Zatoichi at Large (dir. Kazuo Mori, 1972)

Image Copyright: Criterion

Image Copyright: Criterion

 

Another New Year festival. A group of yakuza bully and extort the festival goers. Ichi steps in, but his wanted poster is dotted around the local village. A mysterious ronin is hired to kill him. And Ichi also has to unite a baby with his family after his mother died during childbirth. The film has so many different elements to it that it is at first off-putting, even within the typical parameters of the Zatoichi formula. But somehow, it all works.

 

The film begins with Ichi delivering the baby that starts off his quest (as well as another scene of him applying milk to his own nipples). He is also pursued by a child that hurls rocks at him. After delivering the baby to his aunt, who he finds by chance, the father arrives. He had sent his wife off with money to pay off a debt, but this went missing. His other son Kenta (the rock-throwing child) believes that Ichi killed her mother. The masseur denies this, and vows to recover the money so that the aunt, Oyae, is not delivered into prostitution. The yakuza gang in the village have just arrived, and are defiant of the elderly constable, whose own son is tempted towards their gambling ways. They have set up a new brothel and are enforcing extortion on the festival performers. Soon the yakuza plot Ichi’s demise as he interferes more and more, through a combination of a cheating dice-gambling woman, ropes, and a highly-skilled ronin.

 

All this is accompanied by a song about Ichi’s lonely life with his cane – which is not song by Katsu – and it frequently appears in scenes where Ichi is walking along roads or is forced to fight. It is a slow Japanese ballad when sung on its own, but it is often accompanied by 70s-style Japanese funk. It is a really odd choice, and suggests that the film is a lighter entry in the series. This would be in keeping with director Kazuo Mori’s last instalment, Doomed Man. However, Mori delivers excellent action set pieces in the final act. Some twists in the plot are also suitably dramatic in contrast to the lighter elements, mainly because of Kinya Naoi’s script.

 

The final bloodbath, for instance, is heralded by the yakuza finally facing off against the stubborn but elderly constable. The evil and leering boss, Tetsugoro, laughs while he dies, and his bloody corpse is found next to a poster of Ichi – causing his son to go after the masseur as well. This means Ichi has to contend with the son while also fighting off hordes of yakuza that force him onto an oily and flammable New Year performance stage. Earlier on, Ichi had also been caught, tied up and beaten by the yakuza. All may turn out well in the end, but there is still the ronin to deal with…

 

The climactic fight scenes are a stark contrast to the earlier comedic elements. The worry is that the film will entirely be characterised by its earlier jokes, but the film actually succeeds in offering a bit of everything. The earlier scenes with festival goers trying to impress the yakuza are wonderfully continued by Ichi slicing off his foes’ clothes. Then, Ichi’s attempt to hand himself in, by putting a wanted poster on his face (in order to claim the reward money), is very amusing – even though it can be seen as a hastily put-together gag. The balance of humour and action does not always work within the Zatoichi formula (such as in Samaritan). Nonetheless, Mori makes it all tick, and defies the expectations that these elements should not work on paper.

 

If there is one aspect that really does stick out like a sore thumb, it is the jarring ballad about Ichi’s eternally lonely journey. It is used much more than other songs that have appeared in the films – even Katsu’s own – and it never seems to lend any atmosphere to the scenes it appears in. It is surprising, then, that it is suddenly used to great effect in the final stand-off with the ronin. This very last fight is brief, and is added in because it is now a given for the series. However, sound and music is used excellently within it, and it effectively leaves the viewer wanting more from its humble but lethal hero. Audiences would get this in more ways than they expected in the next instalment, as Katsu finally steps both in front and behind the camera…

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One thought on “Zatoichi at Large (dir. Kazuo Mori, 1972)

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

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