Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1970)

Image Copyright: Criterion

Image Copyright: Criterion

 

After the two year gap between Samaritan and Meets Yojimbo, Misumi returned in 1970 for his last instalment in the film series (though he would later direct some of the TV series episodes, and was also about to begin his most famous film series, Lone Wolf and Cub). This film is definitely one of the most action-packed, but perhaps not the absolute best in the series (in my opinion, it is going to be hard to beat Chess Expert and Challenged). Nonetheless, Misumi leaves the Zatoichi franchise with one of its most epic entries – as more is at stake in Fire Festival than a grudge between Ichi and a local yakuza gang.

 

Ichi bows while a local lord (daimyo) passes by, and then a narrator explains the state of the Kanto region that Ichi is in. All the local yakuza lords have been unified under one all-powerful underworld boss, known as Yamikubo. They enforce their own brand of extortion en masse, and rival only the shogunate in terms of power and influence. Ichi’s involvement in a lower boss’ name day ceremonies, and an early subplot involving a corrupt mistress auction – as well as his pre-existing reputation – bring him to the attention of Yamikubo. From then on, Ichi has to contend with various schemes that the yakuza overlord puts into place to thwart the masseur once and for all. These all result in a stunningly-staged trap involving fire and bamboo spears (inferred as being the titual festival). But a mysterious and nameless ronin is also involved in the proceedings. After misinterpreting Ichi’s actions, and believing that he slept with her wife (who had been involved in the mistress auction), the ronin will not make it so easy for Yamikubo to have his vengeance…

 

The finale itself is one of the most thrilling scenes in the whole film series. However, there are plenty of other joys in the film too. Misumi does not shy away from bringing in his mastery at visual composition. An early scene involving Ichi’s burial of the wife of the ronin (who the ronin had killed, believing she was now a whore of her own free will) is wonderfully lit with one stream of light pouring in from the trees above. As Ichi mourns the woman he had tried to save from the mistress auction, he is attacked by yet another group of yakuza after the bounty on his head. The camera does not move as Ichi makes short work of them. He returns to the grave for another moment, and then moves on. Only Ichi’s sword is heard, and there is no music. It is a beautiful sequence from start to finish.

 

This treatment of the scenes adds to the grandiose scale of the whole film, but another equally important aspect is the cast. Masayuki Mori plays the evil Yamikubo with gleeful relish. He was a regular in many jidai-geki films, including Akira Kurosawa’s, but also several modern-day dramas (such as The Bad Sleep Well – another Kurosawa film). Yamikubo never hesitates to devise more schemes against Ichi, whether it is the daughter of one of his yakuza underlings (who eventually falls for Ichi, of course), or an attack on Ichi while he relaxes in a bathhouse (which is another excellent fight scene). The screenwriters decisions to have Yamikubo as evil as possible, and blind, make him the perfect villain against Ichi. And they should know – one of the screenwriters is Katsu himself (doing a great job), with assistance from Takayuki Yamada (who’s only film credits would be this Zatoichi film and the next).

 

One another cast member is also used wonderfully within the narrative. The nameless ronin is played by none other than Tatsuya Nakadai – the nemesis of Sanjuro in the 1961 film, Yojimbo, as well as a famous lead actor from numerous jidai-geki films (and is still acting to this day). His performance and malice towards Ichi may be over-the-top, but Nakadai makes it all the more believable and terrifying. Misumi helps by inserting a remarkably bizarre dream sequence, as well as giving Ichi and the ronin a tense final showdown. Again, the awe-inspiring finale of Challenged is not quite matched, but the fight is still an exciting one.

 

The devious plots against Ichi are excellently paced, and they provide an excellent build-up to the masseur’s struggles with the final fiery set piece. Although, after facing the overlord of the yakuza underworld, what could possibly be next for Ichi?…

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One thought on “Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1970)

  1. Pingback: Links to my 30 Days of Zatoichi Posts | J L Wroot

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