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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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Old School Review: The “Lone Wolf and Cub” Film Series (1972-1974)

Recently I began watching a Samurai film series from Japan made in the early 1970’s called “Lone Wolf and Cub” based on the hugely popular Manga of the same name. I’ve been slowly wading into the popular Samurai genre of Japanese films for a little while now. I started, as most Americans do, with Akira Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”, before plunging into the famed director’s sword brandishing epic “Seven Samurai”. From there I found “The Sword of Doom” partly because that’s a great title- but also because it starred Tatsuya Nakadai (Who gave memorable character appearances in both Yojimbo and Sanjuro) as the lead, with the legendary Toshirô Mifune as a revered master swordsman in a minor, but powerful, role. All of these films have reviews here on this blog, and they left me wanting to discover more! One day after seeing a few reputable cinephiles on twitter take note that the series had landed on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service, I knew I had to check it out. It must seem as though I’m plugging this streaming service all the time- but it is only because I often find films there that I cannot find anywhere else, and as a student of the medium- I always need to see more movies. Always.

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Rather than go through each film and review them individually, it made more sense to sum up the series as a whole and what made it great. Though, for your convenience I’ve listed each film’s title and year of release below this piece. Throughout these six films the most singular and significant factor that makes them stand out from the rest of the genre is the fact that Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) roams the vast Japanese countryside with his infant son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) by his side. In the beginning of the first film, we see Ogami in his role as the shōgun’s executioner, mercilessly cutting down an incredibly young daimyō (Essentially a Lord in the feudal sense, a form of royalty within Japan’s Edo period. Forgive me if this is inaccurate, I’m only going by slight internet research and how this role is depicted within the films). This is important as it sets this world of cinema apart as a particularly brutal one, not even children can escape with their lives. It also serves as the assumed revenge for Ogami’s wife who was killed by three ninjas afterwards. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it boils down to the “Shadow” Yagyū Clan framing Ittō for treason and subsequently taking over his executioner’s post. Ogami quickly gathers his son Daigoro and offers the toddler a choice to avoid the hardships of their uncertain future by death or to join his father “On the Demon path to Hell”. Which is, essentially, to wander as assassins-for-hire as they seek vengeance by hunting down all members and known associates of the Yagyū Clan. Obviously, Daigoro accepts the ronin lifestyle.

Holy Mother of Violence!

The hook of the series, for me anyway, is the absolutely insane graphic violence that is on display throughout these films. I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a film in the bunch that doesn’t have at least five severed limbs from anyone foolhardy enough to challenge Ogami. From the candy-cane red blood that sprays from the Wolf’s victims to the inventive and bizarre ways in which he has outfitted Daigoro’s baby cart for maximum carnage- the series is fundamentally soaked in blood and corpses. The villains that seek to destroy Ogami and Daigoro get cartoonishly creative with their various techniques as the films progress. From hiding in walls and stone barriers to literally writhing through the dirt and snow to pursue the Lone Wolf and Cub- these enemies can seem unending at times, though we as the audience know that Ogami’s mastery of his Suiō-ryū swordsmanship is unparalled! These films could be categorized under exploitation within the Samurai genre, and there is plenty to be said about the snap-zooms and bad guys giving whole monologues with swords jammed in their skulls, but there’s enough artistry beyond pure shock and awe that propels these films into a category all their own. What other films series so values extreme bloodletting alongside such strong familial bonds?

Silence and the poetic nature it instills

The use of sound in these films is uncannily serene at times. Depending on the scene, these films can have either a melodic score to accompany Ogami strolling with Daigoro’s baby cart, or a jazzy upbeat tempo to fit the pace. Don’t get me wrong, I love the scenes when the 1970’s funk kicks in to accompany Ogami’s blending of bad guys, but if you’re paying attention you’ll begin to notice the times that have the least noise weigh the most thematically. Below this article I’ve left a link to a video analysis of how these films utilize silence effectively, and I urge you to check it out. Often when Ogami is stoically seated at altars and shrines, the score takes a beat or two back to meditate and breathe inbetween the chaotic fight scenes. The best use of silence in each film, in my opinion, is at the beginning of Ogami’s one-on-one duels with the central villain of the film. Upon drawing swords, each warrior takes his or her stance and waits, calculating, taking only slow measured movements. It is the calm before the storm. It heightens the tension from some of the sillier one-versus-many scenes’ over the top violence and allows a moment of uncertainty to slip in. Who will strike first? Will Ogami come away unscathed? Or will he finally meet his match? The films often put a lot of technical precision, craft, and care into their fight scenes with excellent choreography, but the biggest diversion from this tactic in the series lies in the third film “Baby cart to Hades”. It’s a far slower film than the rest and focuses more on the ulterior dimensions of the warrior spirit within Ogami. Deep within the second act Ogami is forced to endure a ridiculous amount of torture that would make Mel Gibson proud. Through his restraint and self control, he defeats his enemies. These things help to elevate the film series beyond it’s grindhouse attractions.

Cinematography

From thick wooded forests to sweeping sand dunes and even snow topped mountains, the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies put a heavy emphasis on the locations that our two assassins travel through. Visually, location is front and center where the camera is concerned. Each film does it a bit differently, but whether through differing camera techniques or inventive framing, there is always a sense that the world these characters inhabit is fully realized, if a bit fantastical. I particularly appreciate any scenes that immerse themselves in mood or when depth of landscape is considered. The fight scenes themselves are constructed for the most visceral and eye-popping blood splatter, and it’s a joy to see Ogami take on literal armies of opponents at times. Throughout all the spraying blood, dubiously performed monologues, and patient wanderings through varying landscapes, the cinematographers of these films have thoroughly earned their place in celluloid history.

The Elephant in the room…

While these films are highly entertaining and culturally significant, we must take a moment to acknowledge the sexual acts of violence against women. I am no scholar of Japanese society, especially of any time period or place, but these films do depict several instances where women are taken advantage of. Maybe it’s more off-putting as an American because what we’re shown is a bit more explicit than our legacy of films, at least in the portrayal of the sexual assault. The films explicitly exist in the pulpy and exploitative arena of cinema- so I feel that it’s just wise to know that these scenes exist and could put some viewers off from watching the rest of the films. Though, to be fair, Ogami is never the perpetrator of these violent sexual acts, the villains here tend to be the worst of society. So, maybe making them out to be monsters of every variety was the intention to get audiences on board with Ogami’s particularly violent dispatching of such vile men? So, it can get ugly at times, but, hey people are a mixed bag themselves right? If you can get past these instances of vulgarity, then I would highly recommend giving these films a watch!

Final Score: 6 films, 6 circles of Hell

*Below I’ve listed a couple links to more information on these films that I quite enjoyed and found to be rather informative. If you want to know more about these films, check it out!

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4287-samurai-and-son-the-lone-wolf-and-cub-saga

Sword of Vengeance(1972)

Baby Cart at the River Styx(1972)

Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Baby Cart in Peril(1972)

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons(1973)

White Heaven in Hell(1974)