After being so pleasantly surprised with The Tale of Zatoichi and in particular Shintaro Katsu’s endearing performance as the titular blind masseuse and master swordsman, I was keen to continue my “Zatoichi-gatsu” and watch the next entry in the series. I was also a little nervous: the series stretched to twenty-five films between 1962 and 1973, not counting later entries and remakes. Surely the quality would not be maintained for the duration, so it was just a question of when the drop would come. It was also not obvious whether a sequel would be an original story or merely a rehash of the first film; in watching many ongoing series from Japan’s 1960s and ‘70s like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s clear that each film in the series follows a fairly rote formula, often with the same cast returning in “new” roles. Would The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963) buck that trend, or mark the start of a more formulaic martial arts film?
Tokyo Mighty Guy • Danger Pays • Murder Unincorporated
Earlier on the site, I reviewed three films from Nikkatsu’s golden years in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Presented in Arrow Films’ Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Collection vol. 1, I found Voice Without a Shadow to be a decent early taste of Seijun Suzuki, but Red Pier and The Rambling Guitarist were both pretty forgettable, aside from the latter’s unusual Hakodate setting. So when I sat down to watch the films from vol. 2, I wondered whether it was worth digging into each film with a meaty review. I could just binge all three, I figured, and recreate the feeling of watching what I expected to be pretty ephemeral, throwaway pieces of entertainment in the 1960s.
The irony is that vol. 2’s films are much more entertaining and stand out from a crowded field of mid-’60s yakuza films by being much more comedic in tone. It actually feels unusual that rote action films like Youth of the Beast or Massacre Gun get their own standalone release, but Arrow has chosen to practically hide away these gems on the second volume of it’s Diamond Guys series. Perhaps it’s that the directors or the films themselves lack name recognition (Buichi Saito is perhaps best known for his work on Lone Wolf and Cub, while Ko Nakahira’s 1956 film Crazed Fruit is critically acclaimed but he’s otherwise unknown in the West, and Noguchi is billed as a ‘new discovery’).
Nevertheless, I’m going to treat these films more as a ‘collection’ than I normally would. Below are the reviews I wrote up while working through the disc, first posted over on my Letterboxd feed. Here’s hoping that Arrow digs deeper into Nikkatsu’s expansive back catalogue and releases another volume of Diamond Guys in the future.
I feel like I took a gamble on Zatoichi. It’s an old series whose legacy reaches far past the actual films, so I knew the basic premise of this blind swordsman from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even before the remake starring Beat Takeshi back in the early 2000s. I was hesitant to give the series a try, though, after struggling through six films of the seemingly similar Lone Wolf and Cub – and here was a series with twenty-five entries (and that’s just in the Criterion Collection, which sadly excludes the 1989 film also starring Shintaro Katsu, never mind the hundred-episode television show!). More or less totally unavailable in the UK, it was a moot point until Criterion brought their US collection over, and I finally rolled the dice.
Whether or not the rest of the series maintains the same level of craftsmanship is uncertain – or even unlikely – but the first film, Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is a brilliant and surprisingly introspective drama rather than the schlocky martial arts exploitation film I expected. This is all the more surprising considering Misumi actually directed several of the Lone Wolf films that I disliked so intensely – and that Shintaro Katsu, who stars as the titular Zatoichi, is the younger brother of Tomisaburo Wakayama, most famous for his portrayal of Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub.
To the best of my knowledge, Kurosawa only made two sequels in his career. The first was a sequel to his debut movie Sanshiro Sugata. The second was Sanjuro (1962), a follow-up to Yojimbo. It wasn’t originally meant to be that way – Sanjuro was intended to be a straight adaptation of an existing novel, but the success of Yojimbo led to it being reworked, with lead character Sanjuro returning. It’s not unlike the many Die Hard sequels, each an existing treatment, reimagined with John McClane as the lead character (ironically, all except for the dismal Die Hard 5, the only movie actually written and intended to be a Die Hard movie from the beginning).