Not rated. Considering that everyone who dies in this movie dies by sword, the blood is actually fairly minimal if not absent completely. There's an implied rape attempt in the movie, which is troubling. But it is stopped early in the scene. That seems like I'm okaying it, which I'm not. I'm more commenting on the graphic nature of the film. Zatoichi kills a bunch of dudes, but you never actually get the vibe that the blade is even getting near any of the people, implying Zatoichi is just that fast. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Perks of being isolated: We watch a family movie every night. The problem with that: I'm watching a lot of family friendly films. That's okay. I mean, I am not against family friendly films. It's just that I don't really feel like adding to the writing list to the point where it gets out of control and that I'm only writing with the same audience in mind. Adventures of Zatoichi was a film that I started before the quarantine and finished the day that the quarantine was instituted. I mentally make these strategies (which is how most strategies are made, I guess) on how to tackle the "to-watch pile." Because there are SO MANY Zatoichi movies, I really have to space them out. But I finally hit another one and I remembered why I have to space them out.
The Zatoichi franchise is complete comfort food. I don't know if that's me being political because these movies aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, bad movies. But they are really, really, REALLY repetitive. I think any franchise that really hits those sequel numbers tend to get a little stale. I'm saying this reflecting on my recent viewing of For Your Eyes Only, because Bond got stale for a while. But I don't think I've seen a franchise so embrace its own formula and repetitiveness like Adventures of Zatoichi. I bet you I could binge every single Zatoichi movie (please don't make me do this) in a really short amount of time and I wouldn't be able to tell you what happened in each movie specifically. They would all basically be the same plot. Like the Lou Ferrigno / Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk, Zatoichi wanders from town-to-town. There's a gangster in town who is feuding with another gangster or the town itself. Everyone underestimates Zatoichi, except for a swordsman who has yet to find an even match. Zatoichi kind of feels love for what he claims is the first time in his life, but abandons any hope of love because of his blindness. He plays the idiot for a while while people trying cheating him. He then has to murder a bunch of bad guys before having a showdown with the amazing swordsman. The. End.
The funny thing is, I always think I don't understand the plot while I'm watching them. I simply assumed it was a weird racist subtext I had running in the back of my brain, but that's probably not actually true. When there are that many entries in the series and the archetypes and plot elements are all the same, the names and details ultimately don't really matter. As long as you kind of know who Zatoichi is, the movie is completely watchable. So what is the drive to watch all of these movies, besides the fact that I own the Criterion box set and I hate knowing that I own movies that I haven't watched my copy of? Like I said, Zatoichi stuff is meatloaf comfort food. I never absolutely adore meatloaf, but there is nothing really challenging about watching these movies. What kind of comes next is a breakdown of why things become completely formulaic. From a business perspective, a studio acknowledges that people come to see this movie. To make more money off of that film, they practically make the film again. If people keep turning out, they lather, rinse, and repeat the process for as long as it stays profitable. But from a psychological perspective, like meatloaf, there is a certain expectation. There is such thing as bad meatloaf. We all have eaten in a cafeteria at one point or another. But the best meatloaf in the world, and I've had some amazing meatloafs, is still meatloaf. And even if a meatloaf looks pretty rough, it probably has a taste that you know what is coming.
Viewers of Zatoichi films want a specific sensation every time that they watch a Zatoichi movie. There has to be a build up. The dramatic irony that comes when we know that Zatoichi can destroy any room of people is remarkably satisfying. There's a reason why dramatic irony is so emotionally movie. Knowing that you are in on a secret does wonderful things for storytelling. There's always that sense of comeuppance that happens. It's instant karma. The scoundrel trying to cheat Zatoichi thinks that he knows more than what everyone else does. He is feeling what we are feeling: we are in on a secret. It's actually situationally ironic that whatever rube tries pulling one over on Zatoichi is unaware of his lack of dramatic irony. (This is all the English teacher in me waxing poetic between teaching classes.) In this case, it is the casino gamblers. In a lot of the Zatoichi movies, it's some kind of gambling establishment that is trying to cheat a blind man. The only thing that an audience is gaining from this moment that is new is how Zatoichi is going to handle this familiar scenario. In this case, Zatoichi slices the fake dice in half, which is pretty rad. Because we never really see the blade move, Zatoichi kind of become Dr. Manhattan, wishing the dice to be split in half.
So really, Zatoichi becomes about tricks. It's the magic trick. The very honest thing about a magic show is the fact that you know the format, but you are just seeing how this performance tweaks expectations. There is no overarching narrative to most magic acts. The performer has a premise and the goal is to see a variation on what is expected. I don't remember writing about this particular director before. Admittedly, I write about Zatoichi movies infrequently enough that I can't remember director names behind these movies. But Adventures of Zatoichi really plays up the trick violence. There's this shot and this is the best takeaway from Adventures of Zatoichi. I'm talking about the top sequence. Like the end of Inception, there's a really long shot of a top spinning. I thought it was super bizarre that the movie was taking cinematic real estate to focus on this spinning top from the beginning of its spin to the end. But there's this absolutely perfect moment, when I let my guard down, that the top splits in half, explaining what had happened. I thought that the sword spun the top, which is cool in itself, I guess. But that also attests to my magic comparison. The expectation was that Zatoichi, with his amazing sword skills, was able to spin a top for a long period of time. My reaction was "Wow, they are really getting their money's worth with the length of the spin" and then the reveal happened. That's a great moment.
It also is telling of what to expect from a Zatoichi movie. Approaching most films, I look for emotional storytelling, compelling characters, or a combination of both. There are other things, but I don't feel like listing all day. Instead, Zatoichi is about small details in technical craft. It is setting up the magic trick with a different result. Some of the results will be the same. Watching Shintaro Katsu remove and return his sword in a split second while people fall to the ground is expected. But that's the magician distracting with the other hand. Zatoichi movies build up a sense of complacency in those actions. The trick is when it doesn't quite go as planned. While the top scene is the coolest thing that happens in the movie, my favorite is when Zatoichi misses the one guy. It's a great comic bit, where the guy chooses to fake his own death because he should be dead by all rights.
There's a story somewhere in here that really isn't explored. I'm often moved by the daddy story. Adventures of Zatoichi is a story of missing fathers and that's something new that can be pulled out of the movie. But because the movie is so obsessed with not really rocking the boat, we only get elements of Zatoichi's origin. It's actually Zatoichi's lack of origin is what keeps the series going. Adventures of Zatoichi is being frugal with their narration. I know that I'm adding my nerd's obsession with canon to something that probably doesn't really care about canon, but being a hoarder with Zatoichi's backstory and mental pitfalls allows the story to keep on going without having to create a thick bible of things that one can and cannot talk about. I like the idea of Zatoichi yearning for family. It makes sense with his character. Zatoichi is defined by his blindness, his skill, and his isolation. Giving a tease to one of those things makes the story somewhat compelling. But I don't ever get the vibe that there will be an emotional resolution to any of these things. I don't think Zatoichi 21 will be the moment where these things actually get called into question.
I might force myself to make my viewing choices more varied, simply because I don't want to write about this the entire time. Be aware, it will probably be some time before I hit the next Zatoichi film, but until then, I'll try to watch more stuff.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.