Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

My first introduction to the Zatoichi series came with its tenth entry. Before watching Zatoichi’s Revenge, I knew nothing about the character. In fact, prior to Steve’s big email listing all of the films, I had never even heard of Zatoichi. The list of names was fascinating in and of itself. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman? Zatoichi and the Chess Expert?! That sounds freaking awesome.

But revenge is sort of my thing. Not my personal thing (I don’t hold grudges particularly well), but a thing I particularly enjoy seeing represented in cinema. So I picked two, Zatoichi’s Revenge and Zatoichi’s Vengeance, that seemed particularly suited to that. (You’ll read from me again on Saturday.)

But as it came time for me to finally sit down and see the thing, I wondered: should this really be my introduction? Should I start with the first film and then skip over to 10, so at least I have some context? Hubert said no, it could be more interesting to see if the film stands alone. So there I was, watching Zatoichi’s Revenge, without the faintest idea what I was in for. It played out as a series of questions.

The thing is, I didn’t even realize that Zatoichi was “the blind swordsman.” I thought that was another one of his weird nemeses, but when the film started up, it said “The Blind Swordsman’s Revenge.” And then it opens on a man laying on the back of a cart eating a rice ball, and the questions begin:

Is this Zatoichi? Is he blind or just closing his eyes to bask in the sun? (Is Zatoichi blind at all?) He says his name is “Ichi,” but that’s not the same as Zatoichi. What does Zato mean? He’s kind of klutzy with his rice, huh? Maybe he’s not a swordsman? Or is that just to trick me?

But wait, that wouldn’t trick people who had been following along since the beginning, so was it really something just for newcomers? Or was it something else? Why didn’t he ask the man on the cart to stop after he dropped the rice ball? Most of it was probably still good, right? But he can’t see it! So he wouldn’t even know.

But the biggest question I had was always, “Was that from a previous movie?”

In Zatoichi’s Revenge, everybody says exactly what they’re thinking about, and all of the exposition you could ever need to know (and more) will come out in the dialogue. Zatoichi stops at a bridge to explain what the bridge is, why it’s important, and what he’s about to go do. But whenever certain events were mentioned (He killed the guy! He invaded the thing! He did the whatever!), I had to wonder whether I was supposed to remember them.

But for the most part, these references to other moments were easily ignored. The only thing I really wish I understood was the relationship between Zatoichi and his master. That seems like the kind of thing that would have been explained in a previous entry, and that seemed like a big element to have missed. More specifically, why was he a masseur, and why is Zatoichi a masseur? Isn’t he a swordsman? Were swordsmen masseurs back in the day?

There were no answers in the film, and I wasn’t going to pause it to find some. As it turns out, Zatoichi’s Revenge is the first entry in the series to not have a Wikipedia page, so I couldn’t have checked there for immediate clarification anyway.

Despite that, it’s easy to follow the narrative told in Revenge, because everyone is really clear about their motivations, often in earshot of other characters that probably shouldn’t know about them. And it’s not just like they’re always hiding; there are really big moments where high-level characters speak openly about their corruption in front of others. It’s… weird, but it makes everything really simple.

And anyway, watching little girls get beat up for not having sex with sketchy old men gives the audience more than enough reason for wanting to see the brothel’s benefactors dead. I didn’t have any investment in Zatoichi’s revenge, but I had an investment in the bigger picture. His master’s daughter was forced into prostitution (although she refuses to cooperate) and Zatoichi is going to get her out. 
That I can get behind. And in the moments where my interest in his mission starts to wane, the recurring song that the two of them apparently sang together back in the day comes up as a nice reminder that these girls are being treated terribly and someone’s gotta pay. And Zatoichi is there to make sure that happens.

This being my first Zatoichi film, it’s also my first introduction to the blind swordsman’s might. I’ve been watching so many hand-to-hand combat films lately that I’ve forgotten just how quick sword battles are. Swipe, swipe, five people are dead. Boom. That’s it. So to make for a long battle, you just have to throw dozens of guys at Zatoichi. So that’s what they do. I don’t know how the scale of the later battles compare to previous films, but I was pretty impressed. Sure, there’s little-to-no blood from the vast majority of strikes, the sound is wonky, and there’s no way that stuff would actually kill people that quickly, but those are the things I was willing to accept at face value. This is a film from 1964. I shouldn’t be expecting The Raid 2 here.

(While we’re on that note: The Raid 2 is so freaking good, and everyone should see it. The action in that film is freaking brilliant. Goddamn.)

Zatoichi’s Revenge didn’t make me crave another Zatoichi film. When Hulu immediately started up the next film, I turned it off and went to do something else instead (write this). I don’t know if any of the films really sink their teeth into you like that, but this one wasn’t it. But I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I’m glad to be introduced to the character.

Though the tenth film may not have been the best place to start. 

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