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”.
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)
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 (Kô 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?
Cinematographer: Chikashi Makiura (He worked on a number of Zatoichi films and all of the films that Kenji Misumi directed in the Lone Wolf and Cub series as well. I felt the need to point his name out in this review as the film is a knockout visually, and that deserves credit)
Summary: Once again Zatoichi is the guardian of a small child- but this time it’s a six year old that can walk and talk back to him. If you enjoyed “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!”, then I’d imagine you’ll likely love this entry in the Zatoichi canon. It’s basically an upgraded version of Kenji Misumi’s earlier work, though “Fight!” had a more carefree Zatoichi in his demeanor and how he reacted to people and the world around him. Now, nine films later, Zatoichi’s a bit more apt to be somewhat curmudgeonly. Granted, he’s been through a lot in that time and seen the range of humanity from true, noble, and kind to hypocritical, greedy, and self serving. Zatoichi’s journey begins when he arrives at a crowded inn and stays with a sickly mother and her young child. When the mother unceremoniously dies in Zatoichi’s arms, it’s up to him to deliver the child to the father he never knew. On his journey to the father’s hometown, Zatoichi and Ryota encounter a mysterious ronin-like figure on several occasions, one that reveals nothing about himself or his mission, but delights in getting details from Zatoichi several times. Neither knew that they would end up fighting to the death over Ryota’s father, Shokichi’s (Takao Ito), life. Once Zatoichi finds evidence of Shokichi’s location, he’s surprised to find that Shokichi isn’t simply neglecting his child (he didn’t even know he had fathered a child), or trying to further his own selfish goals. Because Shokichi has artistic talent, he’s been forced to pay off his gambling debts by painting illegal erotica- which carries a heavy fine in this period of Japan’s history.
Notably, this film showcases real skill when it comes to the art of filmmaking. The film production crafted beautiful cinematography, gorgeous compositions, bold colors, and an excellent combination of wide landscape shots and intense close-ups. There’s also the surprise sprinkling of two musical sequences in which melodramatic vocals play over a couple of traveling montages. Kenji Misumi really pulled some beautiful performances out of his actors this time, notably, in smaller moments that allow time for the characters to process, react, and even show their true feelings about the situation at hand a few times which feels revelatory for this series. This turned out to be my favorite Zatoichi film, so far, and I’m happy to be proven wrong in the near future.
My favorite part: Besides the gorgeous cinematography by Chikashi Makiura and excellent direction from Kenji Misumi, my favorite part of this film was the villain. From the opening scene of the film until the end battle, he’s wisely spread around the plot with his true intentions only known far into the story. After Zatoichi slays several combatants in the opening scene, Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe) witnesses the blind swordsman’s skill and heartily compliments him. Zatoichi happens to bump into him on several occasions well before they cross blades, where they respect each other’s skill and are cordial enough with each other. Akazuka may seem like the usual ronin figures that accompany a lot of these films, but he’s got stone cold conviction and he’s a far more dangerous combatant than most of Zatoichi’s enemies. I had heard that this film had one of the best Samurai fight scenes of all time, and I have to say that I was impressed. It was visceral, beautifully shot against falling snow, and it was the first real time I had any real concern for Zatoichi in a fight. The way story and deep character moments are inserted into the fight, I mean, you can’t get much better than that.
Why it’s great: This film is the epitome of why the blind swordsman concept works. “Zatoichi Challenged”, out of the films in the series that I have seen this far, is the best example of the character and the film series as a whole. Everything about this film is perfect for it’s aim. If you don’t enjoy this film, you probably won’t find much else in the series that works for you.
Final Score: 1 AMAZING Samurai Fight
*For fun, check out this re:View by Red Letter Media in which they analyze this Rutger Hauer starring movie that was supposedly a loose adaption of “Zatoichi Challenged”:
Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.
Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (Tarô Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.
My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.
Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.
Summary: This may be one of the more memorable entries in the series for me at this point based almost solely on the film’s core concept. How would a skilled killer handle caring for a small child- especially when he’s being pursued by the most determined adversaries he’s faced so far? Far from star Shintaro Katsu’s brother’s work in the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ series that would come to be in the next decade, Katsu’s pairing of killer and baby is more sly, tongue in cheek, and far less brutally violent in its depiction. The setup here is that a well paid group of assassins are after Zatoichi throughout the film, initially he’s hidden from them within a group of blind men making a pilgrimage. After awhile he’s approached by a pair of palanquin (a wheelless, covered, box carried by two or more people designed for transport) bearers and they offer him a ride through the countryside. His pursuers see him enter the palanquin and they sneak off for an ambush. A short way down the road the bearers stop to investigate a body lying in the road, which just so happens to be a woman with a baby who had just collapsed from exhaustion. Concerned, Zatoichi insists that she take the palanquin and within moments they’re off. However, they don’t get far before the assassins tracking Zatoichi attack the palanquin and accidentally kill the mother. Once Zatoichi finds out he, the bearers, and the local village headmen who arrived shortly afterwards all go to the nearby town to discuss what to do. The mother’s travel documents reveal that she was heading home to her husband who ran a silkworm farm in a village far from there. Zatoichi offers to bring the child there himself as he feels responsible for the death.
Just outside of town the assassins make their first real attempt at killing Ichi. He swiftly kills the first attacker and the rest begin retreating as he makes the connection and accuses them of killing the mother, he offers to fight them all once he has delivered the child to it’s father, but they deny his offer stating “The Monju clan does not give up once it has accepted payment“. Throughout the journey the Monju clan attacks Zatoichi one by one, recruiting other gangs they meet on the road in an attempt to swarm and overwhelm him. There’s a few women Zatoichi meets on the road, one he pays for a night and asks her to watch over the kid so he can get some sleep, another initially uses him as cover after (rightly) being accused of stealing, to which Zatoichi plays along and in turn asks her to travel with him and help with the child. Eventually they reach the father’s village, and he denies ever having a child or a previous wife as he’s due to be married to the daughter of the local Yakuza boss. The leader of the Monju clan is all that remains by this point and, as Zatoichi ponders what to do with the child, the assassin leader recruits the father stating that he know Zatoichi’s weakness and persuades the silkworm farmer to try and ‘make a name for himself’. At the local temple, a kindred Monk offers to raise the child, and right when Zatoichi had begun to consider what his life would be like if he raised the child himself, the Monju leader and the father arrive for a fight. Zatoichi bests them, even though he’s burned several times with their torches. When Zatoichi has the upper hand he again asks the father if the child is his, he finally breaks and admits that it is his and that he had sent away the mother not as collateral, but to simply be rid of her. He swears to raise his child to be better than him, but as Zatoichi turns away, he lunges and Zatoichi kills him in defense. Thus, Zatoichi realizes he cannot accept fatherhood if he’s always sought after in this way, and he gives the child to the monks, slinking off down the road as the blind men’s pilgrimage passes him once more.
My favorite part: Honestly, after having watched all six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films and knowing that both stars Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama are brothers in real life, AND that director of this film, Kenji Misumi, also directed four of the six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies- to be fair, the connections are too wild to ignore. I particularly loved this quirky entry in the blind swordsman’s saga as an ‘alpha‘ run for the future concept. I mean, how many times have you seen a gambling scene where a baby is thrown through the air before some supernaturally quick swordplay is performed to prove a point without harming the baby?
Why it’s great: This film in the series may ultimately still end in the bittersweet sadness that characterizes most of the finales, but it’s chock-full of the series best humor thus far. From accidentally having the baby pee in the faces of sumo wrestlers to killing men while changing the baby’s diaper- ‘Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!’ is a cheeky good time with a simple, fun, concept.
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.
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.
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!