Thursday 31 July 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

The first of four Zatoichi films released in 1964, ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ opens with an emblematic combat sequence staged against a black studio background, with our hero dispatching a small army of anonymous opponents in a manner reminiscent of ‘technique demonstration’ openings that later became a staple of Chang Cheh’s ‘70s kung fu epics. As it turns out, this striking introduction foreshadows the bold, pop-art-inflected style that characterizes much of director Kazuo Ikehiro’s first Zatoichi assignment, doing a great deal to liven up what might otherwise have been a fairly routine addition to the series.(1)

Once again, we meet Ichi here as he trudges toward some remote locale to pay his respects at the grave of a man he inadvertently killed a year earlier. Before he gets there though, he is reluctantly drawn into a wonderfully joyous rural festival. Initially steeling himself to silently pass by, our hero finds his feet involuntarily tapping to the beat, and before we know it, he’s caught by the boogie, enjoying the hospitality of this community of impoverished hill country farmers, and even taking his turn beating the festival drums, adding yet another skill to his impressive repertoire of hidden talents as he grins serenely at the sounds of celebration around him, temporarily at peace with the world.

Once Ichi eventually reaches the grave that ostensibly brought him to this area, we are for the first time able to actually place a Zatoichi adventure within a historical timeframe, as he reads aloud the inscription on his victim’s headstone. Add a year to the no doubt accurate Westernised date given in the subtitles of this Criterion edition, and we can pin the events of ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ down to 1843, whatever good that may do us.

For any Japanese history buffs in the audience, I guess it will prove helpful in determining whether or not the epic battle that we subsequently see recounted in flashback is meant to represent an actual historical conflict. Either way, it’s a startling accomplished sequence, presented entirely in slow motion with all the mud, blood and chaos of a Kurosawa set-piece, as Zatoichi, apparently skirting the edges of the conflict, accidentally cuts down the fleeing soldier he is now mourning.

As is often the case with these films (and ‘60s chambara/yakuza films in general), much of what follows as Ichi becomes involved in the furore surrounding a misappropriated chest containing the farming community’s tax payments may strike Western viewers as rather meandering and overly complex, with more characters and competing interest groups than are really necessary for such a caper, and little to really hook us into the unfolding drama.(2) Such drawbacks (if indeed you see them as such) eventually matter little though in the face of some of the most kinetic and thrilling filmmaking the series has seen thus far – for that is where the meat here really lies.

If preceding films in the series have essayed a gradual shift from character-based drama to more generic, action-movie plotting, then ‘..Chest of Gold’ takes this trend one step further. Whereas in Zatoichi On The Road, the female lead was used as a macguffin to drive things forward, here the scriptwriters do away even with that pretense altogether and have the characters chasing hither and thither after an actual chest of gold, whilst Zatoichi operates in full-on invincible hero mode throughout, his occasional moments of pathos and catharsis arising solely from yet another brilliant performance by Shintaro Katsu, whose highly physical and apparently impulsive acting style by this stage seems to supercede the need for any prompting from the script.

From what little I’ve read about Katsu’s personality, it seems that these kind of earthy, crowd-pleasing action movies were very much to his taste, so who knows, maybe a pure entertainment like ‘..Chest of Gold’ spurred him on toward an even greater level of gusto than usual? Anyway, the star’s exuberance is more than matched by the talent behind the camera, as Ikehiro frequently goes all out with dramatic, gliding camera movements, elliptical cutting, extreme high and low angles and blurry ‘motion’ effects, creating an almost cartoon-ish sense of fast-moving mayhem that nonetheless slows down to allow for some wonderfully lyrical passages of cinematic imagery, as an array of unusually good sets are matched up with real rural locations, allowing DP Kazuo Miyagawa to create some of the most beautiful cinematography yet seen in the series. No small boast, given how exquisite some of the preceding films looked, but no surprise either really, given that Miyagawa had already manned the camera for such storied figures as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirô Ozu.(3)

The fight choreography also takes a real step up in this installment, as Ikehiro and ‘fight scene director’ Shôhei Miyauchi orchestrate skirmishes that are more bloody, convincing and sustained than anything we’ve seen previously, making a deliberate effort to overcome the “Zatoichi spins round, everybody dies” cliché with a more dramatic and fragmented approach that both reflects the prevailing influence of Kurosawa and Kihachi Okamoto and also preempts the emerging aesthetic of the spaghetti western with its use of crash zooms and similar visual ‘full stops’. This comparison is further emphasised by Ichirô Saitô’s music, which, though it can’t compete with Akira Ifukube’s wonderful scores for previous installments, nonetheless comes across as appropriately brash, with mariarchi-like volleys of brass perfectly complementing the breathless pace of the action.

Stand-out scenes come thick and fast through the first two thirds of the film, but perhaps the most impressive is the mid-movie set-piece that sees Ichi going off-road as he retreats from Kunisada’s mountain hideaway (see footnote # 2) with an orphaned child strapped to his back, breaking through the line of lantern-bearing swordsmen who are hunting down the outlaws. This sequence has a real epic feel to it, with the jagged angles of the forest scrubland and the bright, moving lanterns combining with exceptionally good night-for-night photography (or a creditable set-bound approximation thereof) to great effect. One particularly stunning establishing shot shows us a bucolic, moonlit landscape looking toward a line of distant, rolling hills across a lake, empty and silent. Returning to the same shot a few minutes later, we see the glowing orange lanterns of the soldiers stretching out across the far side of the lake in a long line, heading toward our hero and his allies. Incredible stuff.

Zatoichi’s main opponent in ‘..Chest of Gold’ is a scarred, whip-wielding warrior played by Katsu’s real-life brother Tomisaburô Wakayama, who is deliberately made up to ensure that he looks very different from his previous appearance as Ichi’s brother in Tale of Zatoichi Continues. A preliminary encounter between the two in a gambling house proves another of the film’s highlights, with the not inconsiderable macho swagger of the pair and Ikehiro’s bold cutting and framing again serving to raise what could have been a wholly routine Zatoichi scene into something far more memorable, as Wakayama’s character clears the table and challenges Ichi to cut a coin in half in mid-air.

The brothers’ inevitable climactic duel proves a slightly awkward adjunct to the movie proper, appearing as it does after all the major plot threads have all been neatly tied up and the farmers’ tax money returned, but, although fought for no other reason than to satisfy the fighters’ egos and the viewers’ expectations, it is still an enjoyably unconventional take on the usual samurai showdown, with Wakayama charging into view on horseback, initially snaring our hero with a rope and dragging him through the dirt – an image that once again brings us back to the inadvertent spaghetti western comparisons.(4)

Whilst ‘..Chest of Gold’ certainly packs in everything contemporary viewers might have expected of a Zatoichi movie though, it also introduces a few additions to the formula that might have taken fans aback a bit. In particular, we’re treated to a few scenes of surprisingly bawdy humour, one of which sees Ichi inexplicably popping up from beneath the water whilst a lady is taking a bath, whilst a later scene finds him being discretely ‘serviced’ by a rather unattractive prostitute (the joke being that Ichi, as a blind man, is unable to object to her physical appearance, despite repeatedly making jokes about how bad she smells).

As you might well imagine, this is all a lot saucier than anything we’ve seen in series thus far, and it could easily have proved rather puerile too, were it not for Katsu’s natural charm and comic timing, which serves him especial well here, making these awkward encounters somewhat more forgivable than the Benny Hill-esque disgraces they might have become in the hands of a less capable actor.

In fact, women are sidelined pretty much entirely in ‘..Chest of Gold’, with the aforementioned comedy scenes representing Ichi’s only real interactions with the fairer sex, thus making this the first Zatoichi film that doesn’t even try to develop any compelling female characters.

The ballsy female outlaw character portrayed by Reiko Fujiwara in the previous film must have gone over well with audiences, because another variation on that character appears here (she’s the lady Ichi surprises in the bath), but sadly she doesn’t get to do much, and recieves very little screen-time. The same can be said of the entirely unremarkable ‘virtuous sister of the man Ichi slayed’ character, who seems to exist solely to make Ichi feel a bit guilty in the film’s first half, and to dutifully receive the returned gold at the end.

The fact that Ichi, who has previously been so impeccably chivalrous in his romantic conduct, ends up knocking about with a prostitute (albeit inadvertently) says much about the extent to which the emphasis of the series has shifted since the rather dour and high-minded tone of the first few installments, and a brief but unmistakably salacious torture scene further suggests that ‘..Chest of Gold’ drifting closer than ever to the realm of pure exploitation.

I must be starting to sound like a stuck record when it comes to writing the concluding paragraphs to these Zatoichi reviews, but, whilst I ended last month’s post prophesizing that the level of quality maintained by the series couldn’t possibly last, I’m happy to report that the search for a Zatoichi movie that is anything less than wholly satisfying viewing continues apace. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that ‘..Chest of Gold’ was one of the best ones yet. In terms of storyline, it may be the silliest and least substantial Zatoichi yarn to date, but for pure entertainment and visual spectacle it’s hard to beat – a witty, fast-moving genre flick with great action, bold direction, superb cinematography, surprisingly elaborate production values and a hell of a good showing from Katsu. Top stuff, to coin a phrase.

Ikehiro was back at the helm for ‘Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword’, which hit cinemas a mere four months after this this film’s release, in July 1964. Can one of the distinctive directors on the series to date make it a double KO? Here’s hoping.


(1) Beginning his directorial career at Daei in 1960, Ikehiro already had ten features to his name before ‘..Chest of Gold’, and he continued to direct prolifically for the studio (including work on two more Zatoichi’s) until its collapse in 1970, after which he went free-lance for a few years before, sadly but inevitably, making the move to TV, where he worked until his apparent retirement in 2003.

(2) A particularly confounding moment for non-Japanese viewers to get their heads around here comes when Ichi visits an exiled bandit leader played by Shogo Shimada. The excessive length of this meeting, the fealty our hero pays to Shimada, and the level of melodramatic emphasis given to a situation that seems largely irrelevant to the film’s central plot – all of these things struck me as pretty inexplicable, until I learned (courtesy of Chris D’s write-up in Gun & Sword) that Shimada’s character is actually Chuji Kunisada, “the famous yakuza Robin Hood”, a well-known folk hero who has appeared in dozens of kabuki plays and movies. Of course, if I'd been paying attention, I would have recalled that Chuji's exploits were recounted in a song performed during the festival sequence at the start of the film, but regrettably, I'm an idiot. Anyway, domestic audiences would no doubt have been well aware of Chuji's legend, and thus prepared to treat the meeting of Kunisada and Zatoichi with appropriate gravitas.

(3) Seriously, check out this guy’s CV. I’ve not done the math, but I bet he appears on the credits of more Criterion-released / Sight & Sound-listed films than anyone else who ever lived.

(4) Though comparisons to spaghetti westerns are inevitable when Western viewers come up against films like this one, we should bear in mind that they are of course totally inappropriate, given that, by my reckoning, ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ was in cinemas cinemas before ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ even began shooting. And, given that film’s obvious debt to the Japanese tradition, it should be pretty clear which way the general path of influence was travelling in this period, even if the vast majority of chambara and yakuza films never made it beyond Japan.

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