Thursday 6 February 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Tale of Zatoichi
(Kenji Misumi, 1962)

Like many other lucky boys of a movie nerd type persuasion I assume, I was overjoyed to find Criterion’s massive Zatoichi Box Set waiting under the Christmas tree back in December. And so, with something like 40 combined hours of blind swordman type action awaiting my attention, the least I can do to make such a grand investment worthwhile is to flex my (metaphorical) muscles and give the world a film-by-film run-down of this epic pop-cinema saga.

I first considered doing an update weekly, but, given the obvious limitations of my usual viewing / writing timeline, I thought that seemed a bit too ambitious, so a monthly post it is. If I stick to schedule, we should finish up some time around March 2016. Here goes…

The character of Zatoichi – a blind masseur of low social standing who achieved legendary status in the yakuza underworld of late Edo period Japan through his super-human skill as a swordsman – was initially sketched out by author Kan Shimozawa in a short story, dryly narrated in the manner of a historical chronicle, and first published in 1949.

When Daiei studios optioned the story for a film, assigning screenwriter Minoru Inuzuka and veteran director Kenji Misumi(1) to develop the property and casting regular contract player Shintaro Katsu in the title role, it is safe to say they had no inkling of the extent to which this character (and more specifically, Katsu’s personification of him) would strike a chord with viewers, turning Zatoichi into a bone fide pop culture folk hero who proceeded to bestride the big screen for a further fourteen years and twenty five films, before extending his adventures even further following a move to TV in the mid ‘70s. (Inevitably, the character has enjoyed intermittent spin-offs and revivals ever since, including Takeshi Kitano’s divisive reinvention of the franchise in 2003. He was last seen on-screen in 2010, in the reportedly disappointing ‘Zatoichi: The Last’, directed by Junji Sakamoto.)

Here is where it all began though, in a medium-budgeted period action programmer that initially seems very much influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s game-changing ‘Yojimbo’ (released the previous year), boasting a very similar plot set-up, in which an itinerant outsider of uncanny martial skill wanders into a rural area blighted by the conflict between two rival yakuza clans. Although Katsu’s Ichi quickly establishes himself as a more even-tempered and generally likeable protagonist than Toshirô Mifune’s gruff Sanjuro, the motivations of both films’ protagonists remain similarly opaque, with their acquisitive pursuit of money in both cases appearing to be a mere front for some unspoken moral imperative.

Unlike ‘Yojimbo’ though, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ is content to function merely as a reassuring popular entertainment, rather than as a self-aware, apple-cart upsetting critique of the form. The film’s opening scenes – full of blossoming trees, bountiful harvests and honest rural craftsmanship - create an intoxicatingly bucolic picture of feudal Japan that could scarcely be more different from the mud-choked hellhole of Kurosawa’s vision, and ‘Yojimbo’s bitter cynicism is in turn replaced here with the framework of a well-crafted genre potboiler – low on dirt and realism, even as its unconventional hero, whose very existence seems to stand in opposition to the authority invested in the Japanese caste system, seems to come straight from the more critical era that Kurosawa’s work helped usher in.

In many ways in fact, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ could almost be mistaken for one of the overly romantic, conformist period movies that Kurosawa conceived ‘Yojimbo’ as an enraged response to. But, crucially, it can’t quite be dismissed so easily. Kurosawa, as I understand it, was angered by the tendency of such films to irresponsibly glamourise the lifestyle of the 19th century yakuza, even as their modern day equivalents were busy wreaking havoc on the moral & social underpinnings of post-war Japanese society.(2) Whatever else you may say about it, that is certainly not a charge that could be levelled at ‘Tale of Zatoichi’.

In fact, the portrayal of the yakuza here is entirely in accord with that seen in ‘Yojimbo’, as both films present the prototype gangsters as deceitful, ugly, near sub-human figures, worthy of nothing but contempt as they exhibit constant stupidity and cruelty, basically carrying on like Orcs in a fantasy movie.

The difference though is that, whilst ‘Yojimbo’ often seems like a work of pure misanthropy, the strict good / evil dynamics of the formula world in which ‘Zatoichi’ takes place calls for a more balanced approach - a requirement the film deals with by establishing a clear ‘two tier’ system within the film’s cast, as characters are strictly divided between cowardly, self-serving blaggards (all of the yakuza), and decent, principled individuals whom Ichi can talk to and feel comfortable around – here represented by the consumptive Edo samurai Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), and Otane (Masayo Banri), the estranged wife & sister of a pair of particularly reprehensible yakuza rotters.(3)

The sharp division between these two ‘levels’ of characters, and the different ways in which Ichi deals with them (threatening and deceiving the yakuza, whilst approaching the ‘decent folk’ with an openness that encourages immediate friendship) actually becomes pretty amusing after a while, and soon causes us to realise that the to-ing and fro-ing between the rival clans (in theory the main dramatic arc of the story) is basically completely irrelevant – an ugly distraction from the more meaningful interactions between Ichi, Hirate and Otane, all of whom conduct themselves with great, tragic elegance, whilst the yakuza fall into the background behind them like squawking, squabbling children.(4)

The inclusion of these more admirable characters – each of them bearing a tale of woe worthy of an enka ballad – may be a clear melodramatic contrivance, but it nonetheless lends ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ a strong humanistic aspect that is decidedly lacking in ‘Yojimbo’s bleak milieu, making Misumi’s film, for my money, a more engaging and sympathetic viewing experience than Kurosawa’s, irrespective of its populist form.

Shintaro Katsu, for his part, adds greatly to the film’s up-with-people atmosphere, appearing to have stepped fully formed into his most famous role, immediately establishing Ichi (the ‘Zato’ part of his name is a prefix establishing the character’s blindness by the way - his name as used in the film is merely Ichi) as an extremely likable and implicitly trustworthy protagonist – the kind of guy you feel could happily steer an audience through twenty five subsequent movies, even if that wasn’t the plan at this early stage.

Katsu’s trump card is a kind of quiet charisma that establishes his authority by means of almost zen-like inaction. Though Ichi occasionally delivers heart-felt speeches outlining his outlook on life (the movie’s original title translates as “The Life and Opinions of Masseur Ichi”), such outbursts can’t help but strike me as slightly out of character, and it will interesting to chart the extent to which these ‘opinions’ continue to be an element of the series as it progresses.

The ‘blind man with preternatural senses’ shtick has of course been done to death, and chances are it was pretty stale even in 1962, but Katsu’s natural charisma helps render it both convincing and charming, as he not only sells us on his Daredevil-meets-Sherlock Holmes level of perceptive intuition, but also somehow succeeds in expressing all of the thoughts & opinions assigned to him by the script solely through his physical presence and body language. A pretty remarkable achievement for a performer who doesn’t even open his eyes until the movie’s last reel, and a quality that weirdly puts me in mind of John Wayne, even if the calming influence of Ichi is the polar opposite of the antagonism generally embodied by The Duke.

Basically, like so many other iconic cinema heroes, I think Ichi works best as a guy who only speaks when he needs to, and who ensures that we remain in awe of his deadly skills by demonstrating them only in the briefest and most concentrated bursts. (For instance, few of the characters here are inclined to mess with him after he demonstrates his ability to slice an air-borne candle in two with such accuracy that both sides continue burning – a good, non-lethal way for him to keep his life sedate for a fairly lengthy chunk of screen-time.)

Such an approach does render the first hour of ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ conspicuously low on action for what is ostensibly an action film, but when Ichi’s first sword battle does eventually occur, his confrontation with two assassins in a darkened forest is such a beautiful and brutal dramatic moment that it scarcely matters – a few seconds of choreographed slaughter that serve to put the preceding fifty minutes of build-up completely out of the mind of any over-anxious action fans in the audience.

In fact, the tone of the whole film seems informed by Ichi’s quiet humour and the contradictions that his way of life represents. Like it’s protagonist, ‘Tale..’ is fast-moving yet calm, funny without being whimsical, emotionally involving but rarely overwrought… and just a lot of fun to watch, basically.

Lent a further touch of class by Chishi Makiura’s often masterful black & white photography, ‘Tale of Zatoichi’ stands as a fine example of the romantic period yakuza film. Above all, it is a movie that is comfortable in its own skin, never seeking to challenge or upturn the conventions of its genre, but nonetheless doing all it can to create an impressive and memorable motion picture within those conventions. Even taken as a stand-alone item rather than as the genesis of long-running series, it is a great little movie, and it’s easy to see why it proved such a phenomenal success with audiences.


(1) Beginning his career as a director in 1956, some of Misumi’s more interesting credits include the kaidan item ‘Ghost Cat: Cursed Wall’ (1958) and four of the six entries in Toho’s famed ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series (1972-74). Inuzuka meanwhile has a set of directorial credits stretching back to the silent era, but seems to have largely retired by the time he went to work on Zatoichi. He contributed scripts to a number of subsequent entries in the series, but aside from that has no post-1960 credits on IMDB.

(2) Much can be said about the way that endemic corruption within Japanese institutions allowed the spheres of organised crime and legitimate business to cross over to an alarming and damaging extent in the post-war era. Speaking from a movie fan POV, many of Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘70s yakuza epics examine these issues in a way that Kurosawa might well have appreciated, if he hadn't become so sniffy about the violence & ‘negative influence’ of popular cinema by that point.

(3) Amachi is a familiar face to Japanese movie fans, having punched the clock for more awesome genre movies than we could possibly list here. Banri meanwhile went on to reprise her character in several subsequent ‘Zatoichi’ entries, so we can look forward to seeing more of her in future too.

(4) This demonstration of the futility of inter-gang conflict is of course an element that is carried across into any modern day yakuza movie worth watching (and indeed, any gangster-based crime story worth paying attention to anywhere in the world, more or less), but it is expressed with a particular directness and clarity here.


Kev D. said...

I gotta thank you for bringing the box set to my attention (I own the first eight from their original IFC DVD releases... the posters are still hanging on my cubicle wall)...

Looks like a nice box set. BUt now I'm gonna end up buying it and spending money... damn.

This movie rules. Great review.

Ben said...

Thanks Kev.

Yeah, it's an absolutely beautiful box set, top marks from me so far in terms of presentation, picture quality, attention to detail etc etc, and the design & artwork are lovely too. But yes... not cheap.

dwyermckerr said...

Seen them all and love them all but the first may well be the best. Still, must get this collection.