film

Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #25 Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

Writer/Director: Yoshiko Hattori/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (6th film)

Summary: Zatoichi returns to his home town again in this final film of the series (More on that later). Initially, he’s mistaken for another former citizen returning home, Shinbei (Eiji Okada), a former childhood friend of Ichi’s and now a successful businessman. While Zatoichi meets with old friends and familiar faces of the village, Shinbei sets up meetings with the local government to see what he can do to help with the town’s finances. The villagers and farmers had endured several years of poor crop yields and couldn’t afford their taxes, so Shinbei decided to help and paid off their fees. Zatoichi visited the grave of the woman that raised him, and checked on the ruins of her home, the house he grew up in. He also met with Sakubei, the local potter in another authentic and engaging role from legendary Japanese actor, Takashi Shimura. Zatoichi’s also followed by a small group of charming rogues that pestered him constantly, though he never seemed too bothered by them- that is until they got caught up in the mania caused by the huge bounty on Zatoichi’s head. Zatoichi eventually paid Shinbei a visit to give him a complimentary massage and see what kind of man his childhood friend had become. To his disappointment, the man had become cold to the world, deeply analytical, and focused on monetary gain over ell else. Which, clues the blind swordsman in to the fact that Shinbei’s subtle interest in the local quarry may not be as altruistic as he first seemed. For generations, the quarry was recognized by the Magistrate’s office as being owned by the people of the village. However, when word got to Edo that those mines were far more profitable than realized, Shinbei was sent home to win the villagers loyalty before forcing them to hand over the quarry and all it’s money-making abilities. On top of that- they also participate in a rice heist scheme that doubles down on their cruelty. As you may have guessed, Zatoichi is eventually pushed into a massacre of bosses, henchmen, and of course- Shinbei too.

My favorite part: This film returned to the major overarching theme of Melancholy that ran throughout most of the films in the series. While this entry in the series kept the exaggerated violence from the last ten (or so) films, it was the perfect blend of tone, story, and style from both halves of the series. The villains were despicable and cruel to the people beneath them, stealing what wasn’t theirs and proudly defending their decisions- that is until Zatoichi comes for them.

Why it’s great: Well readers, we did it. Twenty-five films and twenty-five reviews in twenty-five days. It may have gotten close to falling behind for a few days, but I’m glad to have gone on this film journey with you. Hopefully I’ve encouraged at least a few of you to seek out films you might not have come across or known about before, or a fun reminder to those who have seen the Zatoichi films. I had a great time with this, and who knows, I might go through similar film analysis challenges in the future. There’s always more movies out there!

Final Score: 25 films

*For a final treat to end this saga of Zatoichi, check out this incredibly silly youtube fan made video in which Zatoichi meets The Predator:

film

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

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #22 Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Writer/Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda & Takayuki Yamada (2nd film)/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (5th film)

Summary: “Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman” was truly a delight! Not only is it my favorite film from Kimiyoshi Yasuda within the Zatoichi film series, it’s also one of my favorite Zatoichi films in general. This one harbored a far more lighthearted tone than the most recent films, hearkening back to the first half of the film series, while maintaining the exaggerated violence from the more recent evolution that’s taken place since “Zatoichi The Outlaw”. This film is another crossover similar to Zatoichi’s encounter with Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo. I’d only recently heard of Jimmy Wang’s Hong Kong action oriented character “The One-Armed Boxer”, which is a ridiculously entertaining and over-the-top Kung Fu style film (I’ll link the trailer the below, it’s worth a watch!). Which, in doing some light research just now, is not the same character as the “One-Armed Swordsman” despite both characters being portrayed by the same actor and both only having one arm. Huh. In any case, when the One-Armed Swordsman travels to Japan, he encounters a family of fellow Chinese nationals now living in Japan. The mother, father, and child, offer to guide him to his destination- a temple devoted to the study of martial arts. While on the road, the family and One-Armed Swordsman encounter a procession of Samurai transporting a tribute to the shogun. As the father explains to the One-Armed Swordsman, the law requires that any and all travelers kneel at the side of the road to let them pass. As they do so, the child’s kite flies from his hands and under the foot of the first Samurai. The kid runs for his kite and the Samurai raises his sword to slay the offender- but the mother and father run to save their son, but end up being slain instead of the boy. The One-Armed Swordsman jumps into the fray killing several Samurai before escaping, though he loses the boy in the chaos. Several bystanders witness the carnage that followed as the Samurai killed every innocent bystander kneeling by the road, farmers, peasants, everyone. Of course, they then blamed the slaughter on the One-Armed Swordsman, a Chinese citizen that speaks very little Japanese, the perfect target for such corruption. Initially, even through the language barrier the two swordsmen formed a fast friendship with the young boy roughly translating for them. Later, when scheming Yakuza bosses and misinformed side characters persuade Wang Kang into believing that it was Zatoichi that sold them out to the Yakuza, the two are set against each other. Unfortunately for the One-Armed Swordsman, he didn’t figure out that Zatoichi was a good man until it was too late.

My favorite part: Jimmy Wang’s One-Armed Swordsman was a real treat within the Zatoichi series. He’s the only combatant that Zatoichi’s ever faced that can move the way he did in battle. Wang Kang, as he’s referred to formally, performs some high level acrobatics- jumping from his enemies shoulders like Legolas, and he’s also incredibly powerful with his punches and karate chops- slicing trees in half with his bare hand! His wuxia antics were enjoyable, and he was a heroic character that was manipulated into fighting Zatoichi by the end of the film. He was tricked and lied to by his closest Chinese friend in all of Japan, clearly he had not encountered the type of double-crossing that’s often utilized in the Zatoichi films. Since he was even portrayed as a Chinese character, and spoken in Mandarin mostly, there were some great conflict and confusion that came from the misunderstanding of intent between him and Zatoichi. In fact it’s the main source of conflict between the two major characters, with lots of misdirection and scheming by Yakuza bosses- which comes with the territory in Zatoichi’s world.

Why it’s great: The crossover effect between not just two cinematic icons, but of two different countries and languages, worked excellently! This one may have been more playful and not quite as heavy as recent Zatoichi films, but it earned it’s place with the inclusion of Wang Kang’s wuxia, martial arts, and moral character work. This film has the most snap-zooms out of any Zatoichi film this far, and since it was filmed in 1971, there’s a funk insurgence within the soundtrack that plays into the nature and tone of this film well. Reportedly, the Chinese edit had more wuxia content with scenes showing Wang Kang walking across the tops of trees, and also featured a different ending where instead of Zatoichi it was the One-Armed Swordsman who was victorious in their final fight, and he didn’t kill his opponent. This was a fascinating experiment in the Zatoichi film series, and I had a great time with it!

Final Score: One Arm

Trailer for “The One-Armed Boxer”:

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #21 Zatoichi Goes to The Fire Festival (1970)

Writer/Director: Shintaro Katsu & Takayuki Yamada/ Kenji Misumi (6th film)

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”.

Final Score: Hundreds of Henchmen!

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #20 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Writer/Director: Kihachi Okamoto & Tetsuro Yoshida (2nd film)/ Kihachi Okamoto

Summary: “Sword of Doom” director Kihachi Okamoto brings his stylistic and nuanced touch to this excellent crossover. Heavily inspired by Westerns, crafting heavily satirical and critical Samurai films, and even a few musicals, the man has an incredibly varied background in cinema and he brought it all for this one. Opening with an eerily beautiful scene, the frame filled with blowing reeds and rain, Zatoichi “watches” a group of men kill a man amidst the flurry, and fury, of nature. He’s grown tired of “living in Hell” as he puts it, and decides to head home for the first time in the series. The blind swordsman only wishes to hear the flowing stream and smell the plum blossoms, he longs for the days of spring and the familiarity of home. However, when he arrives the cinematography wisely pairs Zatoichi’s returning nostalgia with death and troublesome things seeping into the frame. As he crosses the river, a dead body floats in a pool almost outside of the frame, and when he enters the perimeter, he can sense the familiar sounds and smells of home but everything else about the situation clues the audience into something being not quite right, that something foul is afoot. Zatoichi follows the habitual sounds of the local blacksmith, and stops to see how he’s doing. Surprised by Ichi’s unannounced visit, the metallurgist is clearly not alright by judging his facial expressions, the rhythm of his work, and by what he was making. Things have changed drastically since Zatoichi’s departure years ago, when he goes looking for the village headman, Hyoroku (Kanjuro Arashi), he’s met with confusion, “Ooooh, you must mean the old man that makes coffins“. Years ago the village and surrounding areas were hit by a famine, and their town had survived the worst of it- until the surrounding areas heard word of their large stockpile of rations. The town was ravaged for it’s goods and in the aftermath the headman had no choice but to abdicate his power to the Yakuza gang that came in and provided the town with structure. Even if that structure was a slow power-hungry virus that would change the very nature of the town for the worst. By the time Zatoichi returns, the town is at a boiling point, tensions are high as a feud between the new Yakuza headman and his two sons simmers. There’s also a rumor being spread around that a stash of gold is hidden somewhere in the town, and it only fuels the greed of the Yakuza involved. Which is the perfect setup for involving one of the best characters in all of Samurai cinema, the gruff, sly, and blustery Yojimbo as performed by Toshiro Mifune. Granted, in this film he goes by the name Daisaku Sasa, but his name has never really mattered in any of his past appearances anyways, though a couple of times his legendary alias of “Yojimbo” is only spoken in half utterances and never fully said aloud. I appreciated the notion of keeping the sense of mystery surrounding Mifune’s character intact. Yojimbo was utilized incredibly well in this film, everything about his personality, tactics, and scheming ways were perfectly executed, and I loved every second he was onscreen with Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi. The film goes to great lengths to milk every possible interaction between the two characters and to show their differences and similarities. I don’t even want to go into great specific details about the plot here because it was a true delight and the film that I recommend most so far in this series. Though I would suggest watching at least a few Zatoichi films and Yojimbo or Sanjuro as well to get an idea of who these characters are before indulging in this one, otherwise there’s a lot of subtlety that you could miss out on.

My favorite part: The whole damn thing. Upon seeing the later titles of the film series when I started this endeavor, “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” was easily my most anticipated film of the series and it did not disappoint. I’ve seen both “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” before any Zatoichi films, so the character’s introduction to Zatoichi had the intended effect on me, as I imagine it to be. This film feels the most epic, with its two hour runtime and large scale battles with an insane number of participants, this film had everything I could have imagined that would be needed or wanted with these two legendary titans of the screen meeting. Toshiro Mifune was, as expected, pitch perfect as the “two-bit samurai” driven by his ever present thirst for money. I loved the way the world of the Zatoichi films responded to Mifune’s bombastic outbursts. Several characters are shocked by the gruff ronin’s volume and seemed annoyed by his shouting, “What are you shouting about?”, “Why so loud?” I loved every bit of clashing that came from the two opposing personalities and the fanfare that comes with each interaction. For instance, Zatoichi is in the process of giving a massage on the local boss when they’re interrupted by Mifune’s shouting three floors beneath them. Both characters were gathering information, but their respective styles in doing so couldn’t be more opposite. You get every type of interaction between the two icons that you could want: They clash based on opposing ideologies, they team up to investigate and protect a mutual friend, they even have a duel that essentially ends in a draw in the third act, and they end the film with a mutual respect for each other despite their obvious differences.

Why it’s great:I feel as though I cannot further explain why this film worked so well for me, without getting into an incredibly deep dive into an analysis of the film itself, however, that being said I have to take a moment to talk about the look of the film as it drastically stands out from the visuals of past films. The lighting and color palette make many of the scenes feel as though they were ripped from renaissance period art. It’s a darkly lit film that’s comfortable living in the shadows, and the production heavily favors earthy browns, muted blues, the color of the film seems to be heavily inspired by nature. There’s excellent composition of the frame in most (if not all) of the shots in the film. Anyhow, if you’re so inclined, I highly recommend this one!

Final Score: 2 Swordsmen of Legend

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #19 Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Writer/Director: Hisashi Sugiura & Kiyokata Saruwaka (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (5th film)

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)

Summary:

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?

Final Score: 1 Dynamic Chase Scene on Horseback!

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #18 Zatoichi and The Fugitives (1968)

Writer/Director: Kinya Naoi/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (4th film)

Summary: The Zatoichi films may all share a sense of tragedy among their various plots and journeys, but “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a particularly dark entry in the series. As it usually goes, Zatoichi happens upon a small rural town, this one with a dedicated and honest doctor working amongst the silk farmers in the form of Takashi Shimura as Dr. Junan. As you may have expected by this point, yes, there’s corruption by the local authorities here too, but with the added layer of indentured slavery in the local silk mills to pad the villain’s resume. The driving force behind the structure of servitude is Boss Matsugoro (Hosei Komatsu), who’s ongoing racket at the mill gets exponentially worse when he’s forced to incorporate the fugitives into the mix. These villains were great throughout the film, initially Zatoichi bumps into them at the inn he’s staying at, the owners request his masseur services for a rowdy bunch and it turns ugly quickly. These villains aren’t even Yakuza, just a bunch of heathens who were almost slaughtered early on. Luckily enough for them, Ogano (Kyosuke Machida) stepped in and urged Zatoichi to leave. His comrades defiantly brush aside his warning that they’d be dead if he hadn’t arrived just then- for he had witnessed Ichi’s skill earlier on the road. This happens a couple more times before Zatoichi is given full justification to unsheathe his sword. Both Zatoichi and the fugitives leave the inn that night, but while Zatoichi is invited to stay with Dr. Junan, the fugitives pressure Boss Matsugoro to let them hide out until the provincial inspector passes through. Knowing that he’s got quite the illegal setup going, they use this information to persuade Matsugoro to let them stay until the coast is clear. While a few of the fugitives have personal scores to settle with Zatoichi, he had killed two blood brothers at the beginning of the film when they harassed him on the road, Ogano keeps them from getting themselves killed more than once. One of the fugitives is skilled with throwing knives and he offers some of the more unique clashes with Ichi because of this- thankfully for him, the one time Ogano wasn’t around Zatoichi was feeling a bit grateful and only embarrassed him greatly. Eventually, after Zatoichi has freed a young girl from the mill and shamed Boss Matsugoro in front of his men, Ogano reveals his importance to the story. He had picked this small town in particular, not only to hide from the inspector’s eye, but also to come home and see his sister Oshizu (Kayao Mikimoto) and his father, the good doctor Junan. This scene was easily one of the most powerful in the whole movie and it brought any notions of a ‘larger than life’ narrative and shrunk it down to something eminently relatable, the familial drama. Outside of the country doctor’s household, tensions begin to mount. Matsugoro, feeling the need to reinstate his power due to his bruised ego, steps up his brutality on the townsfolk and cracks down on a local cocoon market. When the village headman defends the rights of his people and vocally challenges the boss by saying he’ll go above Matsugoro’s jurisdiction and take this issue straight to the magistrate, the embattled Matsugoro calls in his favor from the fugitives to kill the headman. The fugitives don’t just kill the headman, but the entirety of his household in a bloody massacre. Things continue to escalate until Zatoichi’s put into a desperate situation when all six of the fugitives attack him at once with a variety of weapons, he barely escapes back to the doctor’s house, but there’s one fugitive who knows where a wounded warrior would go in desperation. In one of the more climactic endings, at least since the second film in my opinion, Zatoichi fights Ogano to the death just outside the doctor’s home. With his cane sword sheathed and Dr. Junan looking on in shock and horror, Zatoichi wanders off, bloodied and battered.

My favorite part: This film is a particularly dark one. It’s got Zatoichi at his most desperate (so far), when he’s shot by one of the Fugitives! He even digs out the bullet with the tip of his blade like so many American action stars would do roughly fifteen years after this. This film has to be the bloodiest one of the bunch that I’ve seen, we even get a limb sliced off an unfortunate villain. The villains here are so dastardly that the film wastes no tears for their fate, enslaving a small town in their silk mills and refusing to let the besieged rest when they’re ill- yes, the fugitives and local government definitely got what was coming to them. There’s also the added dramatic weight of Zatoichi describing how he forgot what colors were like to him, initially a sacred memory to pull from, but eventually they too faded into darkness. Drawing out further, crushing, pain for the blind swordsman is what this series thrives on.

Why it’s great: “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a great expansion on the evolution that began with “Zatoichi the Outlaw”. This entry in the series wisely narrows the focus on a small country doctor and his family, while avoiding unnecessarily complicated side stories. This allows for the story reveals to hold more narrative power, and the danger that Zatoichi must stand against in the face of injustice to be that much more resonant. The presence of Takashi Shimura, known for his many roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa, does wonders for the film’s emotional weight, the “Ikiru” actor knows how to play emotionally and psychologically battered men to great effect. Seeing the man convey deep sorrow with class and subtlety adds a great deal to Shintaro Katsu’s oeuvre of Zatoichi films.

Final Score: 1 surprise snake

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #17 Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Writer/Director: Ryozo Kasahara (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (4th film)

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”:

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #16 Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967)

Writer/Director: Kiyokata Saruwaka, Takehiro Nakajima, & Koji Matsumoto/ Satsuo Yamamoto

Summary: Get ready, because “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is a film that breaks free from the formula of past Zatoichi films to offer one of the most complex and subversive entries in the series. This time around when Zatoichi enters yet another small town, he encounters a swordless ronin who dispatches a group of attackers with ease- and without killing anyone. Ichi also hears the rice paddy farmers singing tunes that border on hymnal, reciting the ronin’s teachings to reject the vices of life and instead lead just and simple lives. When he finally finds a gambling establishment, he partakes, but soon realizes that the losers are systematically kidnapped and submitted to debt oriented slavery. When Zatoichi discovers that a rival establishment in the next town over is paying these unfortunate patrons debts and freeing them, he’s astonished at the Yakuza boss’s altruism. When the blind swordsman is pinned for the death of two henchmen, he agrees to take the boss’ tainted money on the road and return in a year, confidant in his benevolence. Months later, word gets back to Ichi that everything in those two towns aren’t as good as he had hoped for, and heads back early when evidence to the truth begins to snowball. The benevolent boss had not been as kind as Zatoichi has initially assumed. In truth, he had guided Zatoichi into killing his rival and laid the groundwork for a particularly brutal money grabbing scheme. Eventually, Zatoichi teams up with the ronin and the townspeople to stop the madness, and enact real change- through some damn entertaining swordplay.

My favorite part: This film in particular had a “punchy” energy to it. I loved the grit and messy nature of this one, and it isn’t just the sense that this film had something to prove- it definitely did, as leading star Shintaro Katsu’s film production company, Katsu Productions, chose to make this film their first. Throw away your old assumptions within the series, because this film doesn’t want them. Here we have the usual ronin figure, but he harbors no sword, is no villain for Zatoichi himself, and he counsels the locals to lead lives free from the trappings of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.

Why it’s great: “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is an excellent entry in the film series because of the way it shook up the formula that had dictated most of the films up until this point. There’s still the corruption of authority figures, Zatoichi catching cheating gambling establishments, and some blood splatter- but this entry in the series marks the beginning of a fascinating and highly entertaining evolution for Zatoichi.

Final Score: 2 Yakuza Bosses