieves him of. There are constantly moving pieces in this one to keep up the intrigue and pacing, but overall the plot surrounds Ichi getting wrapped up in another Yakuza gang war. There’s a dying man pleading for help with his last breath, to assist a young woman in returning home to Edo. There’s Zatoichi needing to masseur for money and thereby getting, or confirming, pertinent information. There’s even the usual corrupt authority figures abusing their power in turn for money or power- all who are cut down by Zatoichi at one point or another. Curiously, however, there is no ronin challenger in this one.

My favorite part: The opening credits begin with a typical gambling scenario among the series. Zatoichi detects some cheating in a dice roll and flashes his cane sword in response to accusatory blades being drawn. With intimidation in mind, and for an advantage in the fight, he slices a candle in half and goes to town on the attacking gamblers. It’s a fun short vignette that plays with darkness and a slightly abstract style of showcasing Ichi’s lightning fast swordplay. Great way to open the film, but nothing else in the runtime can match this inventive imagery.

Why it’s great: This film is a slightly more complex variation on the staples of the series and the plot is playful with it’s machinations- however this isn’t one of the more potent entries in the series. It’s a perfectly fine addition to the series that retraces some well worn pathways.

Final Score: 3 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #4 Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963)

Writer/Director: Seiji Hoshikawa/Tokuzo Tanaka (2nd film)

Summary: This time Zatoichi is attacked right off the bat by a young Yakuza looking to earn the ten ryo bounty on the blind swordsman’s head. Of course Ichi bests the young attacker, and as he lay dying he reveals that the reward was for his mother who runs a business in the nearby town. In town Ichi enters a sumo wrestling match to the surprise of the crowd and defeats several sighted fighters. As the event was organized by the local Yakuza gang, they vow to earn their respect and honor back- by killing Zatoichi! This time, the two major story arcs crossed paths and intermingled far more than before. Once finding the dead Yakuza’s mother, Maki, Ichi confesses to having killed her son and she forgives him seeing him as honorable for seeking her out to tell her this. He also gives Maki his winnings from the Sumo match and told her it was from her son. Back at the local inn Zatoichi encounters even more drama. The innkeeper’s adopted daughter, Nobu, is in love with one of the junior members of that same local Yakuza gang. Her father, however, disapproves and the junior accountant ends up being manipulated by a superior Yakuza who decries that if Zatoichi is not killed, the junior accountant will be stripped of his rank and kicked out of the gang. Ichi also encounters Otane at the inn, his first love from the last few films, who’s now married to a brutish ronin named Tanakura. In order to squash the advances by the Yakuza and possibly help alleviate Nobu’s predicament, Zatoichi goes straight to the heart of the Yakuza during a meeting of their local leadership. During this encounter Tanakura, (mysteriously also at the Yakuza meeting) attempts to establish dominance over Zatoichi with a feat of swordplay- but the blind swordsman quickly retaliates with his own display of skill that shocks everyone in the room. Tanakura immediately claims defeat and personally establishes Zatoichi as his rival due to his injured pride. After this the junior accountant rushes to Zatoichi to plead for help, suggesting that both Otane and Nobu have been taken hostage at the inn. Once there, Ichi finds the two women unharmed- but before he can make sense of the situation the inn is surrounded by Yakuza- a trap! Otane hears Tanakura outside and tells Zatoichi she will plead for them to reconsider. Once outside Otane mistakenly draws Tanakura’s sword in the heat of the moment and he immediately cuts her down for this transgression. Nobu sees this from inside the inn, horrified by the violence, and tells Zatoichi- which sends him into his most emotionally fueled bloodlust that the series has seen at this point. He cuts down dozens of yakuza in a fury and eventually finds himself one on one with Tanakura. What follows is an excellent and visceral fight to the death in which Zatoichi bests Tanakura. As he bleeds into the dirt, the dying ronin tells Ichi that the ambush was Otane’s idea, and that she wasn’t exactly the saint he thought she was. Thus leading to one of the most dramatic and painful exits the blind swordsman has tallied up this far, preferring to wander off than stay and wallow in his pain.

My favorite part: The fact that the Otane character’s arc has continued in some semblance for every film until this point was a nice touch. Though, admittedly her storyline ends tragically. In the last film Otane was mentioned as the fiance of a local carpenter, but instead ended up marrying Tanakura- the hot headed ronin. *Also* I think it’s important to mention how “punched up” the cinematography and direction is in this film- it feels markedly different and more modern than the past films despite the previous film having the same director and being released in the same year.

Why it’s great: The fight scene between Tanakura and Zatoichi is one of the best fight scenes in the series so far. Zatoichi’s sword breaks during the fight and he kills the fiery ronin with a dagger hidden in the sword’s hilt. This is also indicative of the fact that the series is increasingly smoother and more streamlined than before. There’s no real introduction of Zatoichi, the film assumes you’ve seen the others, and I enjoyed the immediacy of that.

Final Score: 1 Sumo match & 1 unleashed Zatoichi!

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #3 New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Writers/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (3rd film) & Kikuo Umebayashi/Tokuzo Tanaka

Summary: Zatoichi returns to his village four years after he completed his training. There are two major storylines this time around, the first major arc includes the brother of the Yakuza Boss that Ichi killed in the last movie seeking revenge. The second is more personal, in which Ichi learns that his old Master, Banno, has turned to colluding with local gangsters involved in corrupt schemes, due to financial duress. Banno has also arranged a marriage for his younger sister, Yayoi, to a Samurai, but she ends up falling in love with Zatoichi instead. Learning from his past mistakes Ichi attempts to take the pacifistic route and absolve himself from violence to settle and marry- even taking a dice roll to determine whether or not he lose an arm to the bereaved Yakuza brother instead of the usual fight to the death. Later, in the forest, Zatoichi finds out that Banno’s corruption wasn’t just financial- but that he also needlessly kills in cold blood to serve his goals. Banno can’t stand to let Zatoichi leave with this knowledge and forces his former student into a fight. Zatoichi reluctantly kills Banno in an emotional fury as Yayoi watches from the brush. After the deed is done Ichi acknowledges that he cannot avoid his true calling stating that he is “That kind of man“… and wanders off, broken once more.

My favorite part: This film is interesting because it’s the first time the series acknowledges the consequences of Zatoichi’s actions from the past two films. I was also surprised by the Yakuza brother’s lack of commitment to killing Zatoichi, seeing a villain give some consideration to forgiveness was unexpected.

Why it’s great: This was the first color film in the series, and seeing the world come alive was like a breathe of fresh air. Granted, this film took a muted color palette of earthy tones and shades for most scenes- but it was still very cool to take in this new paradigm.

Final Score: A Ransom of 300 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #2 The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (2nd film) /Kazuo Mori

Summary: A year after the events of the first film, Zatoichi returns to the town near the Joshoji Temple to pay his respects to Hirate, the Samurai he killed at the end of the first film. While in town he’s hired to give a massage to a powerful lord, but during the massage Ichi notices how strange the lord acts, taking on socially unacceptable behavior for a lord. Being the humble warrior that he is, Zatoichi didn’t really care all that much about the Lord’s behavior citing it as a bit weird, but he quickly moved on from it. The lord’s advisers couldn’t let Ichi wander freely when he knew of their collective shame at the state of their lord’s behavior- so they sent a whole bunch of men to kill him and be rid of that loose end. This doesn’t go well for these unnamed henchmen…

My favorite part: The smaller, yet more personal, villain of the film is Yoshiro. Like Hirate, but without the respect, Yoshiro is a competent swordsman, but one only posing as a Samurai. I really enjoyed this character because not only do we discover that Yoshiro is Zatoichi’s long lost brother, but that he also stole away the love of Zatoichi’s life years prior as well! There’s also the added benefit of know that the actor portraying Yoshiro was Tomisaburō Wakayama of “Lone Wolf and Cub” fame! Who also happens to be Shintaro Katsu’s actual brother in real life as well!

Why it’s great: The sequel to “The Tale of Zatoichi” punched up on everything fun about the character and his potential. The fights are much bigger and more expertly crafted, including dozens and dozens of opponents onscreen for Shintaro Katsu to cut through! The melodramatic history of the character is more personal and devastating, and it may have my favorite ending in the series so far- a brutal and quick kill by the man with the lightning cane sword!

Final Score: 1 brother, 1 lover

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #1 The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

This year for the Christmas season I decided to try something a little different. Recently, I realized that the movie series I’ve been watching in my free time, “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman”, had exactly 25 installments. So, instead of reviewing Christmas movies, well known or otherwise, I figured I’d write up a short review for each film in the 25 days leading up to Christmas. This format will be slightly different from my free form reviews where I discuss anything within a film that I found to be particularly fascinating. It will be similar to that style, but a bit more regimented. I’ll chunk each short review into a few categories; the writer and director of each film will be highlighted alongside a count of how many films within the series that any particular writer or director has worked on (at that point in time) given that there are repeats across the 25 films. There will also be a quick summary that goes over the specifics of the film- but as I’ve been watching the films I’ve noticed that there’s a bit of a formula at hand so there may not be as much analysis as there would be with any one singular film (but I haven’t finished the series as of this point and am open to being wrong about that for the series as a whole). *The character of Zatoichi was adapted by the work of Japanese novelist Kan Shimozawa*

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka/Kenji Misumi

Summary: Starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, this first film in the Blind Swordsman’s Samurai saga expertly lays the foundation of the character’s personality, skillset, and morality that will guide future filmmakers and writers with a winning formula. In his first story, Zatoichi happens upon two neighboring villages on the precipice of war, with tensions high and about to boil over. Ichi (as he’s referred to non-formally) is quickly hired by one of the Yakuza gangs, while the other side quickly does the same in hiring a skilled ronin of their own. As the war brews in the background Ichi spends his time fishing- ironically with Hirate, the other ronin the rival Yakuza gang has hired, and they strike up a fast friendship. Ichi also happens to get involved with a little Romeo and Juliet scenario involving Otane, a young woman growing increasingly weary of the Yakuza lifestyle, and her lover from the rival gang. Eventually when the war comes, Zatoichi discovers that his friend Hirate is dying of Tuberculosis, and wishes to die in battle with a worthy foe. Hirate, having found his faction’s secret weapon to be a rifle they planned to shoot Zatoichi with, commits to fight to the death for his honor. After the war between the Yakuza gangs dissolves Otane gives her consent of marriage to Zatoichi- but he denies her, feeling too much shame for his way of life and stature in society and wanders off having discovered a profound sadness in killing a friend and destroying a love he could not accept.

My favorite part: I’ve always enjoyed the notion of two highly skilled warriors earning each other’s respect through sheer skill alone. This is a recurring motif that the series will continue to mine throughout future installments. Its an aspect that’s especially common among Japanese anime and manga, and two of my favorite anime “One Punch Man” and “DragonBall Z” lean into this notion constantly. There’s something exciting about seeing previously reserved characters come alive at the possibility of a “real fight” with someone of equal or greater skill- especially when they’re consumed by reckless abandon and their former allegiances are tossed aside for a taste of greatness in battle. Fun stuff!

Why it’s great: This first Zatoichi film, one of the two black and white films in the saga, is great due to the sum of it’s parts. Everything that’s great about the series can be traced back to this core. Zatoichi may be a wandering blind masseur, a lowly social status in Japan’s Edo period, but he uses his impediments to his advantage and fights that much harder and faster because of them. His code of honor is tranquil, but true. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he will stand up for himself and others when abuse and neglect are in play. His humility and guilt over his own actions and of society as a whole build into the series’ inherent sadness at the state of humanity at large. Many, but not all, of the films end with Zatoichi wandering off into the distance as he both literally and figuratively distances himself from the people he’s helped and hurt- staying would only create more harm, more pain.

Final Score: 1 rifle, 1 war