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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

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Old School Review: “Ed Wood” (1994)

Written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, and directed by Tim Burton, “Ed Wood” is a comedic biopic about the famed cult film director who infamously made the worst film of all time in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. This film is partly adapted from the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” by Rudolph Grey. Admittedly, this is a film that I hadn’t heard of until I caught an episode of “re:View” on the youtube channel Red Letter Media in which they thoroughly discussed the Tim Burton adaption and the filmmaker Ed Wood himself. This might be my favorite film from Tim Burton, I’ve enjoyed his work before- but since the middling 2000’s Burton has seemed a bit passionless with most of his work, slowly trending towards parody with films like “Dark Shadows” and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his two “Alice in Wonderland” movies if I’m being honest. Here, you can tell that he had a fondness for the atomic-era Z-list filmmaker, and he treated the subject with great care and respect as a fellow filmmaker.

Now, Ed Wood was a very unique character to say the least. Not only did he put out a series of films (unsuccessful as they may have been), he surrounded himself with Hollywood’s rejects, weirdos, and the forgotten to craft together whatever kinds of ramshackle films that he could. He also had a very strange relationship with angora sweaters, only finding comfort and confidence while wearing them and other such women’s clothing. In fact the whole first quarter of the film rests on this strange fetish- but the film never struck me as mockery or slander, but rather towards a more truthful reveal of who Ed Wood was. Granted, this film dances between a heightened and glamorized tone when it comes to some of the performances, most notably with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the eternally optimistic Ed Wood. However the film also lets dark real world issues creep into it’s plot over the course of the film, especially after Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) enters the picture. Once Ed scrambles together his small theatrical crew and morphs it into one that can tackle his first feature “Glen or Glenda”, the movie kicks up the pace. Even through every scrap and white lie needed to get in the door, Ed Wood’s journey is an inspiring and relatable one, especially if you have any experience trying to get a movie made. He never gave up- even when all common sense suggests that might have been for the better.

After Ed’s been around the block with a couple small features he ends up crossing paths with veteran monster movie actor Bela Lugosi. Ed Wood’s relationship with the former Count Dracula actor is the emotional crux of the film, and its an excellent pairing between the pre and post war remnants of Hollywood. Lugosi’s an aging and out of work actor when Ed meets him, starstruck, Ed can’t believe that the original Vampire himself isn’t being signed onto multiple pictures- so he takes every and any opportunity to get Lugosi involved in his movies. After befriending him when the world had forgotten him, Lugosi accepts the adoration from Ed and agrees to work with him on several films. It’s slyly mentioned early on that Lugosi’s a washed up actor, and it isn’t until he’s on set when the make-up artist silently notices the track marks on his arms representing decades of drug abuse. Lugosi only makes eye contact with the make-up artist momentarily, and knowingly, and then they move on without mentioning the obvious.

This film may have been a financial loss for the studio, but it was well received by critics and it won two Oscars; Best Supporting Actor for Landau and Best Makeup for Rick Baker. The cast was excellent, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wood meshed 1950’s caricature with genuine earnestness and the film was all the better for it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me to watch a movie shot in black and white- but the film’s cinematography was exquisite, there’s a lot of really beautiful compositions throughout the film. “Ed Wood” is a love letter to even the lowliest of filmmakers and it suggests that an unflappable and passionate love of the craft can get you places in life- just maybe not the places you expected.

Final Score: 2 Vampires, 1 wrestler, and 1 motivational speech from Orson Welles

*Check out the re:View that youtube channel Red Letter Media did on Ed Wood for further fun and analysis:

**And, just for fun, check out this episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast where he talks with legendary special effects master and prosthetic make-up artist, Rick Baker:

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Old School Review: “The Running Man” (1987)

Written by Steven E. de Souza and directed by Paul Michael Glaser, “The Running Man” is a sci-fi adjacent action movie adapted from the novel of the same name by Stephen King. The novel, from what I can tell with some light internet research, is VERY different from this adaption with the core concept alone surviving the transition. Which makes perfect sense after giving this one a watch, casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the main character of a Stephen King novel adaption in the 1980’s wouldn’t have made much sense unless you were going to drastically change the nature of the story. Mostly set during 2019 (appropriately) two years after a worldwide economic collapse, the United States has degraded into a totalitarian nightmare. The government uses TV game shows to keep the public pacified through violence and carnage. The most popular game show is ‘The Running Man’, where convicted criminals must evade armed mercenaries for a chance at parole- or a grisly death!

A police helicopter pilot by the name of Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is flying above Bakersfield, California, with his crew when he’s given orders from his superiors to fire into a sizable crowd of citizens engaging in a “food riot”. When he refuses, his crew members on board get their own orders to restrain Richards and to quell the rioters with a barrage of bullets. So the system committed a massacre, blamed it on Richards, and threw him in a labor camp for his revolt. After some time he escapes from the camp with two resistance fighters named Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) and William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto). They make it to one of the resistance camps, but Richards decides to seek shelter at his brother’s apartment not far from the camp. There he meets Amber Mendez (María Conchita Alonso), the new tenant that took up residence after Richards’ brother was taken for “re-education”. Richards then takes Amber hostage and tries to hop a flight to Hawaii, but she outs him to airport security and he’s quickly scooped up by the ICS broadcasting company. Having viewed the footage of Richards escaping the labor camps, Killian (Richard Dawson), the host of ‘The Running Man’, chooses to snatch Richards up before the government can have him- as he’s the perfect candidate for his game show.

Killian coerces Richards to play the game in exchange for his two resistance fighter friends’ safety, which is, of course, a lie. Killian has tracked down Weiss and Laughlin and made them game contestants as well. At this betrayal, Richards swears revenge before Killian sends them down the tubes and into the game. In the abandoned parts of Los Angeles that are the game zone, Richards and his friends keep moving as they’re pursued by the stalkers. Out in the world, Amber sees footage of Richards being captured for ‘The Running Man’ and realizes that the advertisement was doctored and begins to question whether Richards was telling the truth and investigates. After some sleuthing, she discovers that Richards was framed for the Bakersfield Massacre, but she’s quickly caught by the ICS security and thrown into the game for her punishment. After Richards, Weiss, and Laughlin kill Sub-Zero, the first stalker to be dispatched in the show’s history, they begin to search for ICS network’s uplink tech, which they believe to be in the area. Amber catches up with the three and shares her discovery, they then split up as two more stalkers are sent after them.

The majority of the film takes place in the game zone of ‘The Running Man’, and it’s a fairly entertaining time if you’re into cheesy action oriented movies from the eighties. There’s some fun one-liners from Arnold, gratuitous violence involving chainsaws and flamethrowers, and some genuinely fun arch villain acting from Richard Dawson as Killian, who was the first host of “Family Feud”- great casting with that part! The movie also correctly predicted several aspects of what modern society might be dealing with in the year 2019, though not nearly to the degree that the movie suggests. “The Running Man” predicted “deep-fake” technologies and correctly suggested that the people of 2019 would be having huge societal issues with the truth and misdirection due to ever-advancing technologies. It also predicted economic collapse, the disparity between the rich and the poor, and our collective obsession with “reality” TV. While this one may not be the most intellectually engaging, and not exactly the peak of Arnold’s action movies to come out of the eighties, it IS a fun time and a perfectly fine way to spend a rainy (or snowy) night in.

Final Score: 4 Stalkers & 1 Running Man

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Old School Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Conversation” is a paranoia-thriller surrounding a man within the surveillance industry, released fittingly during the height of the Watergate Crisis. The private surveillant in question is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and we first encounter him in the field, covertly recording audio of a conversation between a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) out for a walk. The two seem innocuous enough as they circle through the crowded plaza, we only get bits and pieces of their conversation as Harry and his small team use a variety of methods to capture their exchange. This film has a simple, but taught, premise and while it may be a slow burn as far as the pacing of the story unfolding- it is one wrought with tension, analysis, and questioning. It’s also a small miracle that this film is as good as it is because it was made and released inbetween Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films!

After Harry begins to analyze the audio back in his lab alongside his partner in the business, Stan (John Cazale), he uncovers a possible motive for his client wanting this information- with deadly implications. As a private, small time, surveillant Harry rarely knows intimate knowledge of who he’s tracking or why somebody wants them to be followed. He only knows the target and any knowledge relevant to getting information out of them through stealth and carefully applied technologies. As things escalate Harry finds himself between two sides of some high level corporate espionage, driven to prevent the murder of the young couple he was hired to tail. Harry Caul is an interesting character, especially for Gene Hackman after winning the Best Actor Oscar in “The French Connection” just two years prior. Here Hackman turns in Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s bombastic grit for a more measured and inward determination within Harry Caul. Harry’s a quieter detective, one whose problems are more internalized than Doyle’s.

Which leads me to the only real crux of an issue that I have with the film. After visiting a surveillance convention and meeting up with several acquaintances, Harry brings them back to his lab for a social drink. Up until this point in the film Harry has exhibited a very careful and fairly paranoid persona, he doesn’t let people into his life and he hides his secrets well. He’s even known by the others at the convention to be a shrewd businessman by making his own tech and never sharing his blueprints or prototypes to anyone. So, why has he invited a group of people to his working lab where his audio reels and secretive methods are hidden? After some deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple beats and one earlier scene that showcase how conflicted Harry Caul really is when it comes to social interactions and the nature of his relationship with intimacy. He seems to be a character that craves camaraderie and attention, but he also seems incapable of cultivating it in his own life. This character flaw is the only reason that I can fathom as to why he would loosen his standards so far as to let an unknown woman close to him and his secrets- which she takes full advantage of. Other than this scene, the movie feels flawless in Coppola’s hands- and most of it is as far as I can tell.

“The Conversation” is an excellently poised film within Coppola’s 1970’s filmography. Squeezed inbetween his first two “Godfather” films and followed up by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, this was an excellent decade for the director. Rarely do I recommend a film based on it’s technical aspects- but even if the plot or performances didn’t catch your eye then maybe the audio and editing skill on display will, they’re absolutely fantastic for the film’s time. As a plus, a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford makes an appearance as a villainous corporate underling! What’s not to love about that?

Final Score: 1 Mime