Not rated, but at this point, do I really need to point out what happens in a Zatoichi movie? There's just a ton of death, but most of it is bloodless. In this specific entry, Zatoichi gets beaten up and bloodied, but it is actually kind of mild considering. Also, there's a prostitute who gets really really drunk at one point. But if that's all I have to say about a movie needing an informal MPAA rating, it's mostly fine. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Tokuzo Tanaka
People who produce a lot of content need to go into each entry with the concept that "this entry may be someone's first entry". While the whole purpose of this blog is to express my love of film and to view film critically, it is really hard to write about each and every Zatoichi film like I did that first entry (which I technically haven't written about because I started watching these movies more than four years ago). There are a lot of movies in that box set and a lot of them get a little repetitive. But I'm going to try my best and discuss Zatoichi's Vengeance (which sounds remarkably similar to Zatoichi's Revenge) with a cool head (and a keen eye).
This movie has nothing to do with vengeance. There. I said it. I was in this sweet spot in the Zatoichi movies where the title of the movie actually kind of reflected the story that took place. These were titles like Zatoichi and the Chess Expert and Zatoichi and the Doomed Man. They were about the titular character meeting a chess expert and the titular character meeting a doomed man, respectively. How great is that? But I don't know why they would go back to generic naming. Marvel kind of did this for a while. They realized during their Ultimate line that generic covers of the hero in cool poses tended to sell more comics than covers that gave an indication of the content within. Maybe the Zatoichi movies kind of did the same thing. All I know is that Zatoichi gets zero vengeance in this one. If anything, he's trying to minimize the amount of damage he is doing. If anything, it's anti-vengeance. It's un-vengeance. Just don't call the movie Zatoichi's Vengeance.
One of the things I keep talking about with the Zatoichi movies is the concept that the filmmakers are really afraid to shake up the formula. They keep introducing ideas that should be absolutely amazing, but keep backing down before that idea comes into play. In this one, Zatoichi meets a guy who out-Zatoichis him. Like many stories, Zatoichi revolves around a hero who lacks a fundamental sense, making differently abled. Like many movies, Zatoichi gains such strength in his other senses that he almost becomes superheroic, you know, like Daredevil. He's an amazing swordsman who has a sixth sense about traps and cheats. In this case, Zatoichi meets another blind man. This blind man doesn't have sword superpowers like Zatoichi. But he somehow can see even more than Zatoichi can. While Zatoichi's hearing acts kind of like Matt Murdock's radar sense, this blind man can see into the soul of people and know things that cannot be known. Again, both of these blind men don't TECHNICALLY have powers, but we get that they are more in tune with the universe, or however you want to explain how they can do these amazing acts.
But this blind monk is everything that Zatoichi is not. While Zatoichi has used his blindness to cheat people who would cheat him, he's mostly been considerd extremely noble up to this point. He's the hero of the story, after all. He's the guy who shows up in this small town that's been overwhelmed by a corrupt boss and takes down the army of cocky assassins to save the poor people of this town. But this blind monk puts Zatoichi in his place. This is the kind of stuff I like. I mean, I rail against it sometimes, but I like it in the case of Zatoichi, who has gotten a free pass for a long time. (I'm referring to how everyone criticizes the Doctor's practices from Doctor Who. Why is everyone so up in arms with his behavior?) Zatoichi tends to think with his sword. It makes sense. He, after all, is Zatoichi the blind swordsman. He has killed scores of people, all of whom, in his mind, deserved it. But the monk brings up the idea that maybe death shouldn't be the answer.
And the way he really drives this point home? Taichi. I know, his name is spelled Tai Chi and that's why I remember it without looking it up. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has the main character named San Ta, so Taichi is completely acceptable. When I was writing the MPAA section of this blog, I was wondering if I should bring in Taichi into that section. He's this kid who looks up to Zatoichi. Now, there's something really meta about it all. Zatoichi has always been the far more tame samurai film than stuff like, say, Lone Wolf and Cub. While both franchises involve a samurai who travels the countryside and murders just ungodly amounts of people, I can get complacent that Zatoichi is fine because there's so little blood. But Taichi is the audience. He's someone who sees Zatoichi as heroic because he murders the bad guy and the monk at least gives pause to Zatoichi. I adore this. I mean, I'd really adore this if they followed through on this.
The monk isn't an antagonist to Zatoichi. If anything, he's a friend that I would like to see in future entries. (That's probably not going to happen.) But I like the idea that Zatoichi needs to be called out on implementing the same things over and over again. I mean, he does it in a friendly and helpful way. The way that he presents this advice involves knowing that, one day, he'll meet someone who will out swordsman him. (I don't know the term. Just know that he'll die by the sword.) It's good advice. So if Zatoichi wants to be the best protagonist, he needs to find nonviolent ways to solve conflicts. And it really affects Zatoichi...
...I mean, not enough to do anything about it.
Sure, there's the moment where he gets himself beaten up. But he didn't even really understand the monk's advice. The point is that the movie really hinges on Zatoichi learning his lesson the hard way. It seems like he conceptually gets that the sword will be his undoing, but it never really plays out that way. I can almost guarantee you that the rest of the movie involve heavy amounts of swordplay as he cuts down people who try to cheat him and others. I mean, I don't think that the folks making the Zatoichi movies are willing to abandon their formula at this point or at any other point. It's the central conceit of the movies and just because the movie addresses this problem doesn't mean that they are going to do anything about it. It's all smoke and mirrors.
I would also like to discuss a really weird thing in the movie. Let's write off that the series wasn't going to listen to its central theme for a second. We can always delude ourselves to know that the monk's way influenced him in small ways that we'll never understand. Fine. But the movie goes out of its way to establish that Zatoichi has a weakness like kryptonite. Like Daredevil, Zatoichi can be disoriented by loud noise. It's a very cool weapon against him and we see that it really bothers him early in the film when he's at the festival with Taichi. The movie sets up that he can't stand to be around noise. So when the bad guys decide to use this against him, it should work. Heck, it's a great addition to the mythos. The bad guys bring these giant drums and start the process of throwing him off his game...
...and nothing happens. We have invested in a rule that the movie went out of its way to establish for us and then nothing happens. That's not fair. Don't tell me that there's a weakness. Find a way around it, but don't just ignore your own rules. That's a big thing for me and movies. When a movie sets up a set of rules early on, we're allowed to find loopholes, but we're not allowed to just ignore those rules. It's such a cool shot too. The bad guys just come in and we get everything in profile that creates this great visual. But ultimately, that image means nothing because nothing in this movie really matters.
That's what makes me constantly disappointed in the Zatoichi movies. I love the character. I really like the action. But nothing in these movies matters. Zatoichi has no chance of real danger because the movies keep retreating to their safe place any time real stakes come into the storyline. It's a bummer, but I also get it.
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.