Serial adventures of a blind killing machine

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

Versão em português

This week I finally finished going through the 25 films in the Zatoichi series and it seems to me those movies are worth some observations as much about them as about the idea of serial narrative and repetition in popular cinema.  Those movies were made between 1962 and 1973 by Daiei studios (home of Mizoguchi last films) and star Shintaro Katsu as a drifting blind samurai named Ichi. They have essentially the same plot a west audience could approximate with a western movie: Ichi arrives at a new town taken either by gangsters or by some powerful rich guys employing criminals to oppress the local population, Ichi tries not to get involved, but gets close to locals and ends forced to a confrontation. There are some variations, sometimes Ichi finds trouble on the road, fails to save someone’s life and arrives in the village with a debt, but the drama’s arc of establishing new terrain, hesitation and finally action is always respected. The towns and small roads are the same. The types he meets have little variations. The first couple of films are in black and white and the remaining in color, save from a special entry at the turn of the decade; none of them run longer than 96 minutes and most clocks under 90.

It is industrial cinema very conscious of its place, two or three movies a year, few stabs at reinventing the wheel, there are better and more inspired Ichi adventures than others, but because they rarely leave their comfort zones there are also no bad ones. The more forgettable Zatoichis still offer Katsu’s screen presence and at least a couple of very well-choreographed swordplay duels. The movies follow their formula with so much care that by the late 60s When one starts to notice They are recycling even the particulars of plot for the third or fourth time, it is easy to get distracted by focusing on the small differences between them. Repetition becomes part of the experience. Indeed, Zatoichi didn’t really end in 1973, When box office returns started to diminish, Katsu moved his character to television for four more seasons.

If Zatoichi is known in the West, it is certainly through the remake starring and directed by Takeshi Kitano in 2003. It is the Kitano movie I like the least, all the formal care, and colors, movement and sound are often remarkable seems to be there to try to distract Kitano from how bored he is with the assignment and he appears to have some affection for watching Katsu movies on his youth (he had previous done a parodic scene in his great absurd comedy Getting Any?), but watching the originals reinforce that he has little idea of what to do with the character. It was a major hit in Japan, much bigger than Kitano’s 90’s films, where Ichi remains very popular (Katsu brought the character to life one last time in 1989) and it helped create a certain western cult. Without Kitano’s movie, the series wouldn’t likely be part of the respectable Criterion collection in the US.

I mention Kitano’s movie to underline that Zatoichi isn’t exactly an auteurist series. If there’s a voice that dominates the movies, it is Katsu’s presence, he is a more physical actor than he seems at first and is graced by a great sense of humor always ready to rescue the movies from their more turgid bits. A group of five directors helmed most of the entries with Kenji Misumi and Kimiyoshi Yasuda taking care of half dozen each and Kazuo Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and Kazuo Ikehiro another 3 each. Katsu himself directed very well the next to last film (Zatoichi in Desperation, 1972) taking by surprising formal ideas that abstract a lot of the series recognizable elements and makes for a more elaborate deconstruction than many of the more direct attempts at doing so. Akira Inoue, another samurai film craftsman did one of the least inspired entries (Zatoichi’s Revenge, 1965) and wasn’t asked back. Two more established names, Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto contributed late movies in the series.

Okamoto, the auteur of Sword of Doom, is of course by far the best-known name to pass through the series. His movie is a special event, Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune playing a variation from his classic character from Kurosawa’s 1961 movie. It isn’t the least inspired movie in the series, there’s far too Much professionalism involved, but it is the least interesting, a movie at the same time more corrupt and more serious than usual. It is fat (115 minutes) and a bit heavy in moving through its disparate elements, and it is certainly bound to frustrate those wanting to see Mifune returning to one of his more famous characters (despite he been fun in a self-parodical way) and at same time it pushes Katsu by wayside far too often. It is sometimes a bore which I wouldn’t say about any other series entry, despite a great final duel, with Okamoto using his staging talents to keep both stars happy.

Satsuo Yamamoto Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967) is much better. The director, who is better known in the West by his epic war series Men and War from the early 70s, is a veteran whose career started in the 30s and was a known member of the Japanese communist party. It is the first one Katsu co-produced, and he is clearly invested in doing something different and more ambitious by bringing in Yamamoto. The filmmaker respects most of the series’ expectations, but makes the text explicit, positioning Ichi as a people’s champ who protects a group of peasants from two rival gangs. The movie makes clear it is about exploitation and power, there’s even some discussion about labor organization, underlining contemporary parallels and so on. But Yamamoto and Katsu are careful enough not to turn it into a lecture, it might be more discourse, but it is still very much a Zatoichi movie. Even those who are unaware who Yamamoto is notice there’s something up, but if you only want to see Ichi getting in another intriguing and cutting some criminals in half, the movie more than delivers. Even though the plot is just a more symbolic variation on known terrain, it is far from the only entry in which Ichi is pitted against exploitative capitalists, it just happens to be the one they get called that by name.

When I say Zatoichis aren’t very auteurist movies it is not to dismiss the men who sign most of them, but to reinforce that if They arrive at a coherent vision this is less through a strong point of view, but how popular movies can sometimes develop in their own very proper ways. If Ichi adventures remain dependable this passes through employing a group of very talented action directors. Kazuo Mori for instance started directing samurai movies on silents and his name usually guarantee at least a well put together adventure, he is responsible to pick just one movie for Samurai Vendetta (1952), one of Mifune better vehicles, from a Kurosawa script.  The Zatoichis made very good use of Ichi’s blindness as an engine for its action scenes, with strong exploration of sound and darkness and making it part of the physics of his moves. To watch even lesser movies in the series is getting enchanted by how many spins they can find in the basic Ichi confronts a gang scenario. And it is always surprising how often They find breathing moments that allow Ichi to be taken by melancholia.

Above all else Katsu got Lucky on counting with Kinji Misumi who helmed the series first movie and remained a recurring presence. A remarkable formalist (if you have a chance watch his 1962 Destiny’s Son) with a great feel for morbid fatalist tales of violent men who court death. There are great filmmakers who did multiple beautiful samurai films (Akira Kurosawa, Tomu Uchida), but with the possible exception of Hideo Gosha none who dedicated themselves fully to them. Misumi started his career as Teinosuke Kinugasa’s assistant, they share a taste for pictorialism, and unlike the great names from Japanese New Wave, he never set himself against tradition. Far from that, his nickname at Daiei was “little Mizoguchi”. One of his better movies, 1964 Sword Devil, was about a gardener who discovers that he is a great swordsman and is forced to exchange flowers for death. I suspect it is a not very hidden commentary about its own filmmaker.

Misumi entries are visually accomplished, but they are also set apart for their despair and sadness. 1968 Samaritan Zatoichi 1968 puts him as a bodyguard for a young woman whose brother he unfairly killed early on, and the movie comes from their uncomfortable dynamic and actress Yoshiko Mita’s presence her constant horror in having to trust Ichi. Misumi finds plenty of humor in that mismatched couple, at the same time milks melancholia from his scenario. In another key, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965), uses the idea of the game as a metaphor for a series of defensive moves as the samurai goes through an ever more oppressive world than usual. He is also responsible for the series greatest achievement Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964), with Ichi taking care of an orphaned baby with the help of a pickpocket. The longing for domesticity trespasses the movie, who despite the title barely has any action (despite a memorable scene in which not even fire can stop our blind samurai), and Misumi and Katsu find as many spins for that fictional family dynamic as they used to do for the action scenes. Midway through it there’s a wonderful scene that everyone always talks about, as the baby don’t stop crying, Shintaro Katsu picks him up and offers his chest so he can suckle on it, the image of Ichi “breast feeding” is of remarkable comic absurdity, only it is also of devastating sadness.

Fight Zatoichi Fight set one of the series certainties: Katsu plus kids is always a winning formula. So, it made recurring scenarios with him taking care of one. Three years and nine movies later, Misumi and Katsu remade the scenario in Zatoichi Challenged, but this time with a small boy instead of a baby. One of the more fascinating things of going through the Zatoichis is exactly how repetition through time works in them. These movies don’t worry with continuity like current series do. There’s never direct references to early movies, the filmmakers understand that for Ichi to observe that this isn’t the first time he has promised a mom on her deathbed to reunite her boy and his father isn’t productive. But there is an emotional continuity among them, the series never dedicates itself to something as foolish as explaining Ichi, but his relationship with his world and its static plots keep changing. The already mentioned Samaritan Zatoichi for example recycles elements from Zatoichi’s Flash Sword (1964), but a dozen movies later he is a much bitter and desperate man so dynamic is new.

Of course, Ichi can’t really change because Katsu and his accomplices know they need to deliver what the audience wants. Those movies’ pleasures are more and more in how they can suggest this illusion of change, how Ichi can keep moving without his actions changing. Early on, it is a matter of myth: Ichi is emptied out movie by movie while his fame grows. It turns out Japan has only one blind samurai who likes to gamble on dice, so a few gangs see opportunity off ame by taking him down while in the great Zatoichi and the Chest of Hold (1964) makes a running gag out of others hesitation of drawing their swords against him so certain they are it is a death sentence. In the later years, the series became too enamored with guest stars. I’ve already mentioned Mifune, and he was followed by Tatsuya Nakadai playing a variation on his cynical destructive samurai, a confrontation between character ideas, in the remarkable Zatoichi goes to the Fire Festival (1970) and a meeting with Jimmy Wang Yu’s one-armed swordsman offers a good contrast between the Japanese samurai movie and Chinese wuxia one and the different tradition they represent.

Around Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, the series found the idea that Ichi is at the same time conscious and tired of his position as a killing machine. It is like the filmmakers started getting tired of their own strict formula and brought that for their character. From that point forward, Ichi is a man in despair about the cyclic nature of the stories he keeps getting involved in. At a certain point he even finds out his sword is breaking up due to excessive use. In the wonderful Zatoichi’s Vengeance, Ichi’s two favorite roles, of the murderous protector and father figure are put in conflict as he learns he can be a bad influence. The movie becomes an action comedy about a character desperately trying not to do what his fans want and what could’ve been a flaw, his inevitable slipping back into action mode, becomes the movie subject.

In the second Half of the series, Zatoichi becomes an accidental modernist text about a character who understands he is condemned to follow through variations of the same violent plot. The movies of course never break the fourth wall directly, but the duel between Katsu’s, as actor and character, desperation and our desire for more Ichi becomes the recurring tension that animates them. This without the movies falling into the easy trap of blaming the audience, they invite us into a playful game, not pointing fingers. Our expectations and how the filmmakers find ways to fulfill them without getting bored are visible on the screen. 60s popular Japanese cinema had many series, even Kurosawa made a sequel for Yojimbo, usually starring samurais or yakuzas, but Zatoichi stands out for his longevity. For instance, Ken Takakura became a superstar with two series he started in 1965, Abashiri Prison (10 movies through 1967) and Brutal Tales of Chivalry (9 movies through 1972). At 25 movies in around a dozen years, Zatoichi is an unusually long one despite Yoji Yamada later pushing his Tora san series for over 50 chapters. Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, so one can say that Zatoichi isa studio product that outlived its own studio. Such durability suggests an immense dedication from audiences, and I think that becomes part of the movies. Zatoichi even has an ending that reinforces a lot of those core principles with Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973) with Katsu returning to his hometown and finding yet another mirror for the same actions as a movie character just can’t go home, the stakes are more personal, but they are not, just another adventure. Ichi, Katsu, every behind the câmera talent are all together in the need to find new ways for Ichi adventures to keep going, a constant vehicle for audience violent pleasures, and to find new forms to extend them even if it recognizes the wear and tear of the procedural, the show must perpetuate itself.

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