Wednesday 1 October 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

N.B. As observant readers will have noticed, my attempt to write about one Zatoichi film per month has slipped up a little during this summer’s regrettable posting collapse. Thankfully though, this delay has occurred at about the point when, having hopefully got to grips with the basic tenets of the series, it seems to make sense to move toward shorter, more capsule-style reviews, meaning that, hopefully, I’ll be able to throw in at least one additional review in October or November, getting us back on schedule before the end of the year. So that’ll be a big weight off your mind, I’m sure.

One result of the relentlessly prolific pace with which genre films were produced in Japan in the mid 20th century is the common phenomena of two entries in an ongoing series being made back-to-back by the same (or very similar) cast and crew, presumably working to a single, fixed budget and schedule. Sadly what often tends to result from this scenario is that the first film consumes the lion’s share of the time, enthusiasm, ideas and money, whilst the second limps out shortly afterwards looking like a bit of an afterthought - the work of exhausted filmmakers pushing to get another movie finished using whatever leftovers remained from the first production. (For a textbook example of this, see the vast difference in quality between Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter and the concurrently shot Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo.)

I can’t guarantee that is what happened with the two Zatoichi films directed by Kazuo Ikehiro in 1964, but we can at least float it as a possibility, given that, in comparison to the frankly magnificent Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold, ‘Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword’, released four months later, is somewhat underwhelming.

Basically, this is the closest thing we’ve seen so far to a completely formulaic, business-as-usual Zatoichi picture, featuring a simplistic, pre-‘Yojimbo’ “goodies vs baddies” style plot set up that demands little in the way of engagement from the viewer, either emotional or intellectual. A tale of Zatocihi wading into a conflict between rival yakuza gangs over a valuable river-crossing concession as preparations for a big annual firework festival take place in the background, this seventh entry in the series is briskly and competently directed with the usual top notch photography and original music, but unfortunately it displays little of the admirable style and audacity that Ikehiro brought to ‘..Chest of Gold’.

In particular, I was disappointed by the fact that the whole story seems to be setting things up for a dramatic final battle taking place against the backdrop of the firework festival – which is surely the perfect excuse for an amazing and memorable sequence, right, especially in the hands of the director who worked such wonders on the preceding film..? The usual dazzling swordplay played off against the flashing lights, shadows and blinding primary colours of the festival, with booms and crashes filling the sky all around? This is gonna be awesome, surely.

Well, sadly, it never materialises, as the film instead goes for a low-key and rather perfunctory ending that sees Zatoichi casually slaughtering a few legions of yakuza within a cramped corridor set, before the film ends abruptly with our hero gloomily contemplating a head wound he received when the bad gang’s boss threw a brick at him. The long-promised fireworks meanwhile remain at a distance, visible to us only via a few bits of haphazard stock footage. A potentially great moment lost to budget and time constraints perhaps..? Who knows.

On the plus side though, this is still, as ever, wholly satisfactory entertainment, as watchable and accomplished as you could wish of a formula genre picture, with some solid fight scenes, likeable comedic shenanigans, plus plenty of the usual beautiful rural locations, fine turns from a handful of seasoned character players, and, best of all, Shintaro Katsu having just as much of a ball as usual, giving yet another rousing demonstration of how Zatoichi ended up becoming such an indelible folk hero of mid 20th century Japan. Most of the best moments in ‘..Flashing Sword’ are those that find Katsu riffing on some new variations of the gentle physical comedy skits and ad-libbed philosophical asides that help make Zatoichi an even more noble and lovable hero with each passing movie. A real giant of the Japanese screen and a uniquely compelling performer, my admiration for Katsu-san grows with each film I see him in, and the thought of spending another twenty five hours (approx) of screen-time in his presence over the coming months pleases me greatly.

Though it was the least satisfactory entry in the series thus far, it is a testament to the sheer level of quality maintained by these films that when I think back on my viewing of ‘Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword’, it still seems like a more rewarding experience than that provided by, say, about 90% of other, non-Zatoichi-related films I’ve seen this year.

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