film

Rapid Fire Reviews #13 What I’ve been watching this year

2021 isn’t even two (full) months old yet and it already feels like it’s hellbent on telling 2020 to “hold it’s beer” based solely on the way it’s gone so far. So while things haven’t exactly been the *immediate* reversal of fortune that we’re all hoping for- there’s always more movies to pour down our eyeballs! So far this year I’ve been indulging in repeat viewings of older films, watching at least one new film, and returning to my mining of the South Korean New Wave that began in the 2000’s and has been consistently enthralling ever since. There were a few weeks where I went on another Noir binge, and it was glorious. Hopefully this directs you towards another new favorite, a thought provoking experience, or at least an entertaining way to absorb an afternoon while ignoring the outside world. Cheers, and welcome to 2021, the sequel we never wanted, but got anyways!

One Night in Miami (2020)

Written by Kemp Powers, based on the play also by Powers, and directed by Regina King, “One Night in Miami” is a theoretical film based on the question, “What if Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were all friends and came together for a night in Miami? How would that unfold?“. The answer to that question is quite the story. The beginning of the film establishes each major character experiencing failure, or a loss, something that shakes their confidence. The young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) comes quite close to losing a boxing match at Wembley Stadium in London while Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) the soulful singer, experiences one of the worst sets he’s ever had for an old and cold all white audience in New York City’s Copacabana nightclub. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the star NFL player, returns home to Georgia on which lies a vast plantation. Everything seems cordial enough between Brown and family friend Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), that is until Mr. Carlton casually reveals some deep-seated racism that rattles Brown. Then there’s Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). At this point in his life, he’s become uncharacteristically paranoid about a cornerstone of his cause in life, The Nation of Islam, as he tells his wife of his plans to leave the group. Fast forward several months later to 1964 where all four men have landed in Miami for Clay’s title bout against Sonny Liston. Thus we have set the stage and from there the performances, and subtly exquisite camerwork, take center stage as these four legendary personalities laugh together, yell at each other, debate each other thoroughly and thoughtfully, and fully splay out the emotional range of good and lasting characterwork. I was blown away by this one. Personally, I was really only aware of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, but the choice of all four men was inspired in my opinion. This is an actor’s movie, as noted before there is some good clever camerwork, and excellent scripting, but it’s the performances I will remember most, each actor brought something memorable and unique to their role and did their due diligence in recreating the larger than life personas. This is an excellent film, and I sincerely hope you give it a watch.

Chinatown (1974)

Written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” is one of the best neo-noirs of all time, with possibly the best script in the business. This film is immaculate in its execution, and if you’re a student of cinema, it’s required viewing. Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who stumbles upon a bizarre case that constantly ratchets up the intrigue and mystery at every opportunity. If you somehow haven’t seen this one yet, I’ll refrain from spoiling things, but just know that this film comes with my highest recommendation. It’s a biting, cynical, and staggering neo-noir that stands tall in American cinema’s past. Jake’s given a case early on in the film to investigate a potential affair between a married couple, as the first scene in the movie establishes, this is a common practice for private eyes. After he tails the husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), around town and takes notes on his activities, Jake believes he has enough evidence and brings the story to the newspapers, which ruins the man. However, after the story has been released, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), arrives at Jake’s office informing the private eye that he can expect a lawsuit. Obviously, things are not as they seem. Gittes retraces Hollis’ steps and activities until he comes across several incongruities, like the fact that despite there being a drought in Los Angeles, Hollis was drowned. Curious. There’s so much more to the film and the layers of storytelling that are hiding in plain sight are grotesque, and gloriously rewarding as an audience member. Highly recommended.

*This is not meant to glorify Roman Polanski in any way shape or form. If you don’t know what he did, google it. I’m just here to discuss films.*

The Third Man (1949)

Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, “The Third Man” is one of the finest noirs to have come from the golden age of cinema. If you’re inclined to see all of Orson Welles performances, or curious about the genre of Noirs across the board, or even just wanting to widen those international film credentials, you can’t go wrong on any of those counts with this film. Speaking of Welles, there’s a dual casting here that is one of the finest choices of cinema’s earlier eras. Joseph Cotten stars as the lead, Holly Martins, an American author of paperback Westerns who gets caught up in the crimes and mysterious nature of his old friend from their shared youth, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles had worked together since the days of the Mercury Theater in New York City, since the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and “Citizen Kane” onward! They were longtime friends and coworkers and the fact that this film is essentially about the death of nostalgia, about the morality of doing what’s right despite your personal attachments, well that’s just brilliant emotional manipulation if you know the story of the two. The film takes place in post-war Vienna with the city being split up between the allied nations, the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Much of the city is still in ruins and seems like it could all crumble into dust at a moments notice. Martins arrives in Vienna as he’s been given notice that his good friend Harry Lime has died, hit by a car in the street. After the funeral Martins gets acquainted in town, he’s also questioned particularly intently by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British Royal Military Police whom Martins mockingly calls ‘Callahan’ throughout the film. After Martins questions a couple locals who have stories that are inconsistent with the “official” details, he decides to stick around and see what comes of it. The film makes some truly unique choices, particularly for the soundtrack. The whole soundtrack is performed by one man and one instrument, the Zither played by Anton Karas. If you don’t know what that is, picture the American cartoon, “Spongebob Squarepants”. Strange right? Well, especially in the first season of that cartoon, background music was usually performed by someone with a Zither. In fact, when I was watching this film, one of my roommates returned home and had walked in from the back where he could hear the Zither music and commented before entering the living room that “Oh hey, you’re watching Spongebob?” and he was quite surprised to see a black and white noir in its place. Anyways, the cinematography and lighting also hold fascinating calibrated choices like shooting Vienna, mostly, in extreme Dutch angles, especially once the footchases of the last half of the film begin. The lighting maintains an expressionist quality that creates an atmosphere that envelopes you into the mystery as the film goes on. The back half of the film is where the best cinematography lives in my opinion. The manhunt for Harry Lime in the streets and sewers of Vienna with seemingly hundreds of pursuers feels like a fever dream. A fuller analysis of the film may be required later on at some point, but for now, trust me, it’s pretty great. Highly recommended.

Le Doulos “The Informant” (1962)

I’ve already reviewed this film on the blog but I recently picked up a physical copy and gave a it a rewatch. The first time around I remember feeling somewhat engaged and entertained, but much like my first viewing of “The Hateful Eight”, I wasn’t extremely into it based on the morality of the characters (Ironically, “Eight” is now one of my favorite Tarantino movies). Granted, now that it’s been almost exactly a year since that initial watch and review (linked below this for reference), I knew the twists that were coming, and instead got lost in how the film works perfectly at making you assume one set of events is taking place, when in reality you’re only seeing bits and pieces of the truth. I was paying much more attention this time around to the camera movements and character work on display. I hadn’t even noticed the eight and a half minute one-take shot of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) being interoggated by cops that expertly displays Melville’s skill at mise en scène. This may be my favorite non-American Noir, it’s one that I will be returning to anytime a lampost glows in the fog, or when shadowy figures fade into obscuring darkness. It’s an excellent movie and I highly recommend giving it a watch!

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/02/20/old-school-review-le-doulos-1962/

Le Silence de la Mer “The Silence of the Sea” (1949)

Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, adapted from the short story by Vercors, and directed by Melville, “Le Silence de la Mer” is the story of an uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) who must oblige an S.S. Nazi officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), while under their occupation in Paris, 1941. Having seen many of Melville’s other later films, I anticipated the origins of his style that’s all over the later Noir films- but this being his first film, it was quite different from those. While Melville would often adapt literature for his films, this one was a unique choice because this story was one that was frequently passed around by French Resistance members during the occupation, and it was penned by an infamous French author known only by the pseudonym “Vercors”. As Melville was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war, he was an informed choice to say the least. Upon Werner von Ebrennac’s arrival, both L’oncle and La nièce agree to live as though he had never arrived. A vow of silence between them. Which is a really fascinating choice because of how it affects the S.S. officer over the course of the film. He considers himself an intellectual after all. He’s well read, a lover of the Parisian arts, and a firm believer in Germany’s cause- that is until he finds evidence of the cruelty being committed against the Jews, and it breaks something inside of him. It’s a unique film regarding the Nazi occupation of Paris, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.

Les Enfants Terribles “The Strange Ones” (1950)

Written by Jean Cocteau, adapted from Cocteau’s own novel, and directed by Jean-pierre Melville, “Les Enfants Terribles” is, as the translation of the title would indicate, a strange one. Nicole Stéphane returns after the incredible “Le Silence de la Mer” to play Elisabeth, one half of the film’s focus. It’s almost as if Melville offered her the role due to “the niece” only having a handful of lines in his first movie, as this role is the exact opposite in tone. Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elizabeth are indeed strange, they spend most of their time in their room with each other inventing all sorts of mind games, pranks, and a full on display of Freudian psychology at work. Elisabeth (and her brother for that matter) are constantly talking almost for the entire runtime. The two are always talking over each other, at each other, and against anyone unfortunate enough to dare walk into their den of treachery and incestuous entanglement. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. It’s uncomfortable and weird, but hey, if you’re a Melville purist, it IS worth a watch for the camerawork at the very least. Out of all Melville’s films that I’ve seen so far, this one was the hardest to sit through. Not recommended.

L’aîné des Ferchaux “Magnet of Doom” (1963)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Georges Simenon, “Magnet of Doom” is a road movie of sorts that has it’s merits, but was ultimately one of Melville’s lesser films for me. The film can be painstakingly slow at times, and while that’s a criticism that could be leveled at most of Melville’s work if you’re an impatient film watcher, I always felt as though his other films could get away with it purely out of their inherent mystery, intrigue, and atmosphere. This films stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, who always makes interesting choices as an actor, and Charles Vanel, a prominent French actor and director who appeared in over 200 films during his 76 year career. In the film, Belmondo plays Michel Maudet, a failed Boxer who’s broke and penniless looking for work. Which just so happens to be perfectly timed for the role of personal secretary for Dieudonné Ferchaux (Vanel) a senior executive of a large bank in Paris whose criminal past has come back to haunt him. Thus he’s in a rush to ensconce to South America by way of North America. So Michel’s hired on the spot and they fly out to New York, with Michel leaving his girlfriend behind without telling her goodbye, or even acknowledging her. Both men seem to be of dubious morals. The two just need to make a stop at Ferchaux’s New York City bank to withdraw the rest of his funds and then off to Venezuela! Obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. The bank can’t move that much money immediately so Ferchaux gets antsy and they decide to drive to New Orleans in the meantime where they will have the money wired to them, not wise to stick around for an extradition when you know it’s coming. Thus we get an American road trip with these two prominent French actors of their time. The movie has value in how the audience is given an outsider’s perspective on American culture, scenery, and variety of lifestyles. The film also pays homage to “Citizen Kane”, “The Set Up”, and the road movie genre overall. When it ended with one character nonchalantly disregarding the dying words of the other, I was almost glad it was over. That might seem harsh, but this one did not engage me as much as I would have expected from seeing many of Melville’s other films. Not entirely recommended.

Mother (2009)

Written by Eun-kyo Park and Bong Joon Ho, from a story by Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Mother” is a superbly deceptive thriller that toys with your expectations in brilliant fashion. In a town near the countryside in South Korea, a watchful Mother (Hye-ja Kim) runs a small herb shop while keeping her adult son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), safe and out of trouble as much as possible. Do-joon isn’t exactly ‘all there’ when it comes to mental capacity though, which is exactly how he ends up getting wrapped up in a murder mystery as the main suspect. He’s obviously taken advantage of by the local police who seem pre-occupied with moving on to their next case rather than doing the hard investigative work to find the real killer of Moon Ah-jeong (Hee-ra Mun), an exceptionally unlucky young schoolgirl. With the local police content with their passive scapegoat who signed his own confession early on citing, “Well, if I really did it, shouldn’t I be held responsible?” Thus once our titular Mother feels she has exhausted all legal and formal methods of uncovering the truth, she sets out on her own to solve the murder mystery and absolve her son of his alleged crimes. I’ve seen several of Bong Joon Ho’s films now, and while I’ve generally enjoyed his work, this is the only film besides “Parasite” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) that has struck me so profoundly. I still have yet to see “Memories of Murder”, which is considerably harder to track down in physical form than his more recent films (Fret not, a physical edition from the Criterion Collection is on the way! https://www.slashfilm.com/memories-of-murder-re-release/ ), but this is far closer in tone and quality to “Parasite” than his work with American actors in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”- both of which were enjoyable and solid films, though this rises above them. Highly recommended.

I Saw The Devil (2010)

Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “I Saw The Devil” is an extremely violent revenge tale that masterfully tackles genre sensibilities with a mind for the consequences of revenge and what it does to body, mind, and soul. This film was recommended to me as a “South Korean revenge movie” and while that may have been accurate at base level, because it certainly IS about revenge, it’s also so much more than that. I did not expect this movie to grip me so viscerally. I have to say right away that if you are not a fan of bloody violence, of eye-covering, wincing-while-watching violence, this one may not be for you. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of that sort of thing unless it’s gloriously over the top in it’s depiction of violence, like what Quentin Tarantino does for example, or even in something as ludicrous as “Dead Alive”. Though, even I got through it because it was that engaging. That being said, the story of eye-for-an-eye violence here is eerily captivating. So, without ruining the plot for you, this movie primarily follows two men and their subsequent feud through grief, hatred, and a callous disregard for life, family, and everything that makes us human. Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is our villain, and you’ll know why almost immediately once the movie begins. He’s a murderous serial killer with brutal efficiency who performs disgusting rituals with his victims. His luck begins to change one day when he captures and kills the fiance of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun), an extremely capable security agent of sorts. Once he begins to track down Jang Kyung-chul, he, along with his deceased fiance’s father (who just so happens to be the Chief of Police in their area), decide not to outright kill the man but to make him suffer unspeakable pain. From there the film boomerangs between the power struggle of both men, each of whom gets increasingly more vile with their violent crusade against each other. It’s intense, bloody, and despite it’s genre trappings it actually does have something to say about revenge and what it does to us. Definitely recommended!

*If during your read of this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews you thought to yourself “Wow, there’s a lot of old French movies in this one.” That’s because I was in the midst of reading “Jean-Pierre Melville: an American in Paris” by Ginette Vincendeau and writing a review of the book for another website called http://www.filmsfatale.com which I highly encourage you to seek out! My Melville piece should be up soon, but I’ve also already begun my writing over there with the article “What if: Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler Were in a Movie Together?” (https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/1/29/what-if-jim-carrey-and-adam-sandler-were-in-a-movie-together?rq=Adam%20Sandler) I’ll still be writing here in my free time, but give Films Fatale a look, they’ve got many, many, excellent articles and interviews on the site, check it out!

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Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

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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