A few weeks ago, just after I had finished up my comments on Woman in the Dunes, I checked my spreadsheet to see what was up next in my Criterion chronology. The next title in bold letters (indicating my ownership) was The Naked Kiss, but I also noted that Fight, Zatoichi, Fight was on the list in fuschia letters (indicating that the film had been announced but was not yet available for purchase.) Since I knew that the massive 27-disc box set release of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman was practically imminent, I decided to suspend work on this blog until I had the glistening new behemoth in my hand and could give the eighth installment in this series of twenty-five films a proper review. That definitely slowed me down here, but the respite did give me a chance to work on a few other things, most notably the resumption of my Eclipse Viewer podcast with an episode focusing on Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin, which I recorded with a new co-host, Trevor Berrett. I also took some time to watch the first seven Zatoichi films, either on Hulu Plus prior to this past Tuesday when I took the box home, or on blu-ray over the past few days and nights, in between Thanksgiving festivities and all that.
The release of this box set is a sensational event within the community of Criterion fans that my blogging and social media habits have introduced me to, and I'm probably as enthusiastic and bedazzled by it as anyone. With the possible exceptions of the AK 100 commemorative box released in 2010 in honor of Akira Kurosawa's centenary and the monumental Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films collection from 2006, this is the finest mass-market product that Criterion has ever put forth. And those two other sets were limited editions and DVD-only (understandable, for their times.) The artwork, packaging and dual-format offerings all give evidence of extreme dedication and attention to detail, with ambitions of creating a definitive presentation of films that are obviously beloved by the creative and editorial talents who put it together. The result of their labors has been an explosion of gratitude and celebration from those fortunate enough to have landed their own copy of the set, and more than a few outbursts of envy from those who have to pass up the opportunity for now either from lack of funds or uncertainty as to whether or not they would draw sufficient enjoyment of the films to justify the hefty purchase price.
I'm here to say that this set has not disappointed me in the slightest, as I'm now a little less than a third of the way through the series. Each film shows up as a distinctive entry in the long, meandering epic story of a wandering blind masseur who also happens to be a devastatingly efficient swordfighter when bad men move in to exact vengeance for foiling their schemes on his endless quest for personal redemption, spiritual tranquility and moral justice. Certainly there are a number of formulaic elements that show up in practically every episode - Zatoichi's incredible luck as a gambler, his mind-blowing skills at drawing and wielding the sword, his affinity for the innocent poor and orphaned children, his contempt for greedy and corrupt bosses of every sort - narrative threads that provide welcome and crowd-pleasing continuity, but with sufficient imagination to provide cleverly entertaining twists on what we've come to expect after watching the preceding installments.
Of course it's not ideal to just plunge down right in the middle of a long-running series and begin my reviews well after all the formative groundwork has been established in the first few entries, but that's what I'll do anyway. (It's roughly the equivalent of writing about James Bond movies starting with You Only Live Twice.) I wrestled for awhile about what to do with the Zatoichi films, since it was immediately clear upon announcement that a significant number of the titles would precede my current point in the timeline. This is as good a solution as I can come up with, allowing me to stay true to Rule #3 in my sidebar without ignoring these movies altogether. So rather than do some kind of backtrack "mini-reviews" of the first seven chapters of the Zatoichi saga, I'm just offering my quick impressions of what I've seen so far.
The series began in 1962 with a pair of black & white features that establish Zatoichi in the good company of earlier samurai classics like Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Indeed, the more I see of these popular Japanese chanbara films of the mid-1960s, the more palpably I begin to feel the powerful cultural impact that Yojimbo must have had at that time. The Tale of Zatoichi and its follow-up, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, each have that same blend of solemn timelessness that puts the films on the level of something like Harakiri, another masterpiece that followed in the wake of a genre that Kurosawa felt no need to return to until many years later when the resumption of his career basically depended on it. With 1963's New Tale of Zatoichi, the films were shot in color, lending added vibrancy to the cinematic atmosphere but also conceding a bit of complexity and grandeur in the process as the stories began to settle into an episodic framework best suited to exploit the massive popularity of a very charismatic on-screen personality crafted by actor Shintaro Katsu. Two more films released that same year, Zatoichi the Fugitive and Zatoichi On The Road, both attest to the public's apparently insatiable craving for more and more action from this unique idealization of Japanese masculinity.
By the time we get to Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, it's already the third of four Zatoichi titles that would be released in 1964 alone, with each film running roughly an hour and a half. Such a frenetic pace would suggest cheap, knock-off, exploitative schlock but that's not at all what I saw over these past few nights. Different producers and directors were assigned to the films, lending them certain distinctions in how the images were shot, the respective balances between comedy, action and character development, etc. I imagine that after I've had some time to watch the whole series and retrace the arc of Zatoichi's career, my observations will become a bit more nuanced and informative. Of the color films I've seen (setting the first two aside as essential introductions to Zatoichi himself, not to be missed by anyone seeking entry into the series), Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is my favorite so far. It has some beautifully shot action sequences, making use of pitch black surroundings in the opening sequence, a wonderful torch processional pursuit in the forest in the middle and impressive camera work by master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa whose resume includes Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Street of Shame and a unique collaboration with Ozu on Floating Weeds when the director briefly parted ways with Shochiku to shoot a movie for Daiei Studios, the same company that distributed the Zatoichi films. This was Miyagawa's first work in the series, but I'm happy to see his name included on the credits for quite a few titles coming up in the series.
As for Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, it bears the mark of a successful franchise just beginning to hit cruising altitude. The sword fights and other requisite elements are all in place, but much time is spent showing the lead character in a more comical light. A tragic turn of events at the beginning of the film causes Zatoichi to take responsibility for an infant whose mother was killed by men thinking they had the blind swordsman caught in their trap. Upon learning that the baby boy's father lives in a village some 65 miles away, Zatoichi embarks upon a road adventure - of course, his travel is entirely on foot in the film's 19th century setting. A lot is made of the juxtaposition of world-class tough guy alternately cooing at and dandling the adorable baby, as well as fumbling at basic tasks required for childcare at this age - mainly changing diapers and keeping the kid's fussing and crying in check. There's also the added element of danger, as he has to guard his own life as well as the child's while being pursued by sinister assassins.
Of course, we've see variations on this formula in the past couple decades in Hollywood films Kindergarten Cop, Three Men and A Baby, The Pacifier, stuff like that. Let me assure you, we're never subjected to maudlin excesses of the sort that those titles might alert you too, but there may be a bit more whimsy in this episode to suit the tastes of those who prefer a more hardcore bad-ass approach to the Zatoichi mythos. For that portion of the audience, just stick with it until the end, when an intriguing plot twist leads to a spectacular fiery showdown as Ichi's would-be executioners try to get the jump on him by confusing his exceptionally honed sense of hearing. It makes for an impressive finale, but of course the ambush doesn't work; we still have 17 more movies left to go.
Next: The Naked Kiss