Links to my 30 Days of Zatoichi Posts

WordPress may not be the best blogging site – as before this post, all my previous ones had to be scrolled through.

However, here are some links to make my Zatoichi blogs more easily navigable for current and new readers:

 

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/the-tale-of-zatoichi-dir-kenji-misumi-1962/

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/the-tale-of-zatoichi-continues-dir-kazuo-mori-1962/

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/new-tale-of-zatoichi-dir-tokuzo-tanaka-1963/

Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/zatoichi-the-fugitive-dir-tokuzo-tanaka-1963/

Zatoichi On The Road (1963)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/zatoichi-on-the-road-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1963/

Zatoichi and The Chest of Gold (1964)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/zatoichi-and-the-chest-of-gold-dir-kazuo-ikehiro-1964/

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/zatoichis-flashing-sword-dir-kazuo-ikehiro-1964/

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/fight-zatoichi-fight-dir-kenji-misumi-1964/

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/adventures-of-zatoichi-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1964/

Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/zatoichis-revenge-dir-akira-inoue-1965/

Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/zatoichi-and-the-doomed-man-dir-kazuo-mori-1965/

Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/zatoichi-and-the-chess-expert-dir-kenji-misumi-1965/

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/zatoichis-vengeance-dir-tokuzo-tanaka-1966/

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/zatoichis-pilgrimage-dir-kazuo-ikehiro-1966/

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/zatoichis-cane-sword-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1967/

Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/zatoichi-the-outlaw-dir-satsuo-yamamoto-1967/

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/zatoichi-challenged-dir-kenji-misumi-1967/

Zatoichi and The Fugitives (1968)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/zatoichi-and-the-fugitives-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1968/

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/samaritan-zatoichi-dir-kenji-misumi-1968/

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/zatoichi-meets-yojimbo-dir-kikachi-okamoto-1970/

Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival (1970)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/zatoichi-goes-to-the-fire-festival-dir-kenji-misumi-1970/

Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/zatoichi-meets-the-one-armed-swordsman-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1971/

Zatoichi At Large (1972)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/zatoichi-at-large-dir-kazuo-mori-1972/

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/zatoichi-in-desperation-dir-shintaro-katsu-1972/

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/zatoichis-conspiracy-dir-kimiyoshi-yasuda-1973/

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (1989)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/zatoichi-the-blind-swordsman-dir-shintaro-katsu-1989/

Zatoichi (2003)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/zatoichi-dir-takeshi-kitano-2003/

Ichi (2008)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/ichi-dir-fumihiko-sori-2008/

Zatoichi: The Last (2010)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/zatoichi-the-last-dir-junji-sakamoto-2010/

Blind Fury (1989)

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/blind-fury-dir-philip-noyce-1989/

………………………………………………………….

From Best To Worst – My Opinions on the Zatoichi films

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/from-best-to-worst-my-opinions-on-the-zatoichi-films/

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Retreading Ichi’s Footsteps: The DVD Extras

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/retreading-ichis-footsteps-the-dvd-extras/

Retreading Ichi’s Footsteps: The DVD Extras – The Criterion Box Set

https://jlwroot.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/retreading-ichis-footsteps-the-dvd-extras-the-criterion-box-set/

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Retreading Ichi’s Footsteps: The DVD Extras – The Criterion Box Set

Image Copyright: Criterion

Image Copyright: Criterion

 

Compared to any other Zatoichi film release on home video, the Criterion Box Set is outstanding for its content other than the films. The artwork, the accompanying book, and the DVDs’ content are things of beauty. I am biased towards the merits of DVD extras (as I research them, in addition to being a fan) – but even my friends and family admire the box and volume of films alone. In short, it is essential – not just for any fan of Japanese cinema, but of world cinema, and even action cinema in general. This post will now pick out some highlights from the overwhelming amount of special features available within the only English language release of all the Zatoichi films from 1962 to 1973.

 

The Blind Swordsman Feature

 

In terms of DVD contents, Criterion keep you waiting until the second-to-last disc for other options in the menus. This 58 minute documentary was filmed in 1978 and follows filmmaker John Nathan as he accompanies Shintaro Katsu during the filming of the Zatoichi TV series. In a separate interview with Nathan, we learn that this was one of three films he made for the American TV network, PBS (the other two were about Japanese farmers and the northern native population, the Ainu). He confirms that the film about Katsu stands out because of his explosive character alone. This is evident within the documentary’s scenes – as Katsu frequently jumps from careful instructions to barking orders, and then being quiet and friendly with friends and family before switching to loud and commanding.

 

The insights into Katsu’s life are also not the only reason for watching this feature. The filming of the TV series itself is fascinating (especially for me, as I have yet to get hold of the episodes). They are intercut with scenes from the actual series, which confirms that the aesthetics and conventions of the films were successfully carried over to the episodes. They are nothing but tantalising glimpses, but we are still shown bloody sword work and plenty of melodrama between Ichi and the other characters that appear.

 

Interview with John Nathan

 

Nathan’s further comments on his time making the documentary are a helpful addition to what we learn about Katsu. Nathan says that very little was asked to be cut by Katsu, and that he was happy for an honest portrayal of his life and work (he had become acquainted with the actor through making some other Japanese films). Nathan argues that his contrasting personalities and moods, and social values, make Katsu a quintessentially Japanese character. Some background is given about the great man, especially about his family life and aims to be a movie star. Other than this information, the 20 minute feature mostly replays a lot of segments from the documentary itself.

 

Serializing Success – Interview with Tony Rayns

 

This wonderful 30 minute overview of the Zatoichi films, by the excellent British film critic and writer, is found on the very last disc in the box set. More background information on Katsu’s acting career is given, as well as Kan Shimozawa’s original short story concerning the infamous swordsman. Production context is also covered, as Rayns argues that episodic film series such as Zatoichi were more common in Asian countries than other parts of the world (and resisted the TV format for several years). Its influence on (and as a result of) genres such as Spaghetti Westerns are also mentioned.

 

Rayns’ comments are unique as a DVD feature for another reason. He runs through the conventions and characteristics of the film and its central character (complete with clips) but never reveals everything about the films themselves. Therefore, a first-time viewer of the films could easily start here, and then start watching the films (as Rayns does not mention favourite films, but only standout directors). It is just as well, then, that the only other features on this disc are the trailers for the films.

 

The Zatoichi film trailers

 

You may think there is not much to write about here – and after watching the films themselves, these are mostly as to be expected. However, the trailers are great reminders of some excellent moments from some of the films, and are bound to make any viewer want to watch many of them again (if not all of them!).

 

Furthermore, there is another reason that the trailers are fascinating. There is extra footage! Some scenes within the films seem to be cobbled together from either deleted scenes or specially-made ones for the films’ promotion. This is clear from the first film’s trailer alone (and I have seen the film itself many times). The trailer implies that the final fight happens at night and in the forest (which is completely false!). Ichi’s face is also spattered with blood – which did not appear until the fourth film!

 

All sorts of potential conclusions could be drawn here – concerning Japanese film promotion in general, and how the Zatoichi films were marketed in Japanese cinemas (but I will have to save that for a future academic paper…).

 

The box

 

It truly is beautiful. All the artwork on the box, fold-out case and book is original and new for the Criterion release. At first sight, the combination of garish reds, greens, yellows and golds can seem very gaudy. But if you examine it closer, you can see that there is a lot of detail of different common Zatoichi scenes in the illustrations – and that the artwork overall is a 21st century homage to the Japanese woodblock print-style.

 

The book

 

These written excerpts – and further artwork images – exceed the extra visual material on the discs. Geoffrey O’Brien’s summative essay, ‘On The Road with Zatoichi’, is an engrossing tribute to the conventions of the films, their history, and the central character. As with Rayns’ interview, O’Brien’s essay acts as a teaser for the content of the films. Because of the essay’s length, it sometimes simply lists the qualities of the films and Ichi’s character – but you are also left wanting to know and see more (even after watching all of the films).

 

Then, there is a temptation to immediately give in to curiosity and read all of Chris D’s notes on each Zatoichi film. However, I restrained myself (you’ll have to take my word for it), and only read these pieces after watching the films. Each is another great addition to each film’s content and experience. Chris D flits from explaining how a particular film fits into the conventions and stylistics of the franchise (in terms of narrative or characterisation) – to giving further context about particular guest actors, production issues, scriptwriters or even directors. Alongside the films, this book is capable of making any cinephile fully versed in the history and stories found within the Zatoichi films. The artwork for each film (each by a different artist) is also another fitting tribute to the character.

 

And then there is one final addition, which is an exceptional cherry on top of an already exquisite cake. The last few pages contain the original Zatoichi short story by Kan Shimozawa. Here we are presented with a very different Ichi. He is settled in the town of Iioka, and the characters and events of the first film are essentially told (but from a different perspective). In between this documentation of supposedly historical events, we are told of the mysterious and feared Zatoichi – who settles fights between yakuza by brandishing his sword (and chopping buckets and sake bottles, but never men).

 

Zatoichi is covered from all angles on this box set – from his grace on-screen, to the reality behind the camera, and right up to his literary origins. The very last pages in the book are printed in the colour gold, and credit the companies and staff responsible for the release. Each deserves high praise, as this an excellent package which may never be seen again (it has already been reduced several times in sales, and global physical media is slowly losing out to digital alternatives).

 

There is only one potential problem with the box set. Once you have retreaded Ichi’s footsteps – as I have done within these extra materials – you immediately feel compelled to go on the entire journey again…

Retreading Ichi’s Footsteps: The DVD Extras

Here is the first of two further Zatoichi posts which concern the DVD extras available on the films I have watched. The posts will cover the film releases in reverse order – and this post will cover the films from 2010 to 1989. I hope to put up the second post at the same time next week (however, a technical issue with my multi-region DVD player may delay that).

 

I felt these posts were necessary to include, as many of the extras for several of the Zatoichi films help to signify the historical significance of these films, beyond their number and my own personal appreciation of them. So, let’s begin…

 

Blind Fury (dir. Philip Noyce, 1989) – DVD: Sony Home Entertainment

 

Image Copyright: Sony Home Entertainment

Image Copyright: Sony Home Entertainment

 

Nothing at all is available on any of the DVDs that I have found for this film – not even any trailers. Some of the menu artwork does allude to the various posters and promotional artwork that was used when the film was released theatrically, but a lot more can now be found within an online image search. It’s a bit of a shame – as I would have most liked to have seen an interview with the screenwriter, and his views on this film as well as the other Zatoichi films.

 

Zatoichi: The Last (dir. Junji Sakamoto, 2010) – DVD: Toho Studios

Image Copyright: Toho Studios

Image Copyright: Toho Studios

 

 

Despite the quality of the film, and the lack of extras overall, there are some interesting trailers on this DVD. The majority of the promotional material is very similar, in that it focuses on the music and the action sequences on the film. This is perhaps to be expected, as is the impression that the film has more action than it actually does because of the trailers’ contents. They also made me realise that I had not perhaps mentioned the music as much as I should have in the review. However, while it is stylistically unique, it does not make up for the negative aspects of this film.

 

Nonetheless, one intriguing trailer was an advert for the film linked to a mobile phone warning for Japanese cinemas. The trailer specifically used a scene from The Last where Ichi plugs up his ears with cloth so he can concentrate on his work while the fishermen’s wives natter. This is perhaps not so strange for UK audiences, where these tie-ins are starting to be more common in cinema adverts. Still, it is interesting to see that there are some similarities in cinema exhibition between countries around the world.

 

Ichi (dir. Fumihiko Sori, 2008) – DVD: Manga Entertainment (Region 2)

 

Image Copyright: Manga Entertainment

Image Copyright: Manga Entertainment

 

Another DVD that has no extras at all – which is surprising as it was also released on Blu-Ray (in other countries, and not just the UK). The closest you get to a trailer is some scene excerpts within the main menu screen. However, it also includes excerpts from the dire J-pop ballad that plays as the film’s credits roll (which is one of several clichés the film could have done without).

 

Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2003) – DVD: Artificial Eye (Region 2)

 

Image Copyright: Artificial Eye

Image Copyright: Artificial Eye

 

By 2003, Kitano was one of the biggest names in Japanese cinema around the world. The extras on the DVD releases for Zatoichi make this clear through their content, as well as the fact there are so many extras included.

 

The trailer on the Region 2 version makes viewers aware that this was one of the few Japanese films to see a UK cinema release within the last decade. Many now end up straight on DVD or Blu-Ray. This again makes viewers realise how much of a draw Kitano was as an actor and a director in world cinema in 2003.

 

Kitano’s status is further emphasised by the inclusion of a filmography for him (up until Zatoichi), as well as some stills from the film and its production (which mostly focus on Kitano directing). Tadanobu Asano (who plays the ronin in the film) also gets a filmography, as he was a globally recognised Japanese actor at the time. This has only increased since Zatoichi, as he has starred in popular films such as Mongol and both of Marvel’s Thor movies.

 

If you had never heard of Kitano before this film, though, the making-of would make it clear how popular he was in Japan at this time. None of his other films are mentioned, but the inclusion of press conferences and premiere footage from before and after the film’s production make it clear how much of a celebrity the actor and director is in Japan and other countries. Newcomers to the character of Zatoichi are also told how much of a contrast Kitano’s incarnation is compared to Shintaro Katsu’s, as well as how a former friend of Katsu’s persuaded Kitano to make a new film. Kitano also fully embraced the role, as in between the shooting of scenes he is shown practicing sword fighting with his eyes closed. Asano is seen practicing too, but the most exciting rehearsals have to be for the tap-dancing finale at the end.

 

Things do not end with the film’s production. The film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival (and its award of the second-place prize) are documented briefly. Kitano also greets the crowd outside the screening venues by posing for photographs and then giving autographs. The last piece of footage then documents the critical and commercial success that the film received in Japan (which is rare for a Kitano film). All in all, not only is the significance of Kitano’s Zatoichi made clear by this making of, but Kitano’s position within the Japanese and global film industry as well.

 

There is another DVD release available for Region 2, which also reveals what extras are available in other country’s special editions. The Artificial Eye Special Edition includes an extra disc that contains interviews with the film’s producer, dance choreographer, fight choreographer, and many other crew members (including the costume supervisor, Kazuko Kurosawa – the daughter of Akira Kurosawa). A Q&A session with Kitano (filmed in Paris) is also included. In the package itself, there are postcards containing artwork and stills from the films, and a booklet on Kitano’s thoughts on the film and its production. A real gem for DVD collectors!

 

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (dir. Shintaro Katsu, 1989) – DVD: Arrow Video (Region 2)

Image Copyright: Arrow Video

Image Copyright: Arrow Video

 

The only detailed extras I could find for this film are on the UK Region 2 release. However, even these are minor in comparison to the 2003 film (as well as the Criterion box-set, which will be covered in my next post).

 

Arrow had released the 1989 film before in May 2007, with very little treatment given to the disc or package. However, it was re-released in 2012 as part of the ArrowDrome sub-label. Now, the film is part of the label’s ‘samurai’ category, with its own turquoise-themed artwork. This label has become one of the most distinctive in recent years in the UK, as it re-releases many films from the 1970s and ‘80s that have ‘cult’ status. The DVD extras make this clear, as they include trailers for other ArrowDrome releases (such as the famous Japanese thriller, Battle Royale), as well as for the Arrow Video label itself (which details how Arrow provides as many extras as possible for its releases).

 

Being one of the few Zatoichi films released on Region 2, Arrow have included a helpful summary of the series, the 1989 film, and Katsu himself in the package for this film. A booklet is included in the case, and the article ‘Greying But Still Vital’ by Tom Mes is printed within it (Mes is co-author of a great book: The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film). Here, Mes expertly places the 1989 film within the context of the franchise and Katsu’s celebrity status in Japan, meaning that viewers can link this film to Japanese film history and the other incarnations of the character.

 

Arrow’s minimal treatment of this film in comparison to some other Japanese films (such as Battle Royale) mean that it will probably not release any of the other Zatoichi films anytime soon (if at all). However, this is a unique package for Region 2 viewers, as are many of its other titles.

 

In my next post, I will explore the extra features and packaging that is unique for Region 1/multi-region viewers. Why? Well, there are so many elements included in the Criterion box-set, that it really does need its own space. Also, without this release, my Zatoichi marathon would have been 25 films short…

 

From Best To Worst – My Opinions on the Zatoichi films

Here is a list of the Zatoichi films that I have watched. I have rated them from best to worst – with best at the top, and worst at the bottom. However, there is not much that differentiates the quality of the films in the ‘best list’, as all of them are enjoyable for varying reasons. The ‘worst list’ is similar, in that the films all have a significant number of flaws (although, Zatoichi: The Last was definitely the worst overall).

Please feel free to comment and respond to this on WordPress – or on Facebook, Twitter, or via my email address (see my ‘About’ page).

The best:

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

Zatoichi and The Chest of Gold (1964)

Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963)

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Zatoichi and The Fugitives (1968)

Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival (1970)

Zatoichi (2003)

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Zatoichi On The Road (1963)

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Zatoichi At Large (1972)

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967)

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

Blind Fury (1989)

The worst:

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (1989)

Ichi (2008)

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

Zatoichi: The Last (2010)

Blind Fury (dir. Philip Noyce, 1989)

Image Copyright: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Image Copyright: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

 

I felt I had to reverse my chronological journey through the Zatoichi films, just so I could include the only English-language film inspired by the Japanese character. There is a Spaghetti Western titled Blindman, from 1971, about a blind gunfighter. However, it does not share credits with any of the of the Zatoichi films. Blind Fury does, as it is adapted from the script for Zatoichi Challenged (by Ryozo Kasahara), which makes it indirectly inspired by the Zatoichi short story by Kan Shimozawa. And like several of the original Katsu films, it is a lot of fun (in contrast to Zatoichi: The Last).

 

The film begins with a title graphic that appears over a sword. The remnants of a battle in the Vietnam jungle are then shown, and a blind survivor eventually gets caught in a trap. He is found by a local tribe, treated, and eventually taught how to use a sword. 20 years later, this same man (Nick Parker) is walking the streets of Miami, and defends himself with his cane when needed. Eventually, he finds the home of a former comrade in Vietnam (Frank), but is told he has moved to Reno. Frank’s ex-wife and son are then attacked by a group of thugs that try to kidnap them. Nick reveals he has a sword hidden in his cane, but cannot stop the ex-wife from being killed. As she dies, he asks Nick to take her son (Billy) to Frank in Reno, He does, but slowly finds out that Frank is being kept against his will, in order to come up with an experimental narcotic for a local kingpin.

 

I will get to the problems with this film in a moment – but first I have to applaud screenwriter Charles Robert Carner. He could be accused of bluntly ripping out the basic story structure of Challenged and placing it in the USA. However, he actually manages to keep a lot of the main character’s nuances in the script, as well as a lot of the conventions of the Zatoichi series. Director Phillip Noyce reinforces these aspects by keeping the film going at a lively (and often humorous) pace, and handles the action sequences really well. This is a surprise from Noyce, as he is known for action, but also for much more serious films (such as The Bone Collector and Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan films).

 

Of course, there are problems. The set-up of the Vietnam War is believable, but Nick’s fighting style is clearly more Japanese than Vietnamese (which really is known for the machete rather than the samurai sword). A cultural reference to Japan is bluntly inserted by Nick having to fight a Japanese swordsman. However, the 1980s perspective of Asia from America is sometimes quite jarring (especially when watching today) – as it often seems that the belief that “all Asian cultures are the same” is prevalent.

 

Nonetheless, this is a cheesy action B-movie from the 1980s, which means it is essential to turn your brain off. Once you sit back and enjoy the ride – and the fun references to the original films – you will find this film hugely entertaining. When Nick first reveals the sword from his cane, we are greeted with severed limbs and impaled thugs. The film does not skimp on the gore, or the action, just like the best Zatoichi films. It even tries to up the ante, mostly by the inclusion of guns. But the best OTT moment has to be when Nick decides to drive a van and take directions so that they can avoid their pursuers. Because a blind man driving is much better than a woman without her glasses (!).

 

Rutger Hauer provides a serviceable imitation of Ichi within his American-blind-hobo costume. He perhaps cheats by acting with his eyes open (and sometimes loses focus on his blind-stare). However, Katsu often opened his eyes, and this method was used well by Haruka Ayase in the 2008 film. Sometimes his dialogue feels quite wooden, but the script is not exactly top class, and the Zatoichi series never had award-winning dialogue either. Most of all, what comes across is that Hauer is actually having a lot of fun playing this version of Ichi. He often throws back insults to Billy; he gambles on a roulette wheel, instead of with dice, and he gets to utter some not-quite-classic one-liners – such as:

 

Thug: “I can’t see a thing!”

Nick: “That’s where I live.”

 

In short, Blind Fury is to be enjoyed with your tongue firmly in your cheek. It is not must-see cinema, but it is enjoyable entertainment. Maybe Ichi’s adventures will inspire future adaptations in different countries. If not, this film stands as a good effort to bring the spirit of Zatoichi to a Hollywood production.

 

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It has been a great experience watching these films and then writing about them on this blog. So much so, that I believe I am not quite done yet. The cinematic journey of Zatoichi will be extended a bit further in the next few weeks.

 

The films have been covered (and watched within 30 days!), so no others will be reviewed and discussed immediately in the near future. However, I will be posting up a list of where I rank these films in terms of favourites and least favourites (which I assumed I would eventually be asked). Also, an important part of how these films are accessible today has not yet been discussed – their special features within their home media releases. This is extensive in some cases – especially with the Criterion box-set – so they deserve to be mentioned.

 

Links will also be added as and when time allows, so my blog can be more easily navigated for future reference (and it will be available for as long as WordPress is – or transferred to a different location if this is ever necessary).

 

I hope you will enjoy re-treading some of Ichi’s footsteps in the very near future, as much as taking the initial journey…

Zatoichi: The Last (dir. Junji Sakamoto, 2010)

Image Copyright: Toho

Image Copyright: Toho

 

Sadly, this most recent Zatoichi film does not reach the standards of any of the earlier instalments. It is neither an energetic celebration of the famous character, or a brave attempt to reimagine the formula (as was Ichi – which now seems like a masterpiece compared to this film). The Last tries to both re-establish the character, and act as a fitting final adventure for Zatoichi, though it succeeds at doing neither within its two-hour running time.

 

Ichi is now portrayed as being recently married, and is looking to settle down to lead a peaceful life with the woman he loves. However, he is being chased by yakuza, and promises her this will be his last fight. It is bloody, and Ichi struggles throughout. Then, his wife runs back to him, and gets caught by a sword intended to strike Ichi (which was swung by the son of a local powerful boss, Tendo). Ichi despairs and goes on a trek to a coastal town where he had dreamed of settling, and lodges with a friend. He tries to lead a peaceful life as a rice farmer and fisherman, but the local yakuza are starting to muscle in on the trade. Ichi is eventually forced to fight back after being recognised at a gambling den, and then eventually realises that Tendo is the one overseeing the town’s takeover, and discovers how his son was linked to his wife’s death.

 

The premise of Ichi being married could be believed, as Ichi almost agrees to settle down with women he loves and friends he makes in several of the earlier films. It could also have been used to reintroduce the character for a new generation, by having Ichi initially fuelled by vengeance. However, the filmmakers seem determined to show Ichi being a farmer as much as possible, before trying to end the franchise once and for all. I would have imagined that this could have been a thrilling blaze of glory for the blind swordsman, but instead the last few scenes are a mess, and can only be read as a slap in the face to all the incarnations of the character that have come before. I can only hope that this is not the ‘last’ time we see Ichi on screen, as he deserves so much better.

 

We are not kept waiting until the last few scenes to see action, though. The first fight sets the tone for the others that come later, as Ichi struggles more in these battles than ever before. Gone is Katsu’s elegant swordplay (wonderfully imitated by Kitano and Ayase in the last two films), and instead Shingo Katori is made to look a bit hapless as he fights back his attackers. Known primarily for being in a J-pop band (SMAP), Katori could be seen as a bad choice for the role of Ichi. But Katsu was also known as a musical entertainer before playing Ichi, so a similar choice seems to have been made. However, Katori only succeeds at acting when a sword is not in his hand. When it is, he looks strained and constantly about to cry, rather than stern and fearless. Whether this is deliberate or not (perhaps as more ‘realistic’ take on the character), I am unsure – but either way, it just doesn’t work.

 

The supporting cast do not really help either. In one scene, the great Tatsuya Nakadai (who was one of Ichi’s foes in Fire Festival, and is now playing the villainous Tendo) utters some mysterious lines about sashimi in between explaining his corrupt schemes. Most of his yakuza underlings are undeterred by these words, but a few stalwart actors (such as Susumu Terajima) look genuinely confused. Nakadai is given some time with a sword towards the end, but he only gets to utter more nonsense after a bizarrely edited fight with Ichi (which, inexplicably, has the characters faded out to a different room in the middle of the action).

 

Director Junji Sakmoto, and writer Kikumi Yamagishi, seem more at home with melodrama and romance than action and visuals (as the landscapes are not used as well as they could be). These elements often appear in the Zatoichi films, but they are usually balanced with action and humour. The story and characters take themselves too seriously throughout, and the pace plods. The opening scene is intercut with Ichi’s conversations with his wife, which are mostly silent, and as such the first eleven minutes feels like a drag. The earlier films could set the ball rolling in less than half of that time.

 

If you want the definitive experience of Zatoichi’s cinematic incarnations, then this is the only reason to recommend this film (as it can be seen where references to earlier films have been attempted, but often poorly). Otherwise, it is a solemn and confusing story, that cannot decide if it wants to be an action film or a character drama – which is bad for any film, and not just one in the Zatoichi series.

 

Thankfully, I have one more film left to watch that was inspired by Zatoichi, and I hope it is a lot better than today’s one…

Ichi (dir. Fumihiko Sori, 2008)

Image Copyright: Manga Entertainment

Image Copyright: Manga Entertainment

 

Another two hour reimagining of the famous fictional sword-fighter (like the last two films). This time, the character is established as a blind female shamisen player (goze) who is adept with a sword hidden in a cane (courtesy of some brief references to the original Zatoichi). While this spin on the formula is refreshing, and has the potential to work well, it falls down in some specific points – though not entirely as a whole.

 

Ichi is introduced as a shamisen player who tries to make money by travelling to anywhere she can to perform. However, her looks bring unwanted attention, leading to people either losing their limbs or their lives. She was banished from a goze troupe after being raped, and has now stumbled into the town of Bito in order to try and find the man that brought her to the troupe and trained her with a sword (as she does not know whether or not this man was her father). On entering the town, Ichi meets a skilled warrior (Toma), who is unable to fight with a sword because of a past accident. She has no wish to take part in the local feud between a bandit gang and the Shirakawa yakuza family, and lets Toma take the credit for her tussles with some of the more lecherous bandits. However, she decides to investigate the gang further after hearing that their leader, Banki, fought the legendary swordsman she is after, which leads her to become involved in the brewing turf war.

 

This could have made for a cracking action vehicle, and it mostly does succeed in the first half. The fights now include a combination of CG and liquid blood, and Haruka Ayase is a thrill to watch in the lead role because of her beauty and her grace with a sword. Ichi is even adept at dice gambling, and agrees to help Toma in one scene, but leaves as he becomes over-confident. Though Ichi is in despair because of her loner lifestyle, humour makes its way into the script by way of a child that she befriends (Kotaro). Some touching moments are also achieved through the songs she sings.

 

Therefore, the film has a lot to offer – but then all of this is dashed away by the second half. The leader of the gang, Banki, is nothing but a pantomime villain, and cannot be taken seriously. He reckons that he could have defeated the legendary Zatoichi (mainly because he was a former sword instructor), but his cackles simply makes him ridiculous. Banki then defeats Ichi, which leads her into further despair, only so that she has more flashbacks of Zatoichi. Toma is then forced to man up, save Ichi, and take on Banki himself. Having Ichi falling and then rising again, and saving herself, would have been much more believable, especially in terms of a reimagining of the formula. Instead, she just becomes apathetic and frustrating in terms of characterisation. She only returns to life by way of Toma confessing his love for her – which is a syrupy cliché that the film (complete with an emotional end-credits pop ballad) could have done without.

 

There is some interest brought onscreen by the flashbacks to Zatoichi’s involvement. It is not explained where or how he found Ichi, but we see him bringing her to the goze troupe, and the visiting at irregular intervals to train her in sword-fighting. The look of the actor gives away who it is, as it is a very convincing imitation of Katsu’s Ichi (though the actor, Tetta Sugimoto, is a lot thinner). However, even these inspired flashbacks are nullified by Banki’s speech to Ichi when they fight. She is told that Zatoichi caught a disease and died before Banki could fight him. This is either an incredibly lacklustre ending for one of Japan’s most famous cinematic figures, or simply a taunt to spite Ichi (but she believes it anyway).

 

Nonetheless, if the film’s faults are kept to one side, there are other things to admire. Following the 1989 film, it seems clear that the remakes have decided to respect the visuals from some of the earlier films. Zatoichi (2003) was filmed beautifully, and Ichi is even lusher to look at. Scenes in forests frequently appear, and the lighting of both sunsets and sunrises is used to great effect. The fights are also helped by the use of slow-motion to emphasise Ichi’s abilities, rather than being used as a cheesy gimmick. Although, once the second half arrives, this visual flair starts to disappear.

 

Director Fumihiko Sori can be admired for giving a different stylistic portrayal of the character, and writer Taeko Asano’s efforts to add new twists to the formula can be partially appreciated. However, because of numerous factors, the second half seems to be nothing but a missed opportunity in terms of re-establishing Ichi as a female action icon (which could have been greatly received in Japan). This is a shame for Ayase as well, who really does give a good central performance.

Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

Image Copyright: Artificial Eye

Image Copyright: Artificial Eye

 

This is the film that started my interest in the infamous Zatoichi, and it was refreshing to watch it again, having now seen all of Shintaro Katsu’s cinematic entries. Immediately after the 1989 film, I could not help but think that this sort of film was perhaps what Katsu had in mind for his production. Why? Well, the film is nothing but a celebration of what Ichi is remembered for. I can see now that it is not 100% perfect, but it is still excellent entertainment (as all Zatoichi films should be – and this film’s many awards also make that clear).

 

The first scene is a familiar one – complete with a full-screen title (as was seen in Katsu’s films). Ichi is found by a group of yakuza marching along a road. They get a small child to steal his cane. The yakuza then berate Ichi for this, but he quickly takes back his sword and makes mincemeat out of them. The survivors run away, and Ichi continues his journey towards a farming town. By chance, Ichi crosses paths with some other murderous characters, whose stories are alsowly revealed as he bumps into them more often. First are a pair of geisha, who are slowly trying to find and kill members of a yakuza group who betrayed their family. One is actually a man in disguise, and they are brother and sister. A ronin has also just entered the town. He hopes to be back working for the government someday, but currently has to make a living as a yakuza bodyguard, in order to get medicine for his sickly wife. Ichi also meets an elder female farmer, and becomes friends with her and her nephew while staying at their house. But after one night of gambling that goes sour, these various subplots come crashing together, leaving Ichi having to hack them apart.

 

So far, so Zatoichi. However, when viewing or finding out about this film, it is impossible to avoid the fact that director and star Takeshi Kitano has hugely changed the lead character’s costume. He has bleached blonde hair, is dressed in black, and his cane is coloured red. Much could be made of this. The blonde could be read as grey, showing Ichi’s age. The change in colour could be Kitano’s decision to make Ichi look more dangerous, in an attempt to warn off violent yakuza. However, Kitano himself has said he did not want to imitate the look of Katsu, as his films are so beloved. This is something that the later Zatoichi revivials may have wanted to take note of (as will become clear in my next two blogs). With Kitano’s Ichi, it may look jarring, but he is just trying to make it clear that he respects the memory of Katsu in the role. The rest of the film’s events also reinforce this decision.

 

Despite being known for his tough guy persona (after being in several modern gangster films), Kitano has actually been a comedian for most of his career. This inevitably bleeds through to events in the narrative (which Kitano wrote) – and it should, because the best Zatoichi films include humour. This also counters some critics’ negative opinions of the film, who have said that this was an ill-advised reboot, and that Kitano’s character comes across as an automaton. Ichi regularly laughs and sometimes makes jokes in the 2003 film. This is part of Kitano’s style, but it keeps the film in the same vein as the previous entries as well. As with the last film, it is 2 hours long, and is not filled entirely with actions scenes, though there is never a dull moment because of the story, the action, and the humour. This continues right through to the very last twist – which is a hilarious twist on the theory that the character of Ichi was never blind at all.

 

There is a lot of meat to Kitano’s script, and that highlights another potential criticism. There is perhaps a bit too much backstory for some of the characters, who are also given a lot of flashbacks (Ichi’s is only a fight in the rain, but it is a good one). However, some of the earlier films missed a lot of backstory for their characters, so Kitano has instead given us the opposite, which again sets his film apart from the others. The effects in the fights also do this. The use of CG blood can seem hugely fake to some, but Kitano has always liked to try new things in his films (and he even brought in a musical group to provide the soundtrack to Zatoichi, in contrast to his regular collaborations with Joe Hisaishi). Furthermore, it adds to the fact that the film brings Ichi into the 21st century (alongside his period surroundings).

 

Blood aside, the action is fantastic, and so are other regular scenes involving Ichi – from winning at dice-gambling to slashing candles. The ending, where Ichi reveals the conspiracy plaguing the town, is intercut with a fabulous dance performance. Ichi’s feats are literally being celebrated, both as a part of this film, and as a part of Japanese history. The energy that fuels the dance runs right through the film (not just because of other musical scenes) – which makes it a party that Katsu would have been proud of.

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (dir. Shintaro Katsu, 1989)

Image Copyright: Arrow Video

Image Copyright: Arrow Video

 

Because of its length, the number of subplots that Ichi gets involved in, and the stylistic touches that are sometimes utilised, this last Zatoichi film by Katsu could come across as an ego-inflating self-indulgence. However, there are a few golden moments scattered in between some other puzzling scenes, mainly thanks to Katsu-Shin himself (which was his nickname as a Japanese celebrity).

 

This was an entirely independent Katsu Productions project, and was originally distributed by Shochiku. Katsu seems determined to include everything that Zatoichi was remembered for from the initial run of films (along with the help of several additional scriptwriters – Tatsumi Ichiyama, Tsutomu Nakamura, and Kyohei Nakaoka). This is probably why the film was two hours long, instead of the regular hour-and-a-half that was given for the earlier films.

 

Ichi is initially in jail, and another prisoner throws Ichi’s food on the floor. Later, Ichi breaks the bully’s arms, and receives 100 lashes as punishment. Then he is freed, and decides to find an old friend of his, who returns some money that Ichi had given him as a gift. As expected, Ichi takes this to a gambling den, where he meets two different yakuza bosses – Goemon and Lady Bohatsu. Goemon is a younger boss, and is not afraid to commit murder to bring himself to the top. Bohatsu is the leader of another powerful house, and is reluctant to ally with Goemon and the devious Hashuu (who is conning yakuza clans into buying antique firearms). Ichi gets on the wrong side of Goemon by playing his out-of-sleeve-dice-trick at his gambling den, but Bohatsu has heard of the legendary Zatoichi and comes to his aid. However, she is shortly forgotten about as Ichi continues on his journey, and meets a ronin with artistic hobbies on the road (who draws Ichi’s portrait). He is eventually hired by Goemon to hunt down Ichi, and continues to bump into him and develop a friendship with him while Ichi stays at an inn in the vicinity of Boss Akabei. This man is defiant of Goemon’s pursuit of control over all local yakuza bosses. After Ichi is indirectly involved with this rivalry, following his defence of a young girl that sheltered him (Oume), Ichi has to act in the midst of the violent conflict between Akabei and Goemon.

 

The major problem with this film is that these various plot strands become clear only towards the end of the film. Katsu tries to interweave the subplots together, but ends up cutting full scenes in half and suddenly have characters move locations (such as when Ichi meets with another acquaintance in a gambling den, then suddenly moves back to the bar, and then in the den again, while a yakuza coup d’état happens upstairs). Many scenes of Ichi on the road are included, giving the impression that the film takes place across a large expanse of land. However, all the characters and gangs seem a lot closer together than Ichi’s travels suggest.

 

The over-complicated plot is often simply used as an excuse to include as many different types of scenes involving Ichi as possible. He chases leaves, saves fallen bird eggs, falls into holes in the road, and battles against the elements on roads. This is in addition to him fighting off yakuza, after gambling and happening on threatened villagers (such as Oume). Moreover, some scenes involving Ichi do not always make sense, such as the sudden seduction of Lady Bohatsu in an outdoor bath. It is slightly mystical, because of its use of mist and music – and the whole film has this feeling to it, because of the synthesised electric-guitar-and-bass score . Nonetheless, after this scene, Bohatsu seems to serve no other purpose in the film, so the audience is left wondering why this sequence was necessary (other than to make it clear that Ichi is still remembered for the events portrayed in the very first Zatoichi film).

 

Some scenes could have really helped to make the film, and are screaming out for development over others. One example is Ichi’s encounters with a ronin who likes to draw and tries to tell Ichi about colours (as well as debating whether a falling leaf fears or does not fear the wind). The sudden murderous pursuit of Ichi by the ronin is added as an afterthought, whereas these earlier scenes hint that something more could have been made of them. They also show that the film could have been made into a much lighter adventure if a bit more comedy had been injected. A travelling group of straw-hatted men accidentally freeze on hearing the directions of the ronin (directed at Ichi) – and it is the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment. In contrast, because of the film’s score, and Katsu’s focus on a fair amount of sex and violence (much like what was seen in Desperation), the film takes itself very seriously.

 

One reason why this film is perhaps fondly remembered is because of the fight scenes. Following the success of films like Lone Wolf and Cub, and the notoriety of Shogun Assassin in the 1980s, the violence is incredibly graphic. Almost every drawing of a sword is matched by one or two fountains of blood. Limbs and body parts (everything from noses to arms) fly across rooms. Some of the fight scenes outdo many others that featured in the earlier run of films. The negative side of this aspect, though, is that it feels like a different film is intercut between the musical walking sequences and the sometimes dialogue-heavy scenes. Also, it seems that Ichi has finally been unleashed as a cold-hearted killing machine.

 

In trying to show viewers everything about Ichi – for both new and old fans – Katsu makes some brave decisions. An odd 1980s English-language ballad – titled ‘The Loner’ – is added in the middle of the film, and acts as the theme song (perhaps in an attempt to instantly target the international market). The casting suggests a make-or-break attempt for this film – as former actors from previous Zatoichi films are enlisted (such as Norihei Miki); Katsu’s son (Ryutaro Gan) is cast as the villainous Goemon; and other famous Japanese actors are used to add some star power to the mix (e.g Kanako Higuchi, Yuya Uchida, and Ken Ogata). This was one of Katsu’s last roles on-screen before he later passed away in 1997, and it seems he might have suspected this would be the case.

 

In Zatoichi, Katsu tries to show his acting range, from murderous bringer of vengeance, to kind-hearted elder, and reminds audiences that Ichi was all of these things in the earlier films. However, the film was not quite successful at portraying these aspects all at once – and it would instead be left to other actors to later try and celebrate the influence of one of Japan’s most famous fictional swordsmen.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1973)

Image Copyright: Criterion

Image Copyright: Criterion

 

This was the final film of the initial 25 that Katsu made as the famous masseur. Next would come the TV series (which would run for 100 episodes), and then another film in 1989. However, this film does not come across as a significant milestone in the film franchise – simply because everything is quite boring…

 

Initially, a lot of interesting backstory is hinted at. Ichi returns to his hometown of Kasama, and mistakes a greeting for a wealthy merchant, Shinbei, to be for him. This results in the only comedic moment – where Ichi mistakenly intrudes on a banquet in Shinbei’s honour. After that, it transpires that Ichi knew Shinbei as a boy, but he has forgotten him. Now, he has a taste for virginal young girls, and pays off the villagers’ debts so that he can exhaust their local quarry for its precious stone (with help from the local yakuza boss, Iwagoro).  Ichi discovers this scheme while visiting his old local haunts and in trying to keep a group of rebellious teenagers out of mischief. Then he discovers that the local magistrate is corrupt, and has been taking bribes from Shinbei, as well as falsifying the measurements for their rice taxes. Ichi is then compelled to act.

 

A lot of these moments could have been used to characterise the film with some dramatic moments, or some initial comedic shenanigans by Ichi to thwart the corruption, before drawing his sword. This is what I have come to expect from the Zatoichi films, but nothing distinct appears in this entry. The plot slowly plods along while Shinbei’s scheme is revealed and Ichi finds the house he grew up in, and a lot of the scenes seem to be a lot longer than they need to be. The involvement of the rebellious teenagers is never fully addressed or given enough explanation, and their misguided attempts to help or hinder Ichi fall flat instead of coming across as tragic or sinister. Takashi Shimura re-appears as another shelter-providing ally, though he is used very little in comparison to Fugitives. Even Ichi’s visit to a gambling den feels like a bore, in contrast to his usual colourful activities.

 

The film has one saving grace. It has one of the longest and bloodiest final battles in the series. After sternly berating the corrupt magistrate, the screen lights up as Iwagoro and Shinbei arrive in an attempt to flush out Ichi one and for all. The titular conspiracy involves rice, and cascades of it are used to punctuate the fights against the hordes of yakuza. The necessary duel with a nameless ronin is interwoven into the final fight, rather than being kept separate. The fountains of blood are also some of the highest seen in the franchise overall. However, these excellent scenes do not make up for the rest of the film.

 

I realise that this is the 25th film I have watched in the series, and I could be feeling fatigue from Ichi’s escapades. However, watching the others so recently also gives me a sense of how they often succeeded so well in bringing together comedy, drama, and spectacle – even if most of the action is saved for the final few scenes. In addition, Conspiracy takes itself very seriously. Desperation was noted for being the darkest and grittiest entry in the series. In contrast, the plot and events in Conspiracy are treated with grave seriousness, and are not used to heighten any potentially grim atmosphere, as was seen in the last film. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda is usually able to make his films energetic, colourful, humorous, and emotional, but he misses the mark here. He may have not been assisted by the script, though, as it was the first and only work in the series by Yoshi Hattori (who did not write many other film scripts).

 

I see three possible reasons for why this film is such a contrast. First, the filmmakers knew a TV series was going to shortly follow (from 1974 to 1979), so they were not too concerned if fans were going to be unhappy with this instalment. Second, the film series was abruptly halted (perhaps from falling audience numbers), and the TV series may have only been agreed to as an alternative. Third, the dark, violent and more adult content of the last film could have been frowned upon by Toho, and so something much more toned down was made next. However, this entry still feels like a missed opportunity, especially when Shimura and Eiji Okada (another jidai-geki star) are not used to their full potential.

 

Despite my impression of this film, there is still more to look forward to. One day, I hope to be able to track down all of the TV episodes (and please let me know if anyone knows how best to get hold of them). But next will be Katsu’s final film in the franchise, before I explore other attempts to re-capture the spirit of the initial series…