Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Zatoichi's Conspiracy

I’ve never liked the Zatoichi series as much as I’ve thought I should. There’s always been a certain homogenized feel to the Zatoichi movies, not present in other Samurai series, or heck other series period. By this I don’t mean so much that Zatoichi fails to differentiate itself from other Samurai series. Say what you will about it, but it’s definitely doing its own thing. Its just that they don’t do much to differentiate themselves from one another.

If you’ve seen one Zatoichi film, you’ve seen them all. As a point of comparison I’m able to point to say From Russia With Love as a very good James Bond movie, and Moonraker as a very bad James Bond movie and I can tell you why. But what is it that makes a good Zatoichi film? Perhaps more importantly, what makes a bad one? Zatoichi neither rises nor falls, each installment only plods along at the same basic pitch of workman like competence. Perhaps it is not so much the Japanese equivalent to James Bond, as it is the action equivalent of the “Toru-san” series.

The Zaitoichi films follow a rigorous formula to say the least. In each of the bajillion some odd films, Zaitoichi, the blind, irascible multi talented do gooder, wanders into town, sees some manner of motherfuckery going on and then does his best to stop it. Trying to make peace until the inevitable moment in which he is forced to start chopping off various motherfuckers’ arms.

Zatoichi’s Consipiracy starts, as Zatoichi films often do, with our hero, the famous blind masseur/gambler/swordsman, at a crossroads, deciding where he’s to go with the flip of a coin. Though it might not differentiate itself from the formula very much, Zatoichi’s Conspiracy at least tries to add a new wrinkle, by having the town he walks into be his old home town which he left many years ago under circumstances most mysterious.

There in Zatoichi encounters, as you might have guessed, A Conspiracy, involving an old friend and a slew of Yakuza swordsmen. He gets busy righting various wrongs and then hits the road, cheerfully awaiting the next installment. Finding time for one truly fantastic sequence involving a sword fight set in a driving rain of rice.

Still even if over their thirty films and hundred and twenty episodes the Zatoichi series has been a bit too staid for its own good, the central figure of them Shintaro Katsu, who plaid Zatoichi with confidence, wit, badessery, and just enough mischievous enjoyment at his own abilities to keep from being dull, is always fun to watch.

You may never have a great time watching a Zatoichi movie, but thanks to Katsu, you will always have a good time.

Despite my antipathy (more like detachment) from the character Zatoichi will almost certainly come again in this marathon. Sure he might not be as colorful (or crazy) as Hanzo, nor impressive as Ogami Itto. But while exploring the samurai genre it would be foolish to ignore the man who embodies it for s many. Particularly when the earlier films are so readily available.


Strange Kid said...

Great review.

Zatoichi is definitely a guilty pleasure that I enjoy from time to time, though you're spot on about there being little difference between each entry in the franchise. You can literally leave the room in the middle of one, come back at the end of another and not miss a beat.

For a blind dude, though, 'ole Z can kick some ass.

Hans A. said...

One of my favorites, which I highly recommend to you Bryce if you haven't seen it, is Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. It's available on DVD in R1. To some extent it doesn't differ much from other Zatoichi plots but it has Toshiro Mifune playing his Yojimbo role (one of four times). I remember reading somewhere that Katsu and Mifune were friends and each agreed to appear in a film for the other: Mifune was supporting in this Zatoichi film, while Katsu was supporting to Mifune in Incident at Blood Pass (another recommendation if you haven't seen it.) Zatoichi meets Yojimbo is directed by Kihachi Okamoto of Sword of Doom fame (another rec. which I hope you cover in this series). Anyway, longwinded aside, I've enjoyed your Samurai cinema coverage so far (and your blog period), and look forward to more. Hope all is well.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Strange Kid: "You can literally leave the room in the middle of one, come back at the end of another and not miss a beat."

Damn I wished I'd said that.

@ Hans: You'll be happy to know that Zatoichi meet Yojimbo and Sword Of Doom were definitely on the docket. And Incident at Blood Pass is definitely on there now.

Thanks for the kind words on the series and the blog.

Enlighten me though, I was under the impression that Mifune only played Yojimbo in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo and the two Kurosawa films. Which is the fourth?

Hans A. said...

It's Incident at Blood Pass.:) This is reportedly his last Yojimbo role. Well, at least according to the back of my VHS of the film, released by Animego before the DVD boom.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Hans: And now it just shot up the list.

Thanks for the kind words on the blog. I've been enjoying Quiet Cool. Your take on Vampyr was excellent. Alot of the time I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen the film you write about, but rest assured that even if I'm not commenting out of ignorance, I've been reading.