Tuesday 20 January 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Revenge
(Akira Inoue, 1965)

Like the preceding Adventures of Zatoichi, Akira Inoue’s ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ (whose Japanese title translates as the rather more specific ‘Zatoichi’s Two-Cut Sword Style’) adds nothing new to the series by now thoroughly established formula, as Ichi, wandering once again into a remote town where he spent a lot of time in his youth, discovers that his beloved massage teacher has been murdered as part of a nefarious plot to force his virtuous daughter, along with those of the other townsfolk, into prostitution at the local magistrate-endorsed brothel.

The elements are all here: another slimy, toad-like magistrate and oyabun duo to be taken down, another surly, ultra-skilled ronin lining up to take a crack at the great Zatoichi, and various likeable everyday folks in need of a helping hand.

Unlike the equally formulaic ‘Adventures..’ though, ‘..Revenge’ does at least proceed with enough verve and style to overcome its routine plotting to some extent. In his only entry in the series, little known director Inoue handles things with a great deal of energy, mixing extensive handheld camerawork with strong, dramatic compositions, whilst Akira Ifukube’s rollicking, Spaghetti Western-esque score is, as ever, hugely enjoyable.

(Once again, I’m a bit reluctant to start pulling Spaghetti Western comparisons in these reviews, given the rather complex tug of war that was taking place between the Eastern chambara and Western, uh, western genres during the 1960s, but the prevalence here of flamenco guitar flourishes and brooding brass alongside extreme eye close-ups, tense stand-offs, dramatic, tinted flashbacks to past events and visual storytelling involving significant close-ups of coins and medallions etc. etc. – all of this will likely flash viewers in the Western hemisphere straight back to the same year’s ‘For a Few Dollars More’, a comparison that we can reasonable assume to be more the result of accident than design, given the embargo placed on Japanese distribution of the ‘Dollars’ trilogy by Kurosawa's legal challenge to 'Fistful..'.)

Whereas Leone always seemed rather contemptuous of the ‘everyday folk’ supporting characters in his films though, they are by contrast the heart and soul of most Zatoichi adventures, and the main thing most viewers will take away from ‘..Revenge’ is a remarkable performance by comic film & TV actor Norihei Miki, who absolutely steals the show here in the role of Denroku the Weasel, a wiry, booze-addled card sharp torn between loyalty to his scumbag employers and his more noble aspirations to aid Ichi in sorting them out and to keep his own daughter out of their clutches.

Building a complex and hugely likeable individual out of what seems like only a very sketchy script outline, Miki proves himself a masterful character actor here. As Chris D. sagely notes in the booklet accompanying the Criterion box set: “Miki was an actor who, like Katsu, was able to incorporate unforced humour into his performances, keeping the silly and the obvious out and embodying real people”. Straight talk as ever from Mr D.

Also of note in ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ is the inclusion of some slightly rougher, exploitation-ish business than usual, introduced via the forced prostitution storyline. Though extremely mild in comparison to the hair-raising excesses that began to consume Japanese popular cinema a few years later, the scenes here of women being imprisoned, beaten and leered at by the baddies are still nearer the knuckle than anything we’ve seen in previous Zatoichi adventures. (In regard to this, it is perhaps worth noting that Inoue, moreso than some of the other Zatoichi directors, seems to have been primarily an exploitation man, with several women’s prison movies gracing his relatively brief filmography on IMDB.)

And… that’s about all I can find say about ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ to be honest, except to once again state that by this stage in my viewing, even a mid-table Zatoichi flick like this one is as comforting as a plate of hot toast and a pot of tea. And, as with plates of toast and pots of tea, I find myself immediately looking forward to the next one: that being Kazuo Mori’s ‘Zatoichi & The Doomed Man’, which saw release in Japanese cinemas in September 1965. See you then!

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