Sunday 23 November 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Adventures of Zatoichi
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964)

Arriving at a remote market town a few days before New Year’s Eve with the intention of watching the first dawn of the new year from the summit of a nearby mountain, Zatoichi regrettably finds his social skills stretched to breaking point as he attempts to deal with a disorganized rabble of supporting characters who between them seem to represent all of the various archetypes we’ve seen in the series thus far.

In no particular order, we have a sister pining for her brother (an exiled village leader who has just escaped imprisonment), another woman searching for her long lost father, a corrupt magistrate and his toadying local gang boss who are busy exploiting the local market traders with unfair taxes, a pair of lovable orphan acrobat kids, an obligatory surly lone wolf sword-master out for Ichi’s blood, another somewhat shabbier low rent ronin who’d prefer to keep out of his way if possible, an irascible drunk who may or may not be Ichi’s own long-lost father, and even a few guest-spots for a traditional comedy double-act whom one assumes must have been quite popular in Japan at this point.

Perhaps annoyed by the fact that none of this lot seem able to pull together much in the way of a compelling central storyline between them, Ichi patiently waits it out for eighty minutes then hits the bad guys’ HQ and arbitrarily kills a bunch of people before finally getting to enjoy his bloody sunrise in peace.

By this point, it would seem surplus to requirements to write a great deal about this rather middling entry in the Zatoichi series, whose Japanese title literally translates as the slightly more exciting-sounding “Zatoichi Storms the Government Checkpoint”. Basically I think, the problem here lies with scriptwriter Shozaburo Asai’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to plotting, and director Yasuda’s corresponding failure to really get to grips with the resultant dangling plot threads, or to figure out where to best concentrate his efforts, resulting in a sense of inertia and vague pointlessness that permeates the whole movie.

There seems to be some sort of vague theme of parental responsibility and the search for absent fathers running through the various storylines, but the film fails to really develop this is any satisfactory manner, and the sub-plot about Ichi finding echoes of his own father in the town drunk seems like a slightly cynical tug at the audience’s heart-strings, even if strong performances from the players concerned ensure that it plays out fairly well.

On the plus side, production values here are, as ever, top notch, with a bold new orchestral score from Taichirô Kosugi standing out, and intermittent examples of some of the most vivid photography yet seen in the series (which is saying something). Crowd scenes are rich with detail and incident, and the film gives us a nice glimpse into the traditions and good cheer that surround New Year’s celebrations in Japan, even if the set-bound nature of much of the action is regrettably obvious in places.

Shintaro Katsu is on fine form as usual, even if he does seem to be more or less treading water here, failing to really push the limits of his character the way he did in the last few films, and elsewhere, highlights come in the form of some superbly choreographed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sword exchanges between Ichi and the wolfish ronin, with some classic Zatoichi visual gags incorporated into the fight scenes. Real laugh-out-loud stuff, even if the “Ichi cuts stuff in half and nobody notices” trope has just about been milked for all its worth by this point.

At the end of the day, even lesser Zatoichi installments still make for fine entertainment, so I don’t want to rag on this one too harshly. At best, it has a kind of cheery “comforting communal viewing” feel to it, making it the sort of thing I can imagine going down very well on festive TV schedules over in Japan, but, well – as far as the wider series goes, it ain’t a stand-out, let’s just leave it at that.

Functioning as a kind of “new year’s special”, presumably planned to cash in on that season’s big movie market in Japan (damn, I should have reviewed it next month), ‘Adventures..’ (I really want to call it “Zatoichi Storms the Government Checkpoint”) marked the end of a phenomenally busy year for the franchise. Next month, we’ll be striding boldly on into a bright new 1965, with Akira Inoue’s ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’, which debuted in April of that year.

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