Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tale of Zatoichi, The (1962)

Director: Kanji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Masayo Banri, Michiro Minami

While my preference has always been with the Chinese kung fu and wuxia films, in the last couple of years I have decided to really delve into the swordsman genre. For this, I picked up the massive Criterion Collection release of the Zatoichi series to review. The first film, The Tale of Zatoichi was a lot different than I imagined it would be. It's far less violent and extreme in execution as say Lone Wolf and Cub or Lady Snowblood and much more akin to the films of Akira Kurosawa, although a bit easier to digest. The end result is a film populated with fascinating characters, an easy but subtle plot, and a finale worth the slow burn.

With tension mounting between two yakuza clans, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) finds himself caught up in a escalating situation. As a blind man, people always underestimate his powers as a swordsman, but the leader of one clan knows this and pressures him to stay with pampering and money. When the other clan hires the talents of a ailing ronin Hirate (Shigeru Amachi) to balance out the sides, a war seems inevitable.

While sword fighting films seem noted for their sword play and intense characters, The Tale of Zatoichi seems content in keeping things in the gray area. This first film of the series takes its sweet time really building up our anti-hero and the complexity off the situation at hand. Truthfully, it’s about half way through before we see Zatoichi pull his sword in defense and even then it’s done in a way that really showcases his lethal speed and precision instead of some well-choreographed battle. The rest of the film really focuses on the character development and interaction of the world created. The actors involved handle this interaction between plot and character with surprising finesse. Both Shintaro Katsu (as Zatoichi) and Shigeru Amachi (as the ronin Hirate) really slather on deep and subtle character work for the two main characters, although the latter gets far less screen time despite his importance to the plot and our lead, and the intriguing dynamics of the supporting cast left me enveloped in the world of these two clans. While some of the subplots are obviously there only for character development (including a romantic one), they are effective in placement and how it all works together.

Burning the candle at both...sides?
As for the finale when the tensions mount to the brink of war, director Kenji Misumi handles it with stunning visual prowess. The battle scenes are played more for realism and minimal budget constraints for these eager but poorly trained yakuza yes-men and when Zatoichi and Hirate finally meet, the camera shot that pans, spins, and zooms is damn near breathtaking. The build towards the finale is pretty hefty, but it pays off in spades leaving our final sword duel one of emotional weight instead of testosterone-fueled arrogance.

While I didn’t expect this franchise starter to be such a dramatic and effective piece of cinema, the resulting brilliance of The Tale of Zatoichi works on a variety of levels. As a swordsman film it hits all the necessary elements of loyalty, betrayal, and the lonely road of trying to accomplish the right deed with the sword as a burden and as a drama it nails the depth of characters and pacing of plot. It’s a fantastic film to start off my massive marathon and one that I highly suggest to any cinephile.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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