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Fight, Zatoichi, Fight – Review

by Dane Benko

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Okay. Time to rehash a bit.

The Zatoichi series started with two black and white movies, The Tale of Zatoichi and New Tale of Zatoichi. These films, especially the first one, are more dramatic and designed much more like what audiences tend to regard as art films rather than genre action films. The character of Zatoichi was introduced as a loner in sea of corruption and moral decrepitude who, in trying to find a way out of his ties to gangsters and gamblers, ended up in the center of a major rivalry between two gangs that ultimately ended up in a chaotic epic battle and the death of many people Zatoichi loved and respected.

It’s understandable that moving forward in the series, the first movies set a precedent for the sort of character Zatoichi is and the world he lives in (a world he can never escape), but that otherwise the movies aren’t necessarily as dark or sober. This is a series with 26 movies in it. We can’t expect each movie to be an existential pillaging of our emotions. And, as a famous bit of Japanese pulp cinema from the serialized productions of 60s and 70s Japanese filmmaking, in some sense the rest of the series does well to have a lot more emotional levity.  Once the movies went into color and became more or less stand-alone narratives with cameos instead of continuity, each director in the series used the various tropes of Zatoichi in their own unique way, and that is the method of the series moving forth.

The last five movies have been playing around with these different approaches, especially the last two, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, both by Kazuo Ikehiro. These two movies sort of lost their way, with Zatoichi as somewhat of a contradictory character, a lot of strange tonal changes, and in places a sense of incompleteness and hurry in the storytelling.

Enter Kenji Misumi, director of the first movie. From the very first frame, Misumi announces his return with a clear indication that he’s still serious about the character. Where Ikehiro opened his two movies with a quick audience-satiating choreography of flashing swords and spilt blood before even starting the story, Misumi shows only Zatoichi’s worn, falling apart straw sandals trotting down a dry sandy path until he steps on a pile of excrement. Clearly we’re not here for the swordplay, Misumi has stronger things to say about the world Zatoichi lives in and Zatoichi’s place in that world.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight finds our hero evading samurai from the Monju clan by hiding amidst a Blind Men’s Pilgrimage’, who trick the samurai by claiming all to be called Ichi, Spartacus style. Despite the fun they have, Zatoichi is not able to continue journeying with them and hires a rickshaw to carry him in a different path. Along the way he comes across an ailing woman with baby in arms and decides to trade the rickshaw with her. Unfortunately, the Monju samurai ambush the rickshaw thinking Zatoichi is inside, leaving the baby orphaned and Zatoichi nothing but a promissory note informing him that the woman was Toyo, wife of cocoon broker Unosuke, who was trying to return home to Miyagi with their son after working off their debts. Of course, Zatoichi takes it upon himself to return the son in order to pay penance for his role in Toyo’s death.

Along the way, a thief named Ko literally runs into Zatoichi, claiming him as her husband in order to make off with a samurai’s wallet. Zatoichi does not let her keep the wallet but stands up against the samurai’s fury, leaving Ko with no spoils and an offer to aide Zatoichi’s journey as a nanny to the boy for 1 ryo a day. In this manner, the scrappy patchwork trio make their way to Miyagi as the closest thing to a family Zatoichi has managed to find in his search amongst all the films.

Zatoichi’s search for family is one of the strongest underlying themes of the series, and Misumi focuses in on it as the primary dramatic question of the film. Unlike the other movies, Zatoichi does not spend so much time resolving regional conflicts and unearthing conspiracies.  Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is all about this desire for family.

This approach makes the movie more of a drama than an action spectacle. However, sporadically along the path, the Monju clan continue their ambushes, with the warning by head honcho Waheiji that the Monju “never once failed to kill” a target. The role of violence in the Zatoichi movies is interesting because a larger idea of what Zatoichi represents is the recognition of a decay in social responsibility and ethics. This decay is shown much more elegantly in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight by the fact that the Monju clan only seems to attack when Zatoichi is busy caring for the baby or Ko – they do not meet him on the field of battle traditionally, and Waheiji only desists his attacks in order to take time to find other weaknesses in Zatoichi to exploit.

Eventually the tired triad make their way to Miyagi, where it turns out Unosoke has become a crime boss and denies recognition to his child. Here the movie transitions from heartfelt to profound, as Zatoichi is personally confronted with the limitations his lifestyle and blindness bind on his capacity for family, while Waheiji conscripts Unosoke with a plan to take Zatoichi down.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is the best movie of the series since Misumi’s own The Tale of Zatoichi. It’s the best shot film since the series went into color, and the most tragic and meaningful possibly of the lot of them. There may be some fans of the series that are turned off by its slower pace as regards action choreography, but Zatoichi’s lone figure on the sweeping panoramas, crossing paths with equally as lonely and displaced characters (from Ko to the continual appearances of the Blind Men’s Pilgrimage and their haunting whistle) casts a stunning emotional appeal.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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