Saturday 28 June 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi on the Road
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963)

A brief pre-credit sequence in this fifth Zatoichi instalment has Ichi performing a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ set – using his hearing to identify the sound of a crooked dice, splitting candles in two and effortlessly slaughtering a bunch of random guys. “Help, it’s Zatoichi!” shouts one of them, signalling the start of the first entry in the series in which our hero seems to have become a widely known (and widely feared) celebrity within the films’ world.

As the story proper begins, Ichi is already being courted by the emissary of a nearby gang boss who wants a word with the famous swordsman. “I won’t fight or perform sword tricks… but I do appreciate fancy meals”, he says, apparently enjoying the attention.

Not everyone is yet aware of his unbeatable rep though, and Z is soon involved in a skirmish with a gang of sword-for-hire samurai goons who have been hired to kill him for a rival gang. When the bodies have fallen to earth a few seconds later, the emissary Ichi was accompanying is dead, and he is instead left facing Ohisa (Reiko Fujiwara) - the wife of one of the slain men, and an independent and cynical woman who appears suspiciously unmoved by the death of her husband. Allowed to depart unharmed by the ever-courteous Zatoichi, she is soon in cahoots with the lower level fixer who hired the Samurai, intent on getting one over on Ichi and making some cash in the process.

Meanwhile, our hero soon has his sword out yet again, after his path is blocked by a dying elderly man who begs him to find and protect a young girl entrusted to his care. Discovering the girl in question (Shiho Fujimura) cowering in a shack in the woods, Ichi is incensed when he learns that she has incurred the wrath of a local daimyo by stabbing him with a hairpin when he tried to rape her. “There’s no one worse than a samurai”, spits our favourite mass-murdering yakuza, before he commences cutting a path through numerous of the lord’s retainers on his way to deliver the girl – who is the daughter of a wealthy Edo merchant, it transpires - to safety.

By now, the patterns that will presumably define future Zatoichi films are beginning to solidify, and this one is the first that feels like a mere routine genre caper, rather than functioning as an independently compelling drama. Rather than managing to become an engaging character in her own right (as previous female leads have, however conservative the role of women in these stories may be), the fugitive girl never amounts to much more than a pure macguffin, being passed back forth between the squabbling factions like a bag of gold.

And, rather than the conflicted and anguished character we’ve encountered in previous instalments, Zatoichi here spends most of his screen time as the confident, invincible good guy, wading into a mess of contrived potboiler plotlines and efficiently sorting them all out in a satisfactory and morally upright manner. A simpler vision of the archetypal pulp hero, with his moments of rage and weakness emerging more from Shintaro Katsu’s characteristically intense performance than from any prompting in the script.

Much as Kenji Misumi’s original Tale of Zatoichi riffed heavily on ‘Yojimbo’, so ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ seems to return to Kurosawa for inspiration, as scenes in which Ichi traverses hostile territory with the girl in tow can’t help but recall similar moments in ‘Hidden Fortress’, whilst the conclusion offers another fairly obvious variation on that of ‘Yojimbo’, with Ichi playing back-and-forth games with two rival gangs on the long, narrow main street of a seemingly empty town.

For the first time since ‘Tale..’, Ichi can also be seen here bargaining for his martial services (his price is 30 gold coins in case you were wondering – perhaps another nod to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro?), and at times here he seems to be actively enjoying the yakuza conflicts he is embroiled in – a contrast to the disdain and disinterest his character usually expresses for such fussing and feuding.

More interestingly, ‘..on the Road’ also gives us the first instance in the series of a female villain, with an enjoyably ballsy performance from Fujiwara, whose scheming and acquisitive Ohisa offers a refreshing contrast to the gentle paragons of virtue who have made up the female cast in previous instalments. (I also found it amusing that Ichi doesn’t seem quite sure how to deal with this turns of events; his self-imposed code of honour forbids him from killing a woman, so instead he has to content himself with just shouting at her and shoving her around a bit in the hope she’ll go away.)

The visuals here tend to fall back a bit on the gloomy, slightly unconvincing sets of film #3, and the production generally lacks the vibrant colours of film #4, but nonetheless, these Zatoichi films are always nice to look at, and Akira Ifukube again raises our spirits with some excellent music, using themes that are perhaps more dissonant and shamisen-heavy than his earlier Zatoichi scores. The supporting cast is extremely likeable in this one too, with a fine array of craggy faces and cackling cronies livening up the ranks of yakuza, and the simpler, more stream-lined action movie plotting rattles along nicely, providing a welcome break from the more convoluted digressions that occasionally bogged down the preceding films.

Unfortunately though, a chambara film lives or dies by the quality of its final battle, and the one here proves a bit of a damp squib, especially in comparison to the spectacular climax of ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’, which immediately preceded it. I mean…. it’s still an *ok* samurai showdown, with Ichi indulging in almost as much mass slaughter as in the previous film, but it just feels a bit static and unexceptional. Despite aping ‘Yojimbo’, Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s functional direction never really rises to the challenge, and the backlot ‘main street’ set looks conspicuously clean and artificial, lending a bit of a hokey “b-western” feel to proceedings - a world away from the mud, blood and dust of the Kurosawa set-pieces that so obviously inspired it, or indeed the rich and detailed production design seen in ‘Tale of Zatoichi’s concluding gang war.*

Whilst ‘..on the Road’ may be the weakest Zatoichi we’ve encountered thus far though, it should be stressed that it’s the loser in an extremely strong field, and that it still stands tall as an effortlessly entertaining genre movie with verve and character to spare, even if, unlike its predecessors, nothing in it really lingers long in the mind after viewing.

Looking forward to films #6, #7, #8 and beyond, I find myself wondering to what extent the series will tend to follow the pattern set by this one, drifting into a rut of formula pictures, and if so, how long it will take before some more enterprising writer or director steps up to kick things back into gear. Well, if you’ve bothered reading these reviews up to this point, I’ll assume you’re in for the ride along with me, and, given that even a comparatively minor entry like this one still provides a thoroughly satisfying evening’s viewing, I don’t anticipate *too many* bumps on the road ahead. ‘Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold’ hit screens in March 1964; it will hit my eyes soon, and should hit this blog sometime in July, gods willing.


* A pretty ubiquitous director at Daiei through the ‘60s up to the studio’s bankruptcy in 1971, Yasuda helmed, amongst other things, both sequels to Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s The Great Yokai War, the studio’s historical kaiju movie ‘Daimajin’ (1966), four more Zatoichi films, two ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures, and another Katsu vehicle, ‘Hoodlum Priest’ (1969). As such, I think it’s probably safe to say we’ll be meeting him again on this blog before too long.

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