Sunday, April 19, 2009

Zatoichi-fest 2009!! A.K.A. "In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king"

Zatoichi, mildly put, is a story about a blind masseur who turns out to be a master swordsman who kicks many different levels of ass for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed and for great justice. I just had to put in that last line.
Perhaps you’ve already watched the 2003 remake with Takeshi Kitano, and that one was quite a good film with swordplay, cross-dressing geisha and tapdancing! A jidaigeki film with tapdancing!? WTF, right? Many people might not have seen the other films, including a 26 movie series starring the legendary Shintaro Katsu, so I offer to you a few short reviews of a number of the original Katsu films, a 2008 remake and something a little extra.

1) The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari)
Scenario: The blind masseur Zatoichi is embroiled in a struggle between two warring factions. He wants nothing of it, of course, but fate conspires to entangle him in the conflict, as another strong ronin arrives at the village with motives of his own.

Comments: This is the first Zatoichi movie, and it is quite different in tone from the other movies. However, this movie establishes most of the plot devices seen in the other films: Zatoichi winning a ton at gambling due to his superhuman senses, him helping out the local townsfolk with their respective problems, and a climactic battle at the end. The action may not be as frenzied as the other movies (and here, there are only two real fighting/action sequences) the real draw of the movie comes from the character Ichi himself. As much as this movie pays attention to the other background characters, this movie is about Ichi himself (we’ll talk about this later in the other films.) This is a man who has acquired unrivaled skills, but does not want to use his skills for killing. The tone is quite serious compared to the other films as well as most of the drama going on.
Stuff: There’s no “swish” sound effect as Zatoichi cuts through his enemies. This is something that gets added on in the later movies of the series. That still doesn’t take away from the fact that he moves so fast sometimes that in the blink of an eye the sword is back in the sheath. Pretty kick-ass.
Rating: I’ll give this one 3.5/5 Katsus

2) Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (Zatoichi Senryo-kubi)

Scenario: After paying his respects to a man he killed (not really his fault,) Zatoichi comes to a town whose townspeople are celebrating because they just paid their taxes. However, thugs then steal said taxes, throwing the said town into one big SNAFU of epic proportions. Of course they blame the blind guy for it. Add a samurai with a whip (!!!) and some other yakuza who want to kill Ichi, and we have this movie.

Comments: This is an entertaining entry in the Zatoichi series, filled with the lightheartedness, kickassery and general frenzy that accompanies the best of the entries in the series. Here, Zatoichi is more a force of nature that passes by the village, and the real focus is in the characters that he meets and changes (or kills.) There isn’t a lot of development for Ichi himself, other than that he is a kind, honorable soul that only hates injustice. The intro sequence is pretty awesome too.
Stuff: Jushiro, the aforementioned whip bearing samurai, is none other than Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu’s real life brother and star of the later Lone Wolf and Cub films. There was one point in the film when he fights with a katana that I could have sworn he was channeling a little Ogami Itto in there.
Rating: I’ll give this one 3.5/5 Katsus too.

3) Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (Zatoichi Abare Tako)
Scenario: After being shot by some unscrupulous gentleman, Zatoichi is saved and cared for at an inn, with all expenses paid for by a mysterious benefactor. He decides to repay this person’s kindness by… er… living in this person’s house and doing stuff for them. Turns out this benefactor is the daughter of a local kind yakuza boss, whose river transport business is in danger of being taken over by a stuttering evil yakuza boss. Eventually, another SNAFU of epic proportions ensues. Throw in some fireworks at the end too.
Comments: This is one of the more action packed, plot-light Zatoichi movies. Again this portrays Ichi as a destructive force of nature and the focus is placed on the secondary characters and their individual motivations, although action is the focus of this one. Ichi may seem harmless, but when he kicks ass, he kicks ass. It also features a great fight scene at the end with excellent use of lighting as Zatoichi fights his way like through 50 men in a darkened hallway. IMO one of his best fight scenes at this point in time.
Stuff: It must have been a doozy transporting people by lifting them over your shoulders…
Rating: For the Action alone, I’ll give this one 4/5 Katsus.

4) Fight, Zatoichi, Fight
Scenario: Assassins are after Zatoichi. During one of their assassination attempts, a woman is killed in Ichi’s place, leaving behind a young boy. In her memory, Zatoichi then decides to take the boy to his father in a far province, while killing his assassins around. A pickpocket then joins in the fun at the middle, and at the end, everything is not what it seems to be as everything heads toward a great finale.
Comments: IMO one of the best Zatoichi movies. This movie is more a character study of Ichi himself. At points in the film a procession of the blind reminds us that Zatoichi’s journey is like a pilgrimage, although the intent and the destination are unknown, if any exists at all. Here the focus is on Ichi with a little on the pickpocket he saves. For the first time he is given the temptation of living a more normal life, or at least someone tangible to love in the form of the little boy. He seriously contemplates this at many points in the film, but in the end he realizes that his pilgrimage is one that he must make alone. These scenes, rife with symbolism, make it awesome for me. Aside from the usual Zatoichi staples, the movie diverts a little from the usual formula, along with a few twists towards the end. Add a number of really kick-ass action sequences (changing diapers and killing assassins at the same time? Is there anything more rife with kickassery?) and it makes for one of Ichi’s best adventures of the 26 movie series.
Stuff: This movie was directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed the first film.
Rating: This one deserves 5/5 Katsus.

5) Ichi (2008)
Scenario: Ichi, a blind shamisen player, comes upon a town in search of her father, a certain blind swordmaster (wink.) She then comes across two warring factions of thugs/yakuza, a ronin who cannot draw his sword, and other shenanigans.
Comments: First of all, let’s get something out of our chest.

Ayase Haruka.
Mmmmmmm. Okay. Take it in slowly. Now back to the comments. Wait, no. Let’s look at that a bit longer.
Okay. Ichi, directed by Ping Pong’s Fumihiko Sori, can either be considered a remake or a spiritual sequel to Zatoichi, this time using a cute girl as the titular ass kicking blind swordfighter. The movie contains the usual Zatoichi staples (gambling, helping people, SNAFU at the end) but inherently, compared to the Kitano remake and the Katsu film series, this film is more similar to the very first movie of the series (see above.) Some shots and scenes are very similar to the first film, and the serious/tragic atmosphere lacks the general wackiness/fun of the later Katsu films or the Kitano remake. Instead, the film is more of a meditation on the Zatoichi mythos as it is a reconstruction of it. Here is a young soul who is conflicted between good and evil, and torn between being apathetic to the world around her and finding a friend.
Lots of Ping Pong alums return to the film including a wildly overacting Shido Nakamura (the villain guy, forgot his name) to Yosuke Kubozuka (Peco), who plays the leader of one of the factions. Ayase Haruka does well as a cool yet conflicted, silent Ichi, nothing at all like the bumbling, he’s-humble-but-can-cut-off-your-head Ichi, which may be a plus or minus to you. Plus she’s cute. Nothing beats that.
Standing by itself, Ichi remains a decent film that I’d recommend, but compared to the many films of the series, it lacks a certain warmth the other films have.
Stuff: Ayase Haruka. Yep.
Rating: Compared to the others, I’ll give this one 3/5 Katsus.

6) Zato Duling: The adventures of the cross-eyed swordsman
LOL!!!!! No, this isn’t a joke. This was a Filipino spoof movie made in the 60’s. (They made tons of those I reckon.) Although I’ve only seen parts of it, it is (IIRC) the origin of the old joke about the Japanese Samurai, the American Samurai and the Filipino samurai. The fly cutting thing that the joke was based upon may have been inspired by a sequence in Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. You might come upon this somewhere in Cinema One or something. Watch it I guess.


I'll give this one square root of -1 Katsus just for the LOLZ.

And that wraps it up for Zatoichi-fest 2009! Will there be a sequel? Knowing me, probably not, but who knows?