Summary: Maybe it’s the more streamlined sense of urgency, or the fact that this entry in the series utilizes Kazuo Miyagawa’s (The cinematographer from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’) talents to great effect, but I really dug this entry in the blind swordsman’s saga. Excellent imagery aside, this film follows Ichi as he travels to pay his respects at the grave of a man he accidentally killed during the Yakuza gang war from the first film. The village nearby was in a celebratory mood, having finally paid off their local taxes, they invite Ichi as he’s passing by to partake in the festivities. Things quickly turn sour though when a small group of Samurai rob the villagers’ transport of taxes and Ichi gets the blame for it. After he’s coincidentally spotted sitting atop the chest of gold and seen killing samurai by one of the villagers, Ichi gets mauled by the mob of townsfolk, now in a hysteria fueled by economic anxiety. He convinces the townsfolk that he’ll get their money back, and heads off to the mountains to see a local hero, Chuji, who oversees the safety of the citizens while hiding out from the provincial constabulary. After discovering that two of his men were part of the group that attacked the transport, Chuji becomes disillusioned with his way of life and decides to disband. Before leaving he asks Zatoichi to bring one of the troupe’s young nephews back to the village with him- with a dire warning to take an alternate route from his troupe’s departure as the local government’s men are likely scouring the main roads for them. Things only escalate from this point until Zatoichi follows the scent of corruption to the head of the provincial government’s office where the village headman pleads with the authority to give them more time to make up the loss of their taxes. Instead they accuse the villagers of trying to get out of their payment and as punishment they charge the townsfolk double (2,000 Ryo!) for their offense. Which only inflames Zatoichi further when he discovers that the provincial government was behind the initial crime of stealing the villagers taxes in the first place! As you might expect, Zatoichi’s flashing sword was quite busy that day.
My favorite part: Tomisaburo Wakayama (Brother of the lead Shintaro Katsu, later made famous by the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films) returns to the series to play another ronin challenger. While his antagonistic role might not have the emotional punch that his role in the 2nd film did, his role here as Jushiro is a lot of fun. Using a bullwhip as his identifying technique isn’t just unique for the series- it also sets up one of the more hair-raising final battles at the end of the film!
Why it’s great: In my opinion, what made this entry in the Zatoichi series so effective was the brash attitude and blatant corruption of the government as the main antagonists. The audacity of their oppression against a village of people just trying to survive was so transparent that it made their eventual deaths feel incredibly justified. Things aren’t always so black and white in this series, so having the villains clearly causing all of the havoc and chaos made Zatoichi’s actions ring true without question.
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!
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!