Sunday, 29 June 2014

New Tale Of Zatoichi (Shin Zatôichi Monogatari)

Love Is Blind

New Tale Of Zatoichi 
(Shin Zatôichi Monogatari)
1963 Japan
Directed by Tokuzô Tanaka
Daiei/Criterion Collection 
DVD Region 1/BluRay Region A

The third in this series, The New Tale Of Zatoichi was the first of these movies to be shot in colour. Despite the title implying that the film is a brand new adventure for Zatoichi, there are still lingering elements from the story arc in the previous two movies which are brought back into play alongside any new ingredients in the plotting.

After a brief and, curiously, irrelevant pre-credits sequence leading into the titles, the film begins with three armed goons coming after Zatoichi. They have ties to Kambei (one of them being his brother), who Zatoichi killed at the end of the last movie, presumably following on from that abrupt cut (both physically and in terms of the editing) which provided the movie with an extra denouement after the typical end battle sequence was already over. Zatoichi kills one of these antagonists and the other two run off.

The other main story  element of this movie involves trouble when Zatoichi returns home to the original village where he grew up... he even gets to stay with his grandma for a few nights. However, when he becomes the guest of the sensei who taught him his skills with the sword, and the sensei’s sister, things take on a sinister turn. It seems that his former tutor is involved with a group of fugitives called the Tengu Gang, and is helping him work a scam by kidnapping a particular student of his school where he knows he can get a large ransom. He’s also trying to marry his sister off to an “appropriate” partner, but she is resistant of his choice, which seems to be mostly based on wealth and good standing in the community.

This is a movie which shows Shintarô Katsu’s Zatoichi like we rarely see him in the series. For example, for a good deal of this film, he doesn’t bother using his cane sword to get around, instead keeping it holstered on his back, ready for a quick underhand draw when required... the sword cane comes back in use as an actual cane for a little while about half way through the movie but it’s a curious absence through most of it and I wonder if certain people in the studios were trying to lose it as a character prop... which would have been a shame since it’s such a notably iconic artefact of the Zatoichi movies. Obviously, though, this idea didn’t stick... thankfully.

Another way in which this title differs a little to the other films shows itself in a scene where Zatoichi roughhouses a villain, with his hands, to confirm information... never once drawing his sword in the encounter. This is an unusual move for a cunning fox like Zatoichi and it seems totally out of character for him. I don’t remember him doing this in any of the other movies but I may be proved wrong in time as I go through them again... watch this space.

Once again, Zatoichi is asked by a girl to marry her in this one. This seems to be happening a lot in the very early films for some reason. Zatoichi finally agrees and vows to give up his yakuza lifestyle, at exactly the wrong moment as he is once again caught up by Yasuhiko, the brother of Kanbei from the previous films. Zatoichi throws down his sword but Yasuhiko doesn’t want to kill an unarmed man, so they have a wager in front of Zatoichi’s bride to be. On a roll of the dice, Zatoichi will either be left alone or give Kanbei’s brother his arm. When Zatoichi loses, Kanbei’s brother has been so moved by the plight of Zatoichi and his bride to be that he lies to Zatoichi about the roll and pretends to lose, leaving our hero to his fate. When Zatoichi’s new love confirms the suspicion that Yasuhiko let him live, he goes to thank him and talk to him to make things right... too late though because his former sensei has already killed Yasuhiko. Now Zatoichi realises what’s going on and leaps to the rescue of the kidnapped student, with a series of incidents which will have repercussions for him as he realises his ultimate fate is as a wandering yakuza, and not with his suitor.

As usual with these movies, the direction and cinematography is really great.

This one has a fair few static shots of Zatoichi in long shot wandering the landscape, walking from one side of frame to the next and occasionally encountering people along the way. This would become a kind of staple shot to emphasise the character’s travelling/wandering status as the series progressed, of course.

The director works hard to include diagonal lines in the compositions, using them to separate various elements on the screen and sometimes introduces details composed of such angles within cuts of shots. For example, a cut from Zatoichi and some fellow travellers forming three uprights to a closer, mid shot of the same grouping from a different angle, shows the director utilising the heights of the characters to make a diagonal composition running down from the right to the left of the screen. To do this, he has to have one half of a married couple go past Zatoichi on the road before the cut, and then using that character being closer to the camera from the alternate angle to make sure this person is higher than Shintarô Katsu on the frame. This is all good stuff but never seems laboured... things just happen seemingly naturally, although this is obviously not the case.

This director, like Kenji Misumi in The Tale Of Zatoichi (reviewed here), also makes good use of verticals to split the screen. This is obviously evident with the interior architecture of the period being depicted, as you would expect, but he also manages to carry this on, as he does his diagonals, in some of the exterior locations too.  One way he does this, for instance, is by having the faces of two characters having a conversation in close up at the extreme edges of the scope frame, with diagonal vertical trees of a forest taking up the dead centre space between the two. Another sequence where this kind of compositional bent is nicely displayed is in an early fight scene in long shot, where almost all of the action takes place on the left half of the screen, the design only broken when one foe stumbles from the left hand into the right of the centre. Really interesting use of space throughout this film... and in a fair few of these particular movies, to be sure.

Other points of note for Zatoichi afficionados are as follows...

This is the first of the films to show off Shintaru Katsu’s aspirational musical skills... as he starts playing a borrowed shamisen and begins singing along with it, the lyrics echoing the plight and strife of his lowly character. A few of the films have similar scenes written in for Katsu to display his prowess with the instrument, but this is not as elabourate as some of those scenes get in later films.

This films also has a repeat of Zatoichi’s “candle trick”, which he demonstrated in the first film. This time there are four candles in question, with Zatoichi sitting in the middle of the four which are arranged as the corners of a square. A fast flick around him with his sword which he instantly sheaths gives us another jokey replay of the old “fastest draw in the West joke” (“Wanna see it again) in that, over a period of ten seconds or so, the heads of each candle slowly drop to the floor to give the impression Zatoichi has sliced through them at speed without knocking them over... one fallen candle on the floor left curiously alight... to allow lighting for the camera, of course. I never get tired of these kinds of gags as they come up throughout the series.

Legendary composer Akira Ifikube returns for his second of many outings with the character (he had previously scored the first movie in the sequence too) and he once again uses the four note Zatoichi theme he created in that first one as leitmotif for the character, being a kind of downbeat parody, almost, of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There are some nice organ solos of this main theme present in one or two of the scenes too. The Ifikube scores in this particular film series aren’t my favourite ones for the Zatoichi character but they are solid and give the character a consistency with previous installments that the music doesn’t give him in the ones composed by other people.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. Once again, the film ends of a note of tragedy with the foes vanquished but at a moral cost to the characters who are left behind to watch the dust settle. So far the films series has been consistently good and it’s no wonder that they became so popular, so quickly. However, if memory serves me right, the best is yet to come. Stay tuned in to this blog for more Zatoichi goodness soon.

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