Not rated, but this one actually involves cutting someone's hand off as opposed to just killing them. If anything, this movie really stresses how much killing is going on, despite the fact that the gore level is pretty light. Zatoichi takes some gnarly hits in this one, including an arrow through the arm and a sword slash that really should have put him out of commission. There's also some skinny dipping, but we don't really see anything because Zatoichi also wouldn't be able to see anything. Still, you know, it's a lot of killing. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Kazuo Ikehiro
It's really late at night and I just finished watching Black Widow. Part of me is writing this late because I want to get around to writing Black Widow sooner. But I also know that I should be cutting myself some slack because today was an insanely busy day and I have a feeling that tomorrow will also be an insanely busy day. It is so hard to get motivated to write about Zatoichi. There was a period a while ago where I considered writing about everything pop culture that I would absorb. This means every comic issue, every TV episode, every podcast episode, every book. The whole shebang. But I realized that I would burn out so quickly that it would defeat the purpose of even maintaining a blog. I'm really glad that I didn't do that now and I think that writing about the Zatoichi films is a reminder that writing about something that is so episodic only proves to be an exercise in frustration.
When this is all over, I'll probably claim that I really like the Zatoichi movies. I have them on a very specific rotation, ensuring that I don't fly through them and not appreciate them. I'll watch one, get a little disappointed that it was very similar to the previous entry, and then watch a bunch of other stuff. But then another Zatoichi film would enter the chamber and I would get excited about it again. I'm also doing the same thing with Samurai Jack, but am way more disappointed with Samurai Jack. (I know. I'm just making enemies left and right.) Each one of these Zatoichi movies promises to change the script just enough to make it interesting. I really like the conceit that the movie always presents. With Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, the conceit was exactly what I wanted out of this franchise. Always thrust into action and adventure, the titular character laments how much killing he has done in his life. He's always been on the side of the law (with the exception of the cons he pulls with gambling), but regrets that this life has led him to this place within his soul that is at odds with his intentions. The movie starts off with the pilgrimage to visit the 88 Shrines with the focus of never killing again.
But then the movie forgets this almost immediately and has him kill a bunch of dudes in a very similar fashion that he does in the other movies. He runs into a woman that might be the one to free him from this lifestyle, finds out that there is a gangster boss intimidating the people of this small farming village, and then dispatches the entire gang. The end. What was all that about visiting those 88 shrines to save your soul so you can officially put an end to the killing? The movie even calls him out on that first killing that happens almost immediately after taking the oath. He kills Eigoro, which is not really on him. It is like the gods placed Eigoro on Zatoichi's path to try to tempt him with a moral dilemma. But he never spirals out of control in that moment. It just leads him to Kichi, Eigoro's sister. There's almost a moment where the movie was going to embrace the conceit and allow Zatoichi to undergo a character change.
With Kichi attacks Zatoichi with the blade and he chooses to allow the sword to strike him, I thought that there could have been something there. I thought that this was going to be this tale of him falling in love with Kichi as he sees Boss Tohachi slowly take over parts of the town. It could have been the Logan of 1966. I mean, Logan and the whole Wolverine mythos that was established on the comics borrowed heavily from Japanese Ronin stories, so it's not like that plot is unprecedented. It is just that the movie so quickly abandoned the main storyline. The movie is straight up called Zatoichi's Pilgrimage and that storyline just fades away in the first ten minutes of a pretty short film. Why? The titles, to a certain extent, are like rom-com titles at this point. They are there to simply differentiate entries in the series. Which Zatoichi movie is the one where he's on a pilgrimage before he starts killing everybody? Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. That's it. It's not about the soul-searching necessary to become a better person.
And yet, there's something. It's very hidden in the background. It's like director Ikehoro really really wanted to make Zatoichi's Pilgrimage slightly special because, even though the script almost completely ignores the story presented within, Ikehoro allows for these moments of quietness to the movie. Here's the deal: If I summarized this film, it would follow, beat-for-beat, the formula of every other Zatoichi movie. I already gave those major moments above. But there are really slow moments where it seemed, just by holding the shot for a second longer than was necessary, that Zatoichi might have been going through something when he wasn't killing someone. There's nothing to be said in those moments. It's not like Kichi or the other farmers within the village are commenting that Zatoichi seems to be a little bit off. It's jus these cinematic shots that make it feel like the character is becoming one with the background. It's subtle, but I give points. Again, some of this could just be me and the fact that I over-read into everything.
There's a really weird lesson that eventually stems out of Zatoichi's Pilgrimage and I don't know if it the message that the filmmakers wanted to tell. Like many of these movies, the final act comes down to Zatoichi versus the gang in one giant fight scene. Like in some of the other entries in the series, Zatoichi is fighting in the village he is defending. Like Seven Samurai (at least, early on in Seven Samurai) the farmers are cowards and will not help in defending their own village. Kichi begs and pleads with the farmers to get out there and to help Ichi, but none of them agree until one of the tertiary characters decides to grow a backbone. Everyone aware that this character is greatly outnumbered, but he's going to stand by Zatoichi, even if it means that it kills him. Now, normally a character that grows a backbone offers some help. He at least dispatches one or two guys, right? Not in this situation. That guy goes out, dies immediately. And Zatoichi looks at him like "Why would he do that?" yet salutes his honor and bravery. Aren't the farmers right to hide if the only guy who ran out to help after listening to a protagonist's pleas is killed immediately? Like, when Zatoichi honors the guy and admonishes the farmers, aren't they kind of right? Because Zatoichi got zero actual help and was mostly fine. Okay, he got an arrow through the arm, but I think that was just to make him look cool.
I'm going to end this here. If the filmmakers of the Zatoichi don't offer me more to write about, anything else I add here is just ultimately filler. It's a fine movie, but it is so darned similar to every other entry in the series.
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.