iSugio

New Tale of Zatoichi – Review

by Dane Benko

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When we last left the blind swordsman, he was surrounded by the grunts of Boss Kanbei that he had just killed in his final vengeance against the yakuza rivalry that had claimed the life of his friend and sent this whole series spiraling. Now Zatoichi is on the pastoral roads of provincial Japan, holding off ambushes from scattered former Kanbei members and trying to keep up his sense of congeniality and humor.

It’s in this setting that Zatoichi runs across Shimakichi Kanbei, vengeful brother of the Boss Kanbei, a duel cut short early on by the arrival of Zatoichi’s former Sensei Banno. Banno embraces Zatoichi’s return to the school he left four years ago, and Ichi himself is glad to have the opportunity to cool off and try to forget his troubled history of violence. Unfortunately, Banno seems to be up to no good as he keeps going off with one Kinosuka Okamura of the Tengu Mitu gang, whose desperately searching for 300 ryos, and the family of Kanbei settles into the nearby Aburaya Inn to wait their opportunity to provoke Zatoichi into a duel again. From this town centerpiece comes a variety of intrigue as roving samurai, Tengu Mitu, and ex-Kanbei all mingle.

It’s in the midst of this that Zatoichi gains the attention of Banno’s 18-year-old sister Yayoi. Banno and Yayoi are the children of a degraded samurai, which makes it difficult for Banno to arrange a marriage for his sister until he is granted an offer by a man named Marooka. Yayoi doesn’t want to join in this loveless marriage, so she offers Zatoichi an opportunity he never thought he would have: to give up his bushido practice and yakuza past and enter a peaceful, domestic life. Now if only Banno would agree to the marriage and people would stop forcing Zatoichi’s sword.

Director Takuzo Tanaka handles a movie tonally much more sophisticated than the previous two installments, though it doesn’t come to quite near the depressing quality of the first film in terms of theme. The characters are quite filled out: Zatoichi gets some room for character building early on when he meets his old childhood friend Kamekichi, an impoverished travelling musician, and defends the entire inhabitants of a shanty inn against bandits. Younger brother Kanbei is hardly bloodthirsty, only trying to defend honor as close to code as he has the stomach for. Banno is well meaning and helpful but also duplicitous and much too proud, character traits he doesn’t recognize himself. And sometimes Zatoichi’s own attempts at cheerfulness meets the edges of his impatience. “One’s art consumes oneself” he says to Kamekichi, “…and the grudges keep piling up.”

It’s certainly different to watch this movie a few decades after it came out than when it came out in 1963. With the lingering knowledge of 23 sequels to follow, the big dramatic question of the film is no longer whether Zatoichi is going to get out of the world of crime, but what auspicious circumstances and multifarious rivalries are going to keep him in. It’s much like watching the Godfather series in retrospect when you already know the answer to the dramatic question of how Michael Corleone will eventually get his family out of the mob. Nevertheless, the story is still fulfilling in its steady balance of characters who are all just trying to find some sort of settlement, whether financial, blood-feud related, or hearth-building, in their lives.

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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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Comments

  • armchrexpert

    I found that line very compelling also, “One’s art consumes oneself.” I suppose those of us who love our craft must rest assured that if our art consumes us, we gave ourselves, willingly.