Not rated, but the violence is the thing that gets you every time. This one also implies that a woman was kept as a sex slave. Because Zatoichi films tend to be a little bit more tame than your Lone Wolf and Cub movies, everything is just toned down enough. Sure, there's a lot of death and violence, but it kind of comes across like The Lone Ranger in terms of how innocuous the murdering of people can be. It's all heroic and there's a distinct lack of blood.
DIRECTOR: Kazuo Mori
It's kind of different! It's 77 minutes! I mean, that's really all I'm asking for. After having seen about ten of these movies, it's slightly refreshing seeing a slight change of formula. I really have to stress that it's not THAT different. There are still a lot of the same elements that the other movies have. As I've established my other Zatoichi blogs, there's a formula to these movies. So let's look at why even a slight deviation from that formula brings a certain degree of fun that I haven't gotten out of the last few movies.
If I had to lay out the formula for a Zatoichi movie, it would involve the protagonist pulling the old David Banner from The Incredible Hulk television series. The locals take advantage of this poor blind man, who shouldn't be able to function like a normal human being. Zatoichi plays along and not only does what the sighted could do, but in excess of what seems even remotely possible. Everyone instantly identifies him as Zatoichi and then the criminal organizations in these towns sic their men on him. There's a complicated background to the moment-to-moment that could ultimately be ignored. We still have elements of that in Doomed Man, but those moments that are different make it so much more interesting.
The problem I've been having with my last few Zatoichi movies is that Zatoichi has become a bit unkillable. He's too perfect. Even in Doomed Man, Zatoichi takes down an insane target that no one with perfect sight could take down. He has more sensory awareness than even someone like Daredevil would have. Okay. But the movie starts off with Zatoichi in prison. I love that he somehow dropped the ball along the way and is taking a beating. Yeah, he's unmoved by the violence inflicted on his body. It's a bit of a movie logic. But there's something important in the idea that Zatoichi is not always in control. I know that these movies are made pretty much back-to-back-to-back, but it seems like he went from being this blind masseuse who is really good at killing people to being someone who is almost godlike in his abilities. Starting him in prison brings him to this skewed logic version of humanity.
Coupled with Zatoichi's fallibility is the very simple plot that gives genuine stakes. We know from moment one that this guy seems to be innocent. There is a time-table and a set of characters who will make the goal of freeing this man more difficult. But in terms of pure storytelling, Zatoichi has a clear goal. With other movies, there's investigation into bosses and local lords. That seems to go with this abstract concept that we're meant to identify with because we're told to identify with that idea. But an innocent man who has a family is a great story. With that pre-credit sequence alone, we find out so much about Zatoichi's values and how he reacts to the little guy. Instead of bad guys making Zatoichi the center of the conflict, Zatoichi is fighting for something external.
I love the addition of Monk Hyakutaro. It's really weird how his story ends. It really feels like Hyakutaro is going to be a running character throughout the movies. (For all I know, he might be. I write them as I see them.) But there's this character who almost is parodying the formula as its going on. I don't know if the movie didn't know what to make of this character, but I get the vibe that Zatoichi kind of liked this dude, even though he was a constant screw up. Maybe that's my read after recently writing about Seven Samurai, but it has that same attitude. Hyakutaro is this lovable con man who thinks that he's putting one over on Zatoichi and Zatoichi keeps letting it happen. But when Hyakutaro is being dragged off to prison at the end and Zatoichi just watches with the attitude of "Oh, that rascal", it's a really weird ending. I get the vibe that those guys were going to kill him. Perhaps this ends up being an accidental commentary on Zatoichi's morality. Zatoichi is the epitome of heroism. He fights for the downtrodden. He takes down criminals. He takes his adversity and not only overcomes it, but weaponizes it. Cool. But Zatoichi, from a Dungeons & Dragons alignment, isn't exactly lawful good. He cares little about the law. The fact that he often just murders folks before they get a chance to get the drop on him is extremely telling. Hyakutaro is clearly out for himself. He's this guy who plays up his confidence games for profit and comfort. Cool. But he's also extremely likable. But this gets him into trouble. Zatoichi even saves him from himself.
When Hyakutaro is about to be ambushed for pretending to be Zatoichi, the real Zatoichi rescues him. In this moment, Hyakutaro has his crisis of character. He realizes what it must be like to live Zatoichi's lifestyle. He doesn't necessarily join the side of angels right then, but he does become a real help in the fight against the bosses. Why would Zatoichi save this man only to have him regress to his criminal ways and face a potential death penalty for his actions? Zatoichi isn't lawful good. If anything, he's chaotic good. Hyakutaro is an odd reflection on Zatoichi himself. He's early in his journey, but it is poetic that Hyakutaro pretends to be Zatoichi. After all, these two end up being foils for one another. Dumping this character into jail at the end of Doomed Man when he was on the path to redemption is a really weird choice that I don't know I can get behind.
I know that this isn't the longest blog entry, but the Zatoichi movies have been discussed to death. It's a better movie because it has a very clear plot. It offers a degree of vulnerability that we normally don't see in the Zatoichi movies. It also has a great supporting cast is better than normal, which makes for a fun film. I just don't understand why the film didn't play up the Harry Mudd element of the story when it was all right there.
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.