Thursday 8 May 2014

The Tale Of Zatoichi (Zatôichi monogatari)

Blind, Sealed & Delivered

The Tale Of Zatoichi 
(Zatôichi monogatari)
1962 Japan
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Daiei/Criterion Collection 
DVD Region 1/BluRay Region A

I’ve loved the Zatoichi movies ever since I became aware of the character on the cinematic release of Takashi Kitano’s modern update back in 2003. I bought the, by then very cheap, UK releases of a few of the original movies in a sale at HMV and, after having watched those and realising why the UK versions were so cheap (you just wouldn’t believe the prints and transfers on the old Artsmagic DVDs at the time) I then proceeded to upgrade, and also buy the remaining films, on the two US labels who were issuing them around then... Home Vision Entertainment (a kind of sister label to Criterion, from what I can understand) and Animeigo (who also released the first, and sadly only the first, season of the Zatoichi TV show).

The one bone of contention was the film Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage. 

It had never been issued in either the USA or the UK, although many people thought it had been released a couple of times over here in England. This assumption is quite understandable, given the fact that a film “called” Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage was indeed released and, I believe, re-released in the UK. However... and this is bad enough on the first release but totally inexcusable on the reissue... the film being released as that title in the UK was actually Zatoichi At Large with an incorrect title on the packaging and subtitles. How they managed to screw it up quite so badly is anyone’s guess. Go figure!

So, up until now, the only way of getting a decent print of Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage was by getting it from Japan. Which I promptly did at the time but, yeah you guessed it, there are no English subtitles on that edition. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a pain with a Zatoichi movie, because they do get quite formulaic from film to film and you can usually figure out what’s going on in them without necessarily needing to know what’s coming out of the various actors’ mouths. However, when I tried this approach with Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, I found that the film deviated from formula enough that I really wasn’t getting all of it... so that has been a thorn in my side for a while.

And now, the always reliable Criterion Collection has come to the rescue with a big and beautifully packaged boxed set including all 26 of the original Zatoichi movies in a combination DVD/Blu Ray set and, despite the high price for this item, it was well worth it for me to finally lay this ghost to rest. So I’m going to be re-watching the entire series and reviewing them on here starting from... now.

Zatoichi was a minor character referred to in a story by Kan Shimozawa and developed for Daiei studios with Shintarô Katsu in the lead role. This may have partially been due to the success of a film made the year before and also starring Shintarô Katsu, where he played the main lead and antagonist in The Blind Menace (reviewed here). If you’ve seen this, you’ll know the character he plays in that one is a much more sinister and selfish character than the Zatoichi character he developed over the decades... but the fact that he was studying and picking up the body language of a blind man probably helped him quite a bit when he started building on that for his Zatoichi role, no doubt. 

This first film is absolutely brilliant in terms of both the beauty of the shot design and the pacing of the story. It’s quite short in the action department, compared to the bloodbaths you would start getting fairly soon in the series, but it’s at no point a boring film and it’s a great introduction to the character. 

We are first introduced to him over a strange, posterised credits sequence, which might have worked well if this film had been shot in colour but which is fairly questionable in terms of a mono movie. Here we see Zatoichi doing his usual comic shenanigans of what a blind man traversing narrow bridges etc. would get up to in as hilarious a manner as possible... almost clumsy, in a way. This, of course, undercuts and contrasts with the expert sword skills and hypersensitised senses that we learn the character possesses through the course of the movie. It’s always a nice contrast and Katsu plays with this comic contradiction at various points all the way through the film series... he got it down to a fine art fairly quickly, in fact. 

We next go into what would be a typical Zatoichi scene as the series progressed... that of a blind man conning a gambling den out of their money, playing dice. In this first one, which establishes very quickly the cunning of the character, we see him set up the other players by making them think they’re taking advantage of his blindness. When he turns the tables after the stakes have grown, they are put in a position where any accusations of him cheating, which he technically isn’t, would admit their own complicity in trying to cheat him. So this is a nice introduction to the character and helps establish that, while he tends to act the fool a lot, he really is quite a shrewd person.

We also see his tender side as he tries to help various people and develops a friendly, mutual respect and admiration with a samurai dying of consumption, who he will have to fight at the movie’s end. The samurai doesn’t want to die of an illness so, when he forces Zatoichi to kill him at the denouement, we know that he has died exactly as he wanted to... although our hero is clearly upset with the way events have turned out. Upset to the point where he leaves his famous, hidden “cane sword” with a boy at the end of the movie. Actually, this is a sure sign that Daiei didn’t have any idea just how successful this film would be, since he would have to take up the sword cane once again for the next film in the series. There’s even one movie which has a story built around the tensile strength of the cane sword, if I’m remembering correctly... but that’s for another review.

The direction is strange on this one, but beautiful. For instance, the shot design is all built around verticals, which is a natural given the Japanese architectural style of the period in which this was set, I would guess. But, even so, the director uses this to frame both people and objects and, also, uses it to express shifts in perspective within a shot. He even, at one point, has the protagonist stop to monologue in the only gap visible to the camera in a line of bamboo poles. This is great stuff. 

The curious thing about the mise-en-scene though, to my mind, is the way in which the camera seems to follow everybody around in medium shot. The Tale Of Zatoichi is shot in a full width, 2.35:1, or close to that, aspect ratio but, rather than pull the camera back and take in the full extent of the action in slower moving or static shots, the director decides to follow the various characters around. I was scratching my head while I was watching this, trying to figure out why, and all I can come up with is that the extra movement in the shot adds a kind of dynamism which then offsets the need for full on action sequences, until we get to those properly at the end of the movie. It’s not that distracting, just strange when you notice it first. It’s as valid a way as any, of course... so good for him.

The musical score by the master composer Akira Ifikube, of Godzilla fame (he even invented the famous roar) is not a masterpiece but it’s engaging and does have a few, sit up and listen, stingers at certain points. He’s not my favourite composer for this particular series but he did develop a kind of leitmotif for the main character which he came back to time and time again on the Zatoichi films he scored. Definitely stuff to listen out for if you’ve only heard his kaiju eiga compositions.

And there you have it... a fascinating and strong, scene setting first entry in a very long running series of chanbara, released the following year after Kurosawa’s Yojimbo... and possibly riding in the wake of that one, to some extent. Daiei had a hit on their hands and Shintarô Katsu was destined to become... probably the most popular actor in Japan. Criterion’s new Blu-Ray print is sharper and much better looking than I was expecting this film could look. If you can afford it and you have a player which can handle either Region 1 DVDs or Region A Blu Rays, I would definitely recommend this beautiful set and certainly recommend this brilliant movie. I’ve been following this character’s exploits for over a decade now... don’t miss out on these epic films.

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