Monday 23 November 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi’s Cane Sword
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1967)

As regular readers will no doubt have noticed, I’ve fallen off the wagon somewhat with my monthly Zatoichi reviews this year; partly a result of unavoidable busy-ness, but to be honest, the last few uninspiring installments in the series have not really inspired me to get a move on either. If I’d kept to schedule, we should really be finishing up this series in about February or March 2016, but as it stands at the moment, we’ve still got ten movies to go. So, buckle up – it’s time once again to hit the dusty streets of some beatific Edo Period backwater, and I promise that this time, I won’t keep you long.

Film # 15, Zatoichi Tekka Tabi (‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’), released in Japanese cinemas in January 1967, marks an important sea-change in the Zatoichi series, being the last installment directly produced by Daiei studios. One of the biggest players in Japan’s post-war studio system, Daiei did at least continue to distribute the next few Zatoichi films after Shintaro Katsu took the series under the wing of his newly established Katsu Productions, but one assumes that the gradual loss of revenue from their biggest cash-cow inevitably took its toll on the struggling studio, whose slate of period melodramas and traditional/folk entertainments must have been looking increasingly old-fashioned by the late ‘60s, contributing to Daiei’s declaration of bankruptcy in 1971.

As the last blind swordsman adventure before this (arguably quite timely) changing of the guards, one might well expect ‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’ to be a rather underwhelming affair, but, happily, it’s actually a rather energetic and enjoyable entry – perhaps even a slightly great one.

Having said that though, I confess I watched it without taking notes, and couldn’t really come up with a great deal to say about it, so we’ll keep this review short.

Basically: there is little about ‘Zaotichi’s Cane Sword’ to really set it apart from the rest of the series. All the the things we have come to expect by this point are present and correct, and all are run through with a fair amount of good natured gusto. Once again, there is a picturesque small town under the heel of a craven yakuza boss and corrupt politician. There are sympathetic local characters in need of help, hospitable local inns and wilful young ladies in beautiful kimonos, along with assorted thugs, goons and moody wondering ronin. There are inventive set-ups for altercations at gambling houses, sword tricks, duels and chaotic battles, and plenty of intrigue and eccentricity along the way.

Director Yasuda proves deft at wrangling these familiar elements into a movie that is colourful, fast-moving and about as ‘upbeat’ as can reasonably be asked of a story that features a large number of people getting slaughtered in sword-fights. There is even a bit in which Ichi inexplicably performs a strange musical comedy routine about duck hunting to a small crowd of other characters; a diversion that will perhaps make more sense to those familiar with obscurer traditions of Japanese folk entertainment than it did to us.

What the film lacks though, at least for those of us who have made it through the preceding Zatoichi adventures, is a sense of anything remotely innovative, challenging or note-worthy - but it’s all such fun that it’s hard to hold that against it really.

Probably the most memorable story element this time around involves Ichi’s encounter with a master swordsmith (played by Eijirô Tono, a familiar face to anyone who recalls Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’). Now effectively retired (reduced to crafting the occasional hoe or pick-axe, by his own admission), this chap is actually the son and protégé of the legendary smith who forged Zaotichi’s own blade no less, and, when he asks if he can have a look at this singular example of his father’s workmanship, he has bad news for our hero.

After years spent dispensing a quantity of carnage equivalent to that of a small army, Ichi’s blade is in a perilous state. The swordsmith identifies a hairline crack within the metal, meaning it will be good for only one or two more strikes before it shears in two. Disheartened, Ichi temporarily leaves his sword at his new friend’s workshop, only later returning to reclaim it when his tussles with the local goons begin to get hairy. Meanwhile however, the film’s bad guys have also been putting pressure on the noble swordsmith, forcing him against his will to secretly complete work on a pristine new masterpiece blade for their villainous boss…. and if you can’t immediately figure out how this plot line is going to resolve itself in the final showdown, well, maybe you’ll enjoy ‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’ even more than I did.

I hope readers won’t think I’ve done this particular installment an injustice by turning in such a brief review. As I say, I enjoyed it a great deal. In fact it is a nigh-on perfect example of the finely tuned mass entertainments at which Japan’s creative industries excelled through the mid 20th century – exquisitely crafted, visually enthralling, effortlessly entertaining, and entirely disposable to the extent that there is basically very little to say about it to an audience already familiar with the general pattern of such stories.

Perhaps the whole ‘new blade’ storyline could be read as a coded reference to the new production regime that was on the verge of taking over the by now venerable series, but possibly that’s just overthinking things. Either way, ‘..Cane Sword’ certainly makes the grade as a worthy and affirmative farewell to Zatoichi’s Daiei years, and I look forward to discovering what new twists were added to the formula once Katsu himself took the helm from Film # 16 onwards.

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