Wednesday 5 August 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966)

After the promising upswing in quality evidenced by the thoroughly decent Zatoichi’s Vengeance, I’m afraid we’re back on the ropes here with another muddled, underwhelming entry in the Zatoichi franchise, despite the presence of both a talented director and talented writer. (Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold was one of the most stylish and ambitious entries in the series to date, whilst screenwriter Kaneto Shindô hopefully needs no introduction as the esteemed director of ‘Onibaba’ (1964) and ‘Kuroneko’ (1968).)

We might speculate that ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’ perhaps suffers chiefly as a result of Daiei studio’s increasingly obstructive attitude toward their main cash-cow. There’s nothing very solid to go on when making such a claim, but… well, we’ll discuss it a bit later.

In the meantime, Shindô’s script as filmed here is, regrettably, what I believe could be termed “a right dog’s breakfast”. The film’s Japanese title translates roughly as ‘Zatoichi’s Sea Voyage’, and indeed both that and the English language title are at least vaguely accurate, as the story opens with an entertaining vignette in which Ichi tangles with an aggressive pickpocket during a coastal ship journey. Arriving at his destination, he kneels before the altar of a shrine dedicated to the Shintō god Kompira, once again vowing to renounce violence whilst he undertakes a pilgrimage to the 88 temples of Shikoku in penance for the lives he has taken in the past. (“You’re a god, so I hope you’ll understand”, Ichi says, addressing his chosen deity.)

For better or for worse though, the implications of all of this are forgotten almost immediately, as Ichi is forced to take down a would-be assassin he encounters on a bridge, and, following his assailant’s horse back to his home village, subsequently finds himself embroiled in the villagers’ territorial dispute with a tribe of mountain bandits. (Said horse’s ability to answer questions, express human-ish emotions and find its own way home alone perhaps suggests that Shindô wasn’t much of an equestrian).

Ichi soon finds himself doted upon by the dead man’s sister Kichi (Michiyo Ôkusu), leading to a romantic yet chaste flirtation between the two that takes up a great deal of screen time without really ever managing to establish the kind of palpable emotional connection between the two that made such melancholy encounters work so well in previous films.

Mostly then, it’s business as usual here, as things grind through what by now seems a thoroughly over-familiar series of events. In its final act, the film suddenly decides to pay homage to ‘High Noon’, as Ichi and Kichi frantically knock on the doors of the frightened and/or scheming villagers, trying and win their support before the bandits return to claim the village at sunset, but to no avail, leaving our hero to face them alone.

For several reasons, this final confrontation is quite poorly conceived, not least because the emotive idea of a lone man bravely facing down impossible odds is rather undercut by the fact that the man in question is the great Zatoichi, whom we have often seen single-handedly decimate far more powerful forces than that represented by the bandit chief’s few dozen guys, making the film’s attempt to sell us on the idea that they are going to wear him down and eventually defeat him somewhat unconvincing, and rendering Kichi’s desperate entreaties to the villagers both unnecessary and counter-productive.

In fact, when the village’s one able young man eventually comes to Ichi’s aid and dies immediately, his wholly avoidable death is basically Kishi’s fault – a fact the film’s script makes no attempt to address, despite its strict and simplistic moral code.

On the plus side though, Ikehiro once again proves himself a highly accomplished, if somewhat showy, director here, masterminding numerous bold and dramatic Spaghetti Western style shots and deep focus panoramas, some of which – such as the moment in which a horseman pauses on the ridge of a vast wooded canyon and observes Ichi making his way along a path on the valley floor hundreds of feet below - are pretty breathtaking.

The film’s bad guys are good too. Rough-riding cavalry specialists, they make extensive use of bows and crossbows, leading to much seat-of-his-pants arrow-dodging on the part of our hero. A welcome change of pace from the usual legions of yakuza toadies, these somewhat Viking-esque dudes also wear animal skins and enjoy sessions of garrulous boasting, slapping their naked bellies and chomping on chunks of barely cooked barbecued meat. (Upon being invited back to their hideout, Ichi humbly thanks them for “allowing me to experience many dishes with which I am unfamiliar”.)

I’m not sure whether these guys were meant to represent some particular ‘type’ common to the Southern island of Shikoku, but regardless, it certainly does the movie a lot of good to have them around.

As a result of all this, ‘..Pilgrimage’ certainly offers a lot of fun moments and memorable action scenes (especially during its first half), making it all the more disappointing that as it fails to really cohere into anything very satisfying. In fact, taken as a series of stand-alone ‘bits’, Ikehiro’s raw footage is often excellent, but unfortunately, the film bears all the hallmarks of a movie that has been badly abused in the cutting room.

On a number of occasions, scenes seem to end prematurely, awkwardly fading or wipe-cutting before whatever dramatic point they were intending to make has been fully established. In particular, the film’s final battle is sloppily paced, with awkward cross-cutting and at least one glaring continuity error, whilst the connecting tissue between different scenes and character encounters is often pretty ragged to say the least, giving the overall impression of a film whose central kernel has been removed, leaving the remnants feeling rather awkward and aimless.

It doesn’t help that veteran composer Ichirô Saitô’s score – a blaring, brass-heavy cacophony that distorts horribly through my TV speakers, even on this pristine Criterion blu-ray – is often used quite inappropriately, reaching its nadir during a light-hearted scene in which Ichi and Kichi go skinny-dipping together in an idyllic mountain lake; a beautifully photographed and potentially touching scene that is unfortunately rendered unintentionally hilarious through the use of tense music cues that seem more suited to a violent nocturnal ambush.

Writing in his monumental Gun & Sword (I don’t have to go to trouble of telling you to go and buy it by this stage do I?), Chris D. takes a far more positive line on ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’ than I have here, but, interestingly, he also casts some light on the possible reasons for the film’s deficiencies:

“Director Ikehiro explained in an interview that the big production boss called him and screenwriter Shindo on the carpet after reading the first draft, explaining that it was good, but that it was way too unorthodox for what was Daiei Studios’ main franchise. So they had to rewrite it a bit in a more conventional direction while still trying to take a somewhat different approach.” (p. 790)

From this, we can perhaps further speculate that when we watch ‘Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage’, we could be seeing a very different film from the one Ikehiro and Shindô initially intended to make. Certainly, there is little that strikes me as terribly “unorthodox” going on in the final cut, with the possible exception of the aforementioned editing mishaps.

Basically then, we can perhaps best chalk up ‘...Pilgrimage’ as a troubled production, the results of which poorly serve the ambitions of both scriptwriter and director, whether as a result of studio interference, unworkable time/budget constraints or some other combination of unguessable disasters.

For Shintaro Katsu’s part, he seems more on auto-pilot here than ever; though still a hugely likeable screen presence, he no longer seems even remotely interested in trying to push his character in any new directions. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, it is hardly surprising that Katsu only made one further Zatoichi appearance for Daiei (‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’, released in January 1967) before he managed to wrangle the character out of their hands, defying the expectations of Japan’s rigid studio system by taking on production duties himself, ensuring that the remaining films in the series saw the light of day as independent ventures, under the auspices of the star's newly formed Katsu Productions.

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