Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)
Not rated, but let's call a blind swordsman a blind swordsman. There's some violence...like a lot. But there's also nudity. I will give Fight, Zatoichi, Fight credit over its counterparts. Much of the movie has nudity in the form of breastfeeding. Sure, the camera angle could be described best as exploitative, but the sexuality itself is at a pretty mild level in this one. If I had to rate it, it would be R. However, it isn't rated so it gets the blue over it.
DIRECTOR: Kenji Misumi
I'm so bad about watching these. It is hard to binge these movies because they are just so similar in plot and tone. Honestly, it might take me 22 years to watch the whole box set. That's no good. I bought these things forever ago and I want to give each of them their due as opposed to just lumping them all together. I thought that Fight, Zatoichi, Fight was going to be the special one. It was setting it up to be a special movie in the franchise that was going to change everything. It really changed nothing, and I suppose that's my biggest criticism for the franchise.
These movies came out way too often. I think that there were three Zatoichi movies a year. That's like Sherlock if Sherlock wasn't all released within the same month. They're movies only in the sense that they follow the film distribution model. The way I understand Zatoichi is that they were wildly successful. I understand. They are really fun movies. But the thing that kind of falls flat and explains why I don't just review TV episodes all of the time is that the Zatoichi movies, with their massive presumed success, are afraid of change. They have something that seemingly works so any kind of actual change to the franchise doesn't really hold. So this movie ended up being kind of a precursor to Lone Wolf and Cub. Zatoichi has to take care of a baby and get him to his destination while people are trying to kill him. It's the Three Men and a Baby where he really bonds with a kid that he can't stand taking care of. Over time, they clearly bond and Zatoichi becomes his surrogate father. That's the way the movie was indicating it was going to go. Heck, they even gave Zatoichi a love interest. This is movie eight. They had teased a love interest before. This part wasn't new. SPOILER: When the son is returned, we find out that the father is a horrible human being and doesn't want his child. This sets up Zatoichi for taking care of the child forever. That's what the series should have been. To grow Zatoichi as a character, making him a father and giving him a mission would have completely upset the Lone Wolf and Cub apple cart. Instead, this monk who we have never seen before convinces Zatoichi that he couldn't possibly raise him and Zatoichi just submits. He also would have had a thief as a wife. C'mon! This is character mother's milk (pun intended). This is my beef with the Zatoichi franchise as a whole. I'm a big fan of Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. It finally has a slightly different plot from the rest of the series. I mean, it's a bunch of gangsters trying to kill Zatoichi. I'm not asking for miracles. But instead of some gang war where Zatoichi has to trick both sides or whatever, he's just trying to get this kid home. That's a great simple plot. It works. How cool would it be to have the kid growing up over the course of the movies? Have Zatoichi age a bit? That would have been awesome. He could be teaching his wife about morality and she would be teaching him how to love. (Yup, I'm not aiming the bar high narratively or progressively.)
There is one thing about Fight, Zatoichi, Fight that made me happy and made me question my own intellect. Remember, this is the eighth movie in the franchise. These movies have always been about gangsters trying to kill Zatoichi. Usually, it is in the form of "more guys" or "expert swordsman showdown" or a combination of both. Of course, we know that Zatoichi is going to win this fight. It's just the way things work. But this one, they actually come up with the most obvious plan that ever existed and I'm floored that I didn't think about it. I've been reading Daredevil since high school and why didn't I just do the thing that Daredevil's villains do? Their big plan, and the point of my shame, is that they plan to take out of his other senses. Yes. The guy fights by sound, so distract him with sound. It is beyond me how this wasn't brought up before this point. The execution of this plan, in world, is dumb. Cinematically, it is awesome. But if you were in the world of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, it is a pretty dumb way to go about it. The gangsters all set their staffs on fire and attack him with fire staffs. As an audience member, it looks awesome. Katsu is actually on fire and I'm kind of floored because his face doesn't seem to have any protection. Also, a night time fight with flaming staffs looks absolutely great. It is bananas. But if they are thinking that fire is such a loud sound that Zatoichi wouldn't be able to fight back, that's absolutely ridiculous. The movie has to be aware of this because Zatoichi doesn't come up with some grand master plan to compensate for his lack of auditory input. No, he just fights like he normally fights. The entire end of the movie is based on a grudge match that simply says that Zatoichi is as cool as he says he is. This kind of leans on my problem with letting something ride the cool factor all the way to the station. Yes, Zatoichi is that cool, but by the eighth movie, he's a Mary Sue. He's got nothing that can stop him. Yeah, he gets more beat up in this one than he does in some of the others. The fire thing works for a hot second (pun intended). But he just overcomes and beats everyone involved because he's awesome. That's not very clever. That's just lazy screenwriting. How's he gonna win? He's going to fight really hard, like he always does.
A franchise needs to grow. While I like watching Zatoichi films and I get why Tarantino likes the Zatoichi movies, there's only so far that this series can go. (There apparently was a TV show based on the IMDB credits of the director.) The original director came in to film this one and it does feel like one of the better entries in the franchise. He'd also go on to do Lone Wolf and Cub. Go figure.) But there's no meat to this. When I finish this series, I'm not going to remember which entries were awesome and which ones weren't. They are all the same movies with different degrees of success. This is an era of serialized storytelling and studios making money. Maybe they were afraid that Zatoichi wouldn't work if he changed his dynamic even an iota. But Zatoichi could be this rich universe. There's a very empty template there. Like Daredevil, Zatoichi is just a superhero. I know that superhero comics for decades were afraid to change the status quo. In 1964, Spider-Man was only a year or two old. But in the next few decades, Spider-Man would constantly change the status of Peter Parker. There were major shifts and that's why Spider-Man still exists as a character. Zatoichi doesn't have the motivational fuel to sustain itself. I'm going to watch the whole thing because I own the box set and because I'm a completionist, but I can see myself really burning out by the time I get into the mid-teens. Heck, I might even start to resent these movies because there's just nothing to really grab my attention. There's only so many ways that people can try sneaking up on a blind man and getting instantly dispatched before you start to yawn. It's the same magic trick again and again and this is the biggest lost opportunity. Everything was set up to have a growing narrative and it just fell through. That's a real bummer.
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