Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Tale OF Zatoichi Continues (Zoku Zatôichi Monogatari)

Ichi keen!

The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues 
(Zoku Zatôichi Monogatari)
1962 Japan
Directed by Kazuo Mori
Daiei/Criterion Collection 
DVD Region 1/BluRay Region A 

I mentioned in my review of the first film in this series that, at the end, Zatoichi leaves his cane sword behind in the town in which he reluctantly killed his samurai friend as a kind of atonement... but the studio presumably hadn’t counted on the success of that first movie because, within that same year, this sequel was already released into the world. Therefore, that last little bit is not referred to again in this story and, right from the outset Zatoichi has a, presumably, new cane sword to defend himself with (a fact I seem to remember may get contradicted later in the series... but I’ll let you know when I get there).

This story is, in some ways, a continuation of the first but, really, only in terms of details such as locations and recurring characters. The first half of the film is set in a different town and this movie really is the first to set up the idea that Zatoichi is a wandering masseur. In The Tale Of Zatoichi (reviewed here...) he did indulge his new samurai friend in this but, in this movie, he is clearly taking money for his services... and that part of his established character is now a constant throughout the series, as much as his blindness, his gambling hustles and his expert swordsmanship.

The atmosphere is slightly different from the start in that the soundtrack is not composed by Akira Ifikube, like the first and a fair number of the others in the series are, but by Ichirô Saitô, who also contributed to later films, plus some of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death series (many of which are also reviewed on this site). It’s a different vibe but I think I almost prefer it over the Ifikube and I’m glad both composers got to do work on this franchise.

The film has less to do than the first one in terms of the set up of the character and gets on with the story. Also, in this regard, in terms of having more action sequences placed at key points through the narrative and building towards a final, “all against one showdown”, for the end part of the film... or in this case, not quite the end. I’ll get to that a little later, though.

Curiously, the style used by the previous director, of keeping the camera close to the actors and following them around, is eschewed in favour of more master shots from a distance. There is still camera movement but this is obviously slower as the shots can, for the most part, take in wider parts of the environment the characters are cohabiting. This also, and I’d never thought about this properly before I rewatched this in comparison with the first movie, gives the film a more voyeuristic feel... you are watching the action from a distance and judging it, rather than being in the thick of it and reacting with the characters on screen. That’s kind of an interesting trick to use to change the pacing of a movie and the way it is perceived, I suspect. So in this film, the dynamics of the shot are created purely by the movements of the actors and the way they fill the space in the general composition of the shots... as opposed to the somewhat visceral but different approach of the first.

Another thing is that the compositions are not all based on verticals as the first one was. The film begins with Zatoichi being a ”blind” witness to something a gang doesn’t want generally known. As the gang try to kill him, they learn that he is going to the location of the first film, to pay his respects to the samurai he killed one year earlier. They team up with the boss who has survived Zatoichi’s intervention in the last movie and, by the time Zatoichi gets to the previous films location, in the second half of what is actually quite a short movie... that’s when we start to see some of the vertical style compositions revisited. These are often used to show the separation of attitudes or classes of characters split within the same physical frame... which is a good way to do it.

There are some really cool shot designs and elements of beauty like this found throughout the film. Such as a beach fight where the incoming tide gently laps at Zatoichi’s feet as he takes on a series of opponents... most of whom run when they figure out our hero’s prowess with a sword. And the vertical jutting objects motif is played out in the final big battle where all of the characters are dwarfed by the foreground details and seem almost like ants against this forced perspective. Very nice.

There’s also some great little moments where the writers build on Zatoichi’s character traits as the series starts progressing. For example, a man who sneaks up on Zatoichi to kill him has his thunder stolen when Zatoichi asks him the time... just as he is about to strike a death blow. Realising his blind opponent knows exactly where he is and could kill him in a snap, the man backs down and engages in conversation instead. This not only shows Zatoichi’s abilities well but also his compassion... he could have just cut the man down where he was standing but, instead, fashioned an excuse for the man so his would-be killer would not lose face and not have to engage him.

There’s also a brilliant piece of what people these days would call stunt casting. The plot also involves an outlaw on the run from the authorities who also wants to kill Zatoichi for some, at first, unspecified reason. He is embroiled in Zatoichi’s past somehow and the two were once rivals for the love of Zatoichi’s life. I thought the guy looked very familiar when he came on and the role turns out to be played by Tomisaburô Wakayama (credited in the film under the pseudonym of Jo Kenzaburo). You may remember him more for the role he perfected 10 years later, as the infamous Ogami Itto, the lead protagonist in the Lone Wolf And Cub (aka Baby Cart) films. In a twist moment in this movie (don’t read further than this if you don’t want to know) he plays Zatoichi’s long embittered brother... which is not so much of a stretch as it happens because, in real life, he really was Shintarô Katsu’s brother and, when you see him this young and with his hair significantly different, the resemblance between the two of them is much easier to see.

Wakayama’s character, Nagisa no Yoshiro, actually wounds Zatoichi quite badly during the end sequences of the film... one of the few times this happens this badly to the main character of this series (although there is a quite spectacular Django tribute in one of the later films, if memory serves me correctly... I’ll get to it when I rewatch). The battle between Zatoichi and various opponents near the end sees the start of the “overwhelming odds” battles that mark both this and the Baby Cart series of films. Zatoichi’s body count in this final battle is around 15 on-screen kills, which is quite modest for him... but this is where this kind of battle spectacle really starts in this series of films, I think.

The end of the film is abrupt and leaves a few loose ends. After he finds his romantic interest from the first film is going to be getting married to someone we are on edge, wondering what will happen to the two of them. Will they get together? The question is never answered because the next battle scene gives us a very abrupt ending which finishes just before the battle properly starts. A very angry Zatoichi, for reasons I won’t reveal here, is surrounded by a bunch of men including the boss who he didn’t kill in the first movie. However, he has made up his mind now that this man must die. He lunges ostentatiously at the opponent, he might have sliced him or he may not but, knowing Zatoichi like we now do, it’s pretty much inevitable that every other man in this confrontation is going to lose their life. It is, however, a confrontation we never see...

The film abruptly cuts there, leaving the battle to play out in our imagination... not to mention leaving a few loose ends too. It’s both a powerful ending and a let down at the same time. We really want to see Zatoichi in action again but, honestly, the fury we imagine for ourselves is surely greater than anything the director could have captured on celluloid here. As I watched it, I was reminded of a movie I’d recently seen at the cinema... a little thing called The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here). If you remember the ending of that movie, you’ll realise that this is exactly the same tactic that the director of that one has employed as we have here in this one. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we see Spidey throw the first punch (well, metaphorically) at the Rhino, the credits roll and we play out in our minds the rest of the battle. We know Spider-Man’s going to win... it’s moot. It’s purely used to give a dramatic punchline to the film and I suspect the ending of The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues involved a similar creative decision. Whatever.  For the Zatoichi movie at least... it kinda works.

This would be Zatoichi’s last black and white film... his popularity pushing him into colour stock from his third feature. As always with the Zatoichi movies, or most of them, this one is a definite recommend but I would add the caveat that you should probably check out the first movie before sitting down with this one... since this particular entry in the series is very closely linked to it and makes references to the first which you would want to know about when you are watching. Another great Zatoichi film and, once again, Criterion’s new blu ray transfer is the absolute best way to watch this other than seeing an actual print in a good cinema. Another good entry in the chanbara genre, I think.

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