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Thread: 2012, The Summer of Zatoichi

  1. #1
    Senior Member Apronikoff's Avatar
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    2012, The Summer of Zatoichi

    So this summer I've made it my project to watch the entire original Zatoichi film series (I suppose its possible I might get around to some of the remakes/reboots...almost certainly won't get around to the TV series.) That wasn't the plan originally. Thanks to the power outages that hit Columbus I was stuck at a friend's house out in the suburbs. Worse, this particular friend didn't own a working DVD player (sorta unimaginable to me, but whatever.) So I ended up trying to stave off the boredom by finding movies on Hulu to watch on my iPad. Most of the Zatoichi films are available there right now, so I thought "What the heck, might as well check out the first one since I've been meaning to watch these for years." Next day, my power was still out so I thought "Screw it, let's watch the second one." Now here we are a week later, my power's back on, and I'm five films into the series.

    I was posting my thoughts on these in the "What Are You Watching" thread, but Ian suggested I start a new thread for these. Gonna post slightly expanded versions of my comments on the first three and then post about each of the rest as I watch them. Whee!

    TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962)

    Great start to the series. Wish I'd paid a little more attention to this when I watched it though -- I had assumed that Zatoichi himself was the only recurring character so I didn't pay that close attention to the secondary characters. But actually this film sets up the basic conflict that drives the first four entries in the series, and introduces characters who will reappear throughout those entries. My favorite of the secondary characters, though, was the consumptive drunken samurai. His relationship with Zatoichi was awesome, and hasn't really been rivaled in any of the other entries I've seen so far. Compared to the rest, this one is relatively light on action...as I recall, Zatoichi doesn't even draw his sword until nearly halfway through it. But that's fine as this one was really about establishing the character.

    TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962)

    Not as good as the first one over all, but still pretty great and definitely makes the case that this was going to be a sustainable series. The plot wasn't as good, but on the other hand the pace was definitely tighter for this one. There's not a dull moment in what is a much more action packed film than its predecessor.

    NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI (1963)

    Best of the first four entries in the series. The plot isn't as focused as in the first two entries, and consequently dragged a bit in the second act, but this one has so much going for it. I felt like Shintaro Katsu really got to show his range as an actor here -- the proposal scene was as compelling as any of the swordfights, and I absolutely loved his final line: "I'm sorry, Miss, but it seems I am that kind of man." -- just heartbreaking. Also having Akira Ikufube back behind the baton was great -- whoever composed for the second film dropped the ball a bit and it just wasn't the same. Finally, and most obviously -- we move to color with this entry. The color really opens up the look of the film, although it does make the lack of blood in the sword fights all the more obvious.

    ZATOICHI THE FUGITIVE (1963)

    The first dud in the series. Now don't get me wrong, Shintaro Katsu remains a joy to watch in the role, so it wasn't a bad movie by any stretch. But definitely felt like a let down, especially compared to the heights of NEW TALE. The plot was needlessly complicated, and not terribly exciting. Also, what should have been this film's main focus -- the final resolution to the "Tane" plot arc that started in the first one gets short shrift -- Zatoichi doesn't get much screen-time with Tane, and the moments they have don't compare favorably to his scenes with his sensei's sister in part three. Also, the staging of the fights was just off on this one. Don't know if there was some creative exhaustion behind the scenes, but the camera frequently finds angles that manage to expose the "stunts" in the fights, as swords fly several inches in front of the person they've supposedly killed.

    ZATOICHI ON THE ROAD (1963)

    Now we're talking. This entry begins with a stand alone pre-credits sequence which excitingly serves to reintroduce the character and announce that this will be a fresh start to the series, not tied to the plots which had become stretched thin by the end of the fourth entry. Mildly echoing Yojimbo, Zatoichi gets caught in a gang war between two cities when he's escorting a young woman to Edo and has to play the two sides against each other to keep her alive. Pretty much everything about this movie was on. The cinematography was lively, the cast were all game, and the (plentiful) fight scenes were the best the series has had to offer so far. If I was going to show someone one of these to convince them of the series' merits, this would be a damn good place to start.

  2. #2
    Excellent suggestion to start a thread solely on Zatoichi. Thanks for the mini-recaps too. Makes me want to go back & watch all my old HVE + Animeigo Zatoichi DVDs as soon possible.

    My personal fave in the series would have to be Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman. A lot of humorous moments & of course the epic showdown between two of the most iconic figures in martial arts cinema. I remember reading in the now defunct ACC magazine that there were 2 versions of this movie released for the domestic & Chinese/International markets with Jimmy Wang Yu emerging victorious in the Chinese cut. Can anyone here verify if this true or just an apocryphal story?

    I immensely enjoyed the TV series as well. I know it's a pipe dream but wish Tokyo Shock or Animeigo can secure the rights to seasons 3 & 4 and release it on R1.
    "only the simplest can accommodate the most complex"

  3. #3
    Senior Member Apronikoff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 47lab View Post
    I remember reading in the now defunct ACC magazine that there were 2 versions of this movie released for the domestic & Chinese/International markets with Jimmy Wang Yu emerging victorious in the Chinese cut. Can anyone here verify if this true or just an apocryphal story?
    Don't know in this case, but that sounds like the story you still hear occasionally about how they filmed two different endings for "Godzilla vs. King Kong" one for the US where Kong wins, and one for Japan where Godzilla wins. At least in that instance, the story is definitely a myth.

  4. #4
    Administrator Ian Jane's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Apronikoff View Post
    Don't know in this case, but that sounds like the story you still hear occasionally about how they filmed two different endings for "Godzilla vs. King Kong" one for the US where Kong wins, and one for Japan where Godzilla wins. At least in that instance, the story is definitely a myth.
    I've heard the same thing, but can't remember where I originally read it. The Animeigo DVD doesn't have an alternate ending, for whatever that's worth.

    One a semi-related note, I got to meet Tatsuya Nakadai at a signing a few years ago in NYC. I tried to ask him about making Zatoichi Vs. Yojimbo but he spoke no English. He did tell me through a translater though that my sideburns reminded him of Mifune, and I took that as a compliment. He signed me DVD for me too. I assume he was a very friendly guy, he came across that way, but as I spoke no Japanese, who knows, maybe he was smiling while telling me to stop bothering him, haha.

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  5. #5
    wow! Toshiro Mifune? That is high praise indeed!
    "only the simplest can accommodate the most complex"

  6. #6
    Senior Member Apronikoff's Avatar
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    ZATOICHI AND THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964)

    Although it was released only a few months after the most recent film (and indeed only two years after the original), somehow it feels like there's been a generational shift between ON THE ROAD and CHEST OF GOLD. I don't know whether that's attributable to the youth of this entry's director (Kazuo Ikehiro - the youngest, by several years, to work on the series so far had only been directing since 1960), shifts in management behind the scenes, or what -- but the change is hard to miss. Right at the outset we have a high contrast, stage-bound, relatively abstract prologue which looks like it could be the ancestor of Shunya Ito's formal experimentation on the SASORI series. This is emblematic of a host of relatively novel (to the series) techniques that will be employed throughout this entry, including extensive whip-pans, double-exposure shots, and various techniques for "heightened reality" imagery. All the more noticeable given the relatively "old-fashioned" cinematic techniques employed in the first five films.

    Moreover, in Zatoichi's very first fight we see his sword open a bright red slash across his foe's chest; for the first time in the series the fights routinely draw blood. We're far from Lone Wolf and Cub territory, but the violence is nevertheless considerably more brutal here -- climaxing with an agonizing workout between Zatoichi and a whip-weilding samurai on a horse. The sexual content has been amped up as well. Nothing you couldn't show on US network TV, but implied handjobs and nude bathing come as quite a surprise given the relative chastity of the series so far.

    The budget also seems to have been increased considerably. There is significantly more location photography this time, and the "lantern parade," in which dozens of lantern bearing men make up their way up a mountain to assault a samurai's secluded home, is easily the series most visually impressive set-piece so far. The score is also exceptional -- Ichiro Saito more than redeems himself for the overly melodramatic score of the second film with the exciting, rousing music on hand this time. (would love to get my hands on the soundtrack for this one, actually.)

    Perhaps this entry doesn't have as compelling a story or characters as a couple of the earlier entries, but by managing to make the sixth film seem fresh and new it's still a major success.

  7. #7
    ^ since you referenced LW&C, I'm surprised you didn't mention that the sadistic whip wielding samurai on a horse was none other than his real life bro, Tomisaburo Wakayama. I recall TW also played a one armed swordsman in one of the earlier Zatoichi's you already reviewed but can't remember which one off the top of my head?
    "only the simplest can accommodate the most complex"

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    Senior Member Apronikoff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 47lab View Post
    ^ since you referenced LW&C, I'm surprised you didn't mention that the sadistic whip wielding samurai on a horse was none other than his real life bro, Tomisaburo Wakayama. I recall TW also played a one armed swordsman in one of the earlier Zatoichi's you already reviewed but can't remember which one off the top of my head?
    Oh man, I can't believe I didn't notice that!

    And yeah, he played Zatoichi's one-armed brother in the second movie.

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    ZATOICHI'S FLASHING SWORD (1964)

    Watched this one on Sunday and forgot to post about it. Not a lot to say about this one actually -- not that it's bad, just not a terribly memorable entry in the series. Once again Zatoichi finds himself caught between two rival gangs, only this time one of the gangs is actually benevolent and noble. The leader tries to protect his community, and as the film opens is arranging for a spectacular fireworks show. His rival feels he's showing him up and tries to use his government connections to seize his territory. Zatoichi, naturally, has something to say about that. The visual flourishes in the previous film (both directed by Ikehuro) remain, although they're somewhat toned down this time. Instead, the series' sense of humor comes to the fore this time, especially in a quite funny scene where Zatoichi expresses silent disdain for the yakuza boss's rudeness by smearing food all over his home.


    FIGHT, ZATOICHI, FIGHT (1964)

    Kenji Misumi returns to the director's chair for the first time since the original film to deliver one of the series' most emotionally affecting entries. A group of assassins have been hired to take out Zatoichi (who hired them is never stated, but given the trail of bruised egos left behind in the previous seven films, there are a lot of choices), but inadvertently take out a young mother returning to her husband instead. Filled with sorrow that this woman was killed in his place, Zatoichi vows to take her infant son home to his father. Along the way he meets up with a brazen thief who learns from Zatoichi the error of her ways. Action and stylistic flourishes both take a backseat this time to a character driven story about all the things that Zatoichi's lifestyle keeps him from being able to experience. 1964 was Zatoichi's busiest year, cinematically, but it doesn't appeared to have caused the quality to suffer in the least.

  10. #10
    Nice action with the Zatoichis! I watched 'em all in 2006 (a couple every Saturday while I started my drinking). It was great. I've only seen the tv episodes that MB put out (six discs, I believe), but would love to see more. Love the synopses, as I can't remember a goddamn thing!!

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