Saturday 24 May 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi The Fugitive
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1963)

For an itinerant blind man who has presumably spent the majority of his spare time achieving his uncanny mastery of swordsmanship, Zatoichi sure has a lot of hobbies, and carries a wide variety of talents up his sleeve. Whether in the field of massage, music or fishing, he’s already proven himself a force to be reckoned with, and now ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’ begins with our man cheerfully entering a sumo wrestling championship, where of course he embarrasses the local contenders by beating all comers and walking away with the prize.

As usual, this gets our hero in hot water, and he only discovers that a yakuza gang who were rigging the matches have put a price on his head when an inexperienced young warrior turns up to try to kill him for the reward money. Regretful as ever at having been forced to slay this young lad, Ichi sets out to find the boy’s mother, so as to atone for his actions.

Turns out he needn’t have bothered: the dead warrior’s mum is a thick-skinned brood mother to the local yakuza, who takes her son’s demise in her stride (“he was always useless son”, “at least he died honourably..”, etc.), leaving Ichi temporarily hanging around in a town that, whilst it may seem bright and happy on the surface, is absolutely riddled with unsavoury underworld intrigue.

Even the owners of the inn in which Ichi is staying are a yakuza-affiliated family who used to run a profitable gambling joint, until their allegiance to a ‘banished’ former gang boss saw them knocked down from their lofty position, and forced instead to run a humble guesthouse as the father covertly plots his patron’s return. Further straining the already tense atmosphere, Otane (Masayo Banri), Ichi’s sweetheart from the first film, is staying there too. Turns out she didn’t marry a quiet carpenter after all - in fact her husband is Tanakura (Jutaro Hojo), a surly, ill-mannered ronin with a drinking problem and bit of a Mifune kinda look about him. Oh dear.

Trapped again in very much the same situation she was in when we encountered her in Tale of Zatoichi, poor Otane is deep into her doomed Enka singer victim trip by this stage. “Being a woman is a serious business”, she laments, “blowing in the wind from one man to another”. This being a chambara / ninkyo yakuza film, such expressions of doomed fatalism send just as clear a message regarding her likely fate as a soldier in a war film showing off pictures of his family back home before going into battle.

Though the plotting here is just as convoluted, digressive and downbeat as director Tanaka’s earlier New Tale of Zatoichi, ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’ is nonetheless a far brighter and more visually appealing film than its predecessor, with dazzlingly bright blue skies and picturesque summer landscapes accompanying hearty scenes of rural summer festivals and associated merry-making. Chishi Makiura’s cinematography is, as usual, first class, and the whole movie captures the atmosphere of a sweltering June day perfectly. The title sequence alone – in which Ichi trudges into town, wiping his brow, before getting mixed up in the crowd at the sumo tournament – is assured and iconic filmmaking of the highest order, with Akira Ifukube ‘s music further adding to the sense that whatever happens here, we’re in safe hands.

Less satisfactorily, ‘..Fugitive’ is also the first of the Zatoichi films that fails to really reel us in with a big, emotional hook that directly affects our hero’s future, and, in the absence of such an anchor, things quickly become pretty vague and confusing as the various plot elements pile up, and I confess that I rather lost the thread of what was going on through much of the film’s middle section. Why for instance does Ichi, who is as yet not formally involved in the local gangs’ disputes, choose to march into the gang bosses’ big pow-wow and make a scene, right after Otane’s surly samurai husband has just done the same? Well, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, so perhaps it’s best just to go with the flow and enjoy Katsu’s characteristic grand-standing, regardless of the narrative purpose it’s supposed to serve. (The skit he pulls off here with a dice and a flask of sake is a hoot – one of the series' best swordplay stunts to date.)

Amongst other interlinked diversions, Ichi spends a lot of time here looking after Boss Sakichi, a gormless youngster who has been forced against his will into gang leadership, helping the craven youth both his yakuza business and his love-life, and in the process fighting an initial duel with the glowering Tanakura – a hair-raising skirmish that sees the samurai actually succeeding in landing a blow on Ichi, cutting his cheek; a shocking event, given our hero’s usual invincibility, and a sign that he has found another worthy adversary.

Meanwhile, Onobu (Miwa Takada), the inn-keeper's daughter and subject of Sakichi’s affections, takes Ichi to the location of her family’s old gambling house – a beautiful river-side ruin, apparently shot on a genuine location, that goes on to provide a memorable setting for the film’s closing battle.
And speaking of which, well, let’s put it this way: if the first hour or so of ‘..Fugitive’ seems like pretty standard Zatoichi business, make sure you stay tuned for the finale, because it’s a real doozy - probably the most astonishing (and violent) extended sequence we’ve seen in the series thus far.

A frantic and chaotic confrontation, with many volatile elements in play, this showdown begins with Ichi cornered in the ruined house along with the craven child-boss Sakichi, the furious Onobu, and the kidnapped Otane, whilst big, bad boss Toru Abe’s swordsmen, including a sniper with a rifle, mass outside, and Otane’s vengeful samurai husband lurks in the sand dunes, determined to have another crack at taking down the legendary Zatoichi.

This tense siege culminates in the samurai’s shocking slaying of his wife Otane as she begs him not to go after Ichi – a horribly cruel move aimed solely at drawing Ichi out from his hiding place, a goal in which it succeeds admirably. Upon being informed of what has happened to the woman he once loved, Ichi totally loses his shit in a manner we have never before witnessed up to this point, ploughing into the assembled yakuza like a whirling dervish, killing dozens of men and leaving the landscape scattered with corpses in a frenzied, cathartic rampage.

When he eventually reaches Tanakura, the two men’s final battle becomes a real gritted teeth business, the filmmakers milking the tension for all it’s worth, as the combatants are convincingly presented as an even match. Anyone looking for a clear demonstration of the extent to which duels in samurai films influenced the equivalent scenes in Spaghetti Westerns will find all the evidence they need here. For a moment, when Ichi is pushed to the ground, his sword broken, it even looks like he might be a goner. Of course, he isn’t, but the fact the film can make us think that, even for one gasping moment, is quite an achievement.

In his dying breaths, the cruel samurai bad-mouths Otane, saying that it was her idea to set a trap for Ichi and claim the bounty on his head, trying to besmirch Ichi’s memory of her forever. Are his words truth or lies? With both parties dead, we will never know, but the sentimental Zatoichi is buying none of it. “Otane was a beautiful person!”, he shouts at his opponent’s corpse before walking away.

After this exceptionally grim yet fiendishly gripping finale, ‘Zatoichi The Fugitive’ ends, rather incongruously, with a cheesy, upbeat closing scene that sees our hero bidding farewell to the survivors of the conflict, placing Onobu’s hand in Sakichi’s and wishing the couple a happy future (the young boss’s craven treachery apparently already forgotten), before he makes his usual exit, this time laughing heartily, and even performing a merry folk dance as he skips off happily down the road.

A strange ending, but perhaps one reflecting the fact that, in spite of the cruel and unnecessary death of a woman he loved and his ensuing instigation of a crazed massacre, this film has seen our hero relatively unscathed by the kind of emotional apocalypse that the scriptwriters put him through in previous instalments. Well, either that or he’s just getting used to it I suppose. Whatever the case, he was actually allowed a surprisingly long time to catch his breath before ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ hit cinemas over a year later, in October 1964.

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