Sunday, 16 March 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Tale of Zatoichi Continues
(Kazuo Mori, 1962)

It seems that the runaway success of Kenji Misumi‘s Tale of Zatoichi took executives at Daei studios by surprise back in 1962. When ‘Tale of Zatoichi Continues’ hit cinemas barely six months later, it clocked in at a mere 73 minutes, reusing many locations, sets and actors from the first film, and basically bearing all the hallmarks of a quickly rushed out sequel.

Despite the film’s brevity and sometimes obvious lack of resources and shooting time however, director Kazuo Mori nonetheless does a sterling job here, turning in a movie that, if perhaps not quite the equal of Misumi's film, still puts an original enough spin on the material to make for similarly rewarding viewing.(1)

For one thing, ‘..Continues’ is a far more frantic, action-packed adventure than its predecessor, and if it lacks something of the first film's elegiac tone, well, it also gets through more bloody sword battles in it’s opening ten minutes than 'Tale..' featured in its entire duration, so, y’know – swing and roundabouts.

That’s not to say that Mori simply falls back on violence to disguise a lack of depth however, and, aided by another script from Minoru Inuzuka, he deserves credit for taking what could have merely been a crowd-pleasing, chanbara slash ‘em up and investing it with an even more doomed and conflicted emotional weight than Misumi’s film.

Before all that gets underway though, we’ve got a lot of, well… shenanigans, more or less… to enjoy. The film begins with Zatoichi happily asleep in the prow of a ferryboat in his fetching old lady head-scarf, when the boat is unexpectedly commandeered by a gang of yakuza. Annoyed by this interruption, Ichi manages to silently steal their leader’s sword and slash his face with it before he is unceremoniously pushed into the river. Returning to his slumber as he dries out on the riverbank, he is saved from the gang’s subsequent wrath by the intervention of another fugitive swordsman with a strangely familiar look about him.

Wondering into the nearest town oblivious to the confrontation that went down whilst he was asleep, Ichi is engaged in his capacity as a masseur by an emissary of a high-ranking Edo aristocrat. When he gets to work on his new client however, it turns out that the man is clearly insane, or else has succumbed to some kind of chronic mental deficiency. Unperturbed, Ichi departs through the back entrance with his modest pay packet, only to immediately find himself challenged by a trio of well-dressed samurai. Turns out that the aristocrat’s retainers don’t much like the idea of a humble masseur spreading rumours about their master’s condition, and have sent the boys out to shut him up permanently. Well, Ichi reflects sadly as the samurai lie dead at his feet ten seconds later, if they wanted me to keep quiet, they could have just asked nicely. Instead they sent out the swordsmen, so what’s a guy to do?

Whereas in the first film, Ichi was reticent about engaging in conflict, and largely avoided being drawn into it, here he seems to get into trouble wherever he turns, and, with yakuza and samurai already turning the town upside down in search of him by the end of the first reel, he retreats to the comfort of a friendly inn, only to find his troubles deepening even further.

Whilst sipping his sake in a quiet corner, Ichi gets to know a working girl named Setsu (Yaeko Mizutani) who seems to have taken an immediate shine to him.(2) Entering into a mood of reverie, he declares that Setsu reminds him very much of a lady named Ochiyo, the former love of his life, who some years earlier was stolen away from him by another man, a rogue whose duplicity during their ensuing confrontation was responsible for causing Ichi's blindness.

Following this surprisingly casual info-dump of back story, things become tense – to say the least – when it becomes clear that the man who stole Ochiyo from Ichi is actually also present at the bar, and also competing for Setsu’s attentions. Yes, it’s that same mysterious warrior who protected Ichi back at the riverbank. Apparently he is a notorious bandit, on the run from the law along with a craven sidekick... and he does have a *very* familiar caste to his features.

From here, things begin to crossover with the events of the first film to a considerable extent, as it turns out that Ichi is returning to the district where the events of ‘Tale..’ took place, to visit the grave of the slain samurai Hirate a year after his death. Before long, the ever-multiplying mob of bad guys with a grudge against our hero have teamed up with the treacherous yakuza boss whose forces Ichi reluctantly led to victory in the first film, meaning his gang is consequently on his tail too. (This diversion also allows Otane (Masayo Banri), heroine of the first film, to reappear for a slightly pointless but nicely played cameo that sees her now engaged to a local carpenter, but still weeping over her missed chance with Ichi.(3))

As all interested parties proceed to converge upon the shrine where Ichi is busy paying his respects, an obligatory showdown seems inevitable, but, of course, the presence of that mysterious bandit will lend proceedings a far greater significance than that of our hero just swatting a few top-knotted flies...

Though a tad rushed, perhaps a bit more hit n’ miss it it’s cinematic style than it's predecessor, and riddled with minor inconsistencies, ‘..Continues’ nonetheless remains a powerful and involving business, elevated by a heavy dose of personal history and fateful conflict, and driven forward by excellent performances from Katsu, his real life brother Tomisaburô Wakayama (um.. spoiler-alert?), and Yaeko Mizutani, all of whom rise above the material at hand to deliver a substantial emotional wallop in places.(4)

All the action is a lot of fun too of course – effectively staged by Mori with much use of many intricately planned, low and high angle ‘battlefield overview’ type shots - but on the whole ‘..Continues’ remains a very downbeat film, low on comic relief and full of petty frustrations that boil over into a thoroughly doomed fugue by the time we reach the final reel. Ichi’s grief at the death of his brother (um.. double spoiler alert - sorry..) is genuinely harrowing, an incredible feat of physical acting from Katsu, but an extremely rushed ending with a confused, fatalistic tone rather dilutes the overall impact, leaving us feeling a bit disconnected from the apparently pointless pain and strife we’ve just witnessed, memories of the touching companionship we witnessed during Ichi’s scenes with Setsu long gone as our man ploughs on blankly through his allotted menu of carnage.

Far from the abstract, ‘Man With No Name’ type hero we might have naturally expected him to become, Zatoichi has actually acquired a pretty extensive back story by the end of this instalment, with a mysterious lost love, a tragically slain brother, several ongoing friendships, innumerable grudges and the continued affections of several living women all casting a shadow over his immediate future. The abrupt splice cut that prematurely ends the film doesn’t allow him his traditional ‘walking into the sunset’ moment, but even if it did, Ichi would still have exited this film as a man with a lot on his mind, the blood he has been obliged to spill over the course of the preceding seventy minutes having done little to resolve his troubles, or anyone else's for that matter.


(1) Like Inuzuka and Misumi, Mori was another industry veteran, having directed his first film in 1937. Unlike his venerable colleagues however, he appears to have kept up a frantic film-making schedule through the sixties, turning in about 4 or 5 movies a year, including two further Zatoichi instalments, before slowing down (or at least moving to TV) at the start of the ‘70s.

(2) Though this was Mizutani’s only appearance in a Zatoichi film, her other credits include ‘Oban’s Dripping Contest’ (1961), ‘Hero of the Red Light District’ (1960) and ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death: Hell is a Woman’ (1965), all of which I mention solely because I enjoyed typing the titles so much.

(3) Could the apparent propensity of all women who cross Ichi’s path to fall head over heels for his charms be pointing the way toward an ongoing series of egocentric, Bond-style seductions in future instalments? Only time will tell, but I kinda hope not.

(4) Though he sits very much in his Katsu’s shadow here, Wakayama went on to match and arguably surpass his brother’s fame (in the West, at least) thanks to his starring role in the legendary ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series (1972-75) – a series that sits roughly midway through the actor's impressively vast catalogue of Japanese genre movie appearances, which stretches from 1955 right through to his death in 1992. He returned to the Zatoichi series once more, playing a different character (I assume?) in ‘Zatoichi And The Chest of Gold’ (1964).

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