Thursday 10 April 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
New Tale of Zatoichi
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1963)

Hitting Japanese cinemas in March 1963, the third Zatoichi film saw the series moving to colour for the first time, with a suitably heroic new main theme from the legendary Akira Ifubuke pointing the way toward a new identity for the character as the star of a successful, ongoing franchise.

Brighter colours and rousing music haven’t done much to lighten the load of the emotional baggage we left our hero carrying at the end of the previous film however, and only five minutes into this one, he’s already weeping, having been forced to needlessly slay a gang of young warriors out to avenge the boss he killed in the last film, setting the scene for another tragedy-laden instalment, in which Zatoichi’s anguish about his past life choices and the unending cycle of violence in which he is caught up informs the whole of the narrative.

Drinking in an inn with a childhood friend (a poverty-stricken itinerant musician, on the road with his young family) shortly after this initial confrontation, Ichi is already rueing his decision to take up swordsmanship in the first place. “I did things I shouldn’t have done, cut those I shouldn’t have cut”, he muses, establishing a tone that is even more deeply melancholic than his previous adventures, if such a thing is possible.

Before that though, we have at least a few moments of jollity and good cheer to enjoy. Settling into what was already becoming his best-loved role, Shintaro Katsu’s charisma is certainly firing on all cylinders here, in spite of his character’s remorseful mood. Visibly delighted at the chance to catch up with his old buddy, it’s only a matter of minutes before he grabs his friend’s shamisen and knocks out a few verses of what seems to be Zatoichi’s new theme song!

Suitably doleful in tone, the lyrics of this composition largely seem to concern his financial situation, but, somewhat in the manner of a delta blues singer, Katsu’s haunted, world weary delivery imbues the material with a heavy depth of meaning lurking just below the surface, earning Ichi an immediate round of applause from the Inn’s patrons… just before a gang of black-masked bandits burst in, and his cycle of troubles begins again.

Actually though, Ichi’s handling of this particular situation provides a good model for how he might begin to escape his blood-soaked wheel of karma. Mutely submitting to the robbers’ demands so as not to imperil his fellow drinkers, the next morning finds Ichi dragging the ne’erdowells out from their yakuza hideout like naughty school boys, publically shaming them for their conduct in front of their gang boss, who obliges them to return with interest the money they stole from the destitute travellers lodged at the inn. Thus, justice is served, villainy is punished, and Ichi’s credentials as a champion of the people are reasserted, without a drop of blood being spilled. If only it could always be that simple…

‘New Tale..’s main plot-line hoves into view shortly thereafter when another confrontation between Ichi and the would-be revengers on his tail is disrupted by the intervention of none other than Ichi’s *sensei*. Yes, that’s right, the man who taught our invincible hero all he knows about the way of the sword, no less.

Those who were a bit put out by the second film’s weight of back story will be further disconcerted here, as Ichi accompanies his teacher Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu) back to his training academy in Ichi’s hometown, where a warm welcome awaits him. (1) He even finds him to visit his grandmother, for goodness sake! But, as always, a mass of new trouble and moral dilemmas await him.

By this stage in the series, we know very well the value Zatoichi places on loyalty and friendship, and how fervently he respects those he considers his friends . But, unfortunately for our hero’s sensitive nature, it is gradually made clear to us viewers that the venerable Banno-san is actually a bit of an underhanded fellow on the quiet – a real jerk, you might even say. He is heavily involved with some sinister covert dealings involving large sums of money, a kidnapping scheme and a gang of renegade samurai, and… well in short, things aren’t looking too good at Ichi’s alma mater, to be honest.

Ignorant of these goings-on though, our hero is busy reacquainting himself with the sensei’s beautiful and demure young sister Yayoi (future series regular Mikiko Tsubouchi ), who of course throws herself at the blind man almost immediately, declaring her undying love for him in much the same manner that every pure-hearted woman he has thus far encountered in the series seems to have done. (2)

This time though, perhaps reflecting the longer time they have known each other, Ichi is sincerely moved by Yayoi’s feeling for him and agrees on the spot to marry her and settle down, furthermore vowing upon his life that he will forthwith become an honest and peaceful man, abandoning his ties to the yakuza lifestyle and rejecting the way of the sword. Katsu’s performance here is, as ever, is very affecting, but oh dear, given that there are still twenty-plus blind swordsman adventures yet to come, we can probably see where this is going, can’t we? Shall I start the clock to see how many minutes of screen-time his heartfelt oath of non-violence lasts..?

Well actually, he makes a pretty credible effort over the next half hour, in spite of the heavy odds laid against him. First off, when the mismatched couple announce their wedding plans to Yayoi’s brother, be proves to be a right sod about it, ranting and raving, revoking Ichi’s status as his star pupil and hurling all sorts of insults around re: the masseur’s lowly status, before throwing him out of his house for good and refusing to let him say goodbye to his betrothed.

Ichi’s vow of non-violence also holds firm through what to me is definitely the stand-out scene in this film- the wonderful (and indeed, bloodless) confrontation that ensues when Ichi and his future bride come face to face with the brother of that dead boss from the earlier film, still determined to get his revenge. I won’t bother outlining in words what transpires when, instead of drawing his sword, Ichi merely kneels before his attacker awaiting the death-blow, but it is a beautiful little scene that symbolises the very best of the ‘honour and humanity’ ethos embodied by these ninkyo yakuza films.

The more brutal logic of the martial arts / chanbara film is also very much in play though, and setting Zatoichi up in direct conflict with the guy who taught him his skills is of course a classic move within the genre; a fool-proof way of maintaining dramatic tension after two and a half films in which we’ve basically established that our hero’s near-superhuman abilities allow him to kill any regular opponent in three seconds flat. For all of this story’s more high-minded ideals, I’m sure the folks in the cheap seats were well-aware of what they paid their money for, and a suitably gruelling master vs. pupil showdown between Ichi and Banno is clearly on the cards.

Perhaps on this film’s original release there might have been at least some impressionable viewers still wondering whether Zatoichi would manage to uphold his vow and settle down to live a peaceful life with his young bride, but, fifty years down the line, modern viewers can well assume that they didn’t make another twenty movies about Shintaro Katsu hanging around his homestead growing cabbages, and I’m sure I won’t be spoiling anything by telling you that the film ends exactly as you’d expect it to, with a bereft Yayoi standing alone amid a forest clearing full of slain yakuza, her dead brother in the centre, as Zatoichi marches forlornly into the foggy night. “Miss, I guess I am just that kind of a man” he concludes before turning away in shame, resigned to his fate.

Another handsome looking production from Daiei studios, ‘New Tale..’ brings an earthy, subdued colour palette to the Zatoichi series that seems to emphasise the character’s lowly social standing, conveying a deeper feeling for rural Japanese life than many other period genre films, in spite of a few instances in which studio sets are clearly used as stand-ins for exterior locations.

Director Tanaka proves himself a solid hand on the tiller even if he doesn’t quite match the sense of visual drama that Mizumi and Mori brought to the proceedings, and overall the film is another highly entertaining business, lovely to look upon, always watchable, and well played, with Ifubuke‘s remarkable score adding a pretty epic feel in places.(3) It suffers somewhat in the script department however, with poor pacing and a lot of largely inconsequential toing and froing padding things out and rather diluting the central dramatic arc. Perhaps it could have benefited from a shorter run-time, ala film # 2, but nonetheless - during its best scenes at least, ‘New Tale..’ is a match for anything that came before, following the example of its predecessors in weighing down our poor hero with more emotional turmoil than a normal man could bear.

By the end of this instalment, Ichi has found and lost happiness, regained and destroyed his honour as a respectable citizen, and lost his respect for a friend father figure whom he has subsequent killed with his own hand. With all the grief and regret he has piled up over the past three films, it’s a wonder Ichi hasn’t packed it in and settled down with his cabbages by this point, wife or no wife. But whether he likes it or not, the franchise must roll on, and a mere five months later he was back in cinemas in ‘Zatoichi The Fugitive’, which seems appropriate.


(1) A prolific character actor and instantly recognisable ‘face’ for Japanese movie fans, some of Kawazu’s more notable credits include parts in ‘Mothra’, ‘Yojimbo’, Shôhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’, Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Tattooed Life’, Kinji Fukasaku’s excellent ‘Japanese Criminal Gangs: Boss’ and Norifumi Suzuki’s astounding ‘Sex & Fury’.

(2) It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film either way I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely that the 50-something Banno would have an 18 year old sister, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it have been easier all round for the script to make her his daughter, or is there some sort of culture-specific element here that I’m missing..? If not, maybe we can just put it down to another example of the weird minor inconsistencies that seem to frequently pop up in these Zatoichi scripts…

(3) An extremely busy director of action and chanbara pictures throughout the ‘60s, Tanaka handled two more Zatoichis, a few ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures and numerous sequels to Yasuzô Masumura’s 1965 yakuza/war film ‘Hoodlum Soldier’ (also starring Katsu), amongst others. In the ‘70s he moved over to TV, where he picked up a yet more work from Katsu-affiliated franchises, directing numerous episodes of both the ‘Zatoichi ‘and ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ TV series. He also made a pretty fun-sounding horror film – English title ‘The Haunted Castle’ – in 1969; now added to my “must track down” list.

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