Monday 22 June 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Vengeance
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1966)

As observant readers may have noted, April and May saw my household taking a break from our monthly Zatoichi screenings, partly just to allow our enthusiasm to recharge a bit after a few slightly underwhelming installments (#11, #12). Predictably enough though, it wasn’t long before I found myself missing good ol’ Ichi-san pretty, and perhaps it was this sense of returning to a regular routine after the self-imposed break that helped make film #13, which marks the exact half-way point of the series, seem like the freshest and most satisfactory Zatoichi viewing in quite a while.

Originally released in Japan as ‘Zatoichi No Uta Ga Kikoeru’, which literally translates as ‘The Song of Zatoichi Can Be Heard’, this episode’s title could perhaps more accurately could be read as something like ‘We Hear Zatoichi Calling’. Not wasting time with any of that crap however, whoever who came up with the films’ English release titles cut to the chase and just went with ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ (not to be confused with Zatoichi's Revenge).

Basically, the success of ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ is due largely to the efforts the filmmakers’ take to reassert a sense of dramatic seriousness and moral conflict that more recent episodes in the series have conspicuously lacked. Hajime Takaiwa’s script may be built around a set of by now wholly formulaic plot elements (the struggling small town merchants being menaced by yakuza, the orphaned kid in search of a father figure, the brooding samurai with a chip of his shoulder, the broken-hearted maiden condemned to life in a brothel – all are present and correct), but nothing here feels like mere faffing about or narrative water-treading. Whilst there is little going on that we’ve not seen many times before, these storylines are all played out with an elegant, straight-faced simplicity that, as in so much of best Japanese popular story-telling, imbues their melodramatic form with real gravitas.

Zatoichi’s familiar robin hood act (taking the townspeople’s side against yakuza intimidation, etc) seems to have real purpose this time around, as, for the first time in a while, the villains are presented as a genuinely vile bunch – cruel, petty thugs whose bullying behavior actually makes us angry, rather than yet more faceless extra for Ichi to mow down amid some largely uninvolving inter-gang conflict.

More than just a triumphalist good vs evil beatdown though, the film follows the example set by some of the best early Zatoichi installment in taking the time to question the methods and motivations of our ‘noble’ characters, as embodied both by the conventional jideo-geki conflict faced by Shigeru Amachi’s samurai (which I won’t trouble you with here), and also, more interestingly, via a curious character referred to only as the biwa priest – a blind nomad who, after befriending Ichi on the road, essentially seems to function as a dark shade of our hero’s troubled conscience, dispensing fragments of pithy, oblique wisdom that cast doubt upon his violent way of life.

At first, the priest castigates Ichi for inadvertently corrupting the ideals of the local child who has adopted him as a father figure. Seeing the boy completely obsessed by his new idol’s slick swordsmanship after Ichi pulls a few tricks in non-lethal self-defense, Ichi accepts the priest’s point and suffers manfully through a grueling beating when he refuses to retaliate against the yakuza upon their next encounter. When he does finally give in and draw blood against the baddies though, the priest changes his tune and casually exonerates him, declaring that of course it is only human to fight back against such provocation. Well, demands a confused Ichi, should I draw my sword and take the route of violence or not? Both ways are correct, the priest informs him in full zen pomp, you simply lack the insight to comprehend it.

If all this sounds a tad pretentious, well, what can I tell you – within the context of the film, such musings actually work very well, and the priest, played by Jun Hamamura as a cynical, detached, slightly cruel counterpoint to Ichi’s clumsy, trying-my-best-to-do-the-right-thing benevolence, makes for an intriguing addition to the film’s cast of characters.(1)

Interestingly, the biwa hōshi represented by Hamamura’s character were a genuine part of pre-Meiji Era Japanese culture, their origins stretching far back into the nation’s history. A caste of usually blind musicians who seemingly adopted a persona somewhere between that of Byronic Romantic poets and nomadic zen monks, the biwa hōshi travelled the land dispensing lessons in selflessness and the contemplation of beauty via the recitation of epic ballads and histories, accompanying themselves via the ominous, droning sound of the four-stringed biwa lute (a harsher-sounding, more primitive precursor to the koto and shamisen of traditional Japanese music).

The scene in ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ in which the priest plays his biwa for Ichi whilst the two sit along in a forest clearing – building a slow, droning song of heavy resonance as Ichi listens out for any approaching attackers – is mesmerising, with the instrument’s thick strings and gigantic plectrum producing a dense pattern of sustained overtones that, to my cloddish Western ears, sounds like nothing so much as some kind of medieval doom metal. “You cannot play biwa if you just depend on the strings,” the priest tells Ichi after he breaks a string mid-performance, “and if you depend wholly upon that hidden sword, you will not live long”. Words for our hero to contemplate as he once again strides off into the sunset, amid a more melancholy and ambiguous conclusion than usual.

Tokuzô Tanaka, who previously directed the very good Zatoichi The Fugitive, does an excellent job here too, not only ensuring that the slightly more serious tone of the material is appropriately pitched throughout, but adopting a foreboding and stately pace that serves it brilliantly. Establishing shots and other wide-screen compositions are beautifully rendered by justly-celebrated DP Kazuo Miyagawa, whilst, in Tanaka’s hands, the obligatory fight scenes once again become brutal and exhilarating.

As in ‘..Fugitive’, Tanaka particularly excels at switching back to long shot during action scenes, maintaining the suspense and emotional engagement of his set ups from a greater distance than most action directors would be comfortable with, stressing the physical distances between his fighters and letting landscape elements add to the drama, making his brief returns to close-up all the more effective as a result.

Particularly impressive in this regard is the film’s central set piece, which is played in shadow puppet style silhouette on a narrow bridge, as Ichi’s opponents close in on him from either side, attempting to deafen and disorientate him using the clamour of the town festival's ‘thunder drums’. Of all the hare-brained schemes baddies have used thus far to try to take Ichi down, this I think is the most sensible, and also the most suspenseful for us as viewers. For all of the Zatoichi films’ many virtues, it is often difficult for the filmmakers to generate much excitement within the fight sequences whilst we know that our hero is basically invincible, so to realise here that Ichi is suddenly just lunging randomly, in great pain and unable to sense the enemies around him, is a real shocker that, few a few moments at least, makes us uncertain how things will play out.

As the nature of this finale suggests, ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ is also notable as one of the few films in the series thus far that really makes an effort to explore the nature of Ichi’s blindness on a level that goes beyond mere sight gags and comic misunderstandings. The importance of sound and music is woven into every aspect of the story, and it is their shared blindness that allows Ichi and the biwa priest to build a rapport around the shared experience of the world as revealed to them by their heightened sensory impressions; a development that adds significantly to the reality of the film’s drama.

Throw in yet another epic original score from maestro Akira Ikufube and the return of the always excellent Shigeru Amachi – who memorably played Hirate in the very first Zatoichi film – as a slightly more convincing rogue samurai than usual, and we’re left with the reassuring feeling that the series is really cooking with gas again here.(2) Definitely the best entry since the films hit double figures, ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ is an example of popular chanbara film-making at its finest, and here’s hoping that Kazuo Ikehiro can manage to maintain this standard for film # 14, ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’, which debuted only three months after this one in August 1966.


(1) Yet another celebrated character player with more notable credits to his name than you’ve had hot dinners, Hamamura (1906 – 1995) appeared in Kon Ichikawa’s revered ‘The Burmese Harp’ (1956), Kurosawa’s ‘High and Low’ (1963) and Masaki Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’ (1964) amongst others…. not that that stopped him also earning a crust in ‘Watch Out, Crimson Bat!’ (1969) and turning up as “public official” in Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodthirsty Doll (1970).

(2) Interestingly, a quick scan of IMDB reveals that Amachi, in addition to roles in numerous iconic chanbara productions, was actually also a bit of a “horror man”, appearing for director Nobuo Nakagawa in ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1959), ‘The Vampire Woman’ (1959), and the epic ‘Jigoku’ (1960). Happily for us Euro-horror buffs, he also turned up years later in Paul Naschy’s bonkers Japanese co-production ‘The Beast With The Magic Sword’ (1983).

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