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?
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.
Yurusarezaru Mono (2013) is Lee Sang-Il’s gorgeous remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven, shifting the setting from the American Old West to Japan’s late 19th century northern frontier on the island of Hokkaido. Lee is able to draw out tremendous parallels between the two countries in that era – both recovering from a civil war, and expanding outwards into ‘unclaimed’ territory – and effectively retell the same basic story in a wholly new locale. Ken Watanabe (Tampopo, The Last Samurai) stars as Clint Eastwood’s equivalent: Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer”, a former samurai on the side of the Shogunate in Japan’s civil war (1868-69). After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial forces, Jubei is among those who fled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo), where he now lives a life of utter destitution. He’s picked up by Akira Emoto’s Kingo (the role played by Morgan Freeman in the original, in some strikingly similar casting) to collect on a bounty placed on the Hotta brothers by the prostitutes they disfigured. Much of this draws on story beats from the original Unforgiven despite the drastic change in location and culture, but while Clint Eastwood’s final Western is critically acclaimed, I’ve never cared much for it. In Lee’s hands, however, the story comes alive and works in a way I never felt about the original.
Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
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).
It’s back to Kurosawa for Yojimbo (1961). I was a little apprehensive after The Hidden Fortress, but any worries were misplaced: this is a samurai gangster action comedy masterpiece.
While recording our most recent podcast, I got into an argument with my co-host about Kurosawa’s films. He said they’re unwatchable, I said they were great. The Hidden Fortress (1958) is not great. Hidden Fortress really is almost unwatchable; a disjointed, overlong piece that seems far more old-fashioned than either the hyper-stylised Throne of Blood or the very modern Seven Samurai – I’m surprised it has high critical praise, but I’m not surprised it’s being compared to even older adventure movies like Gunga Din (1939) and Thief of Baghdad (1924).
The second movie in the BFI’s Kurosawa box set, Throne of Blood (1957) was a total mystery to me. I hadn’t seen Seven Samurai, but I at least knew the rough plot outline. All I knew about Throne of Blood was what I could figure out from the cover, which was that some liberties had been taken with the original Japanese, ‘Spiderweb Castle’. Or as the subtitles put it more fustily, ‘Cobweb Castle’. About ten minutes in though, it became clear this was Kurosawa doing Macbeth, and knocking it out of the park.