Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Zatoichi at Large (1972)

Director: Kazuo Mori
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Rentaro Mikuni, Hisaya Morishige, Etushi Takahashi, Naoko Otani, Osamu Sakai, Renji Ishibashi

After a roller coaster series of entries in the last handful of films, the Zatoichi franchise needed a film to go back to its roots. A film that returned to the formula that established what fans loved about them to begin with. This is what Zatoichi at Large represents. A cleansing of the franchise from its oddities and a return to form. This is both a blessing and a curse for the film. The previous few entries shied away from this approach as it was becoming redundant and that redundancy shows its cracks in the foundational writing for this 23rd film in the blind swordsman series. However, Zatoichi at Large is largely saved by a director that knows dynamics in the visuals and a ferocious third act.So it's a mixed watch for fans.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is once again caught up in the wrong place at the wrong moment when he finds a mugged woman ready to give birth. She passes away in the process of delivering her child, but right before she does she gives our hero the name of the place and father for him to deliver the child to. So off Zatoichi goes, once again, into a town with vicious yakuza to set things right.

A meeting of swords...before they are drawn.
The first half of Zatoichi at Large is about as formulaic as this franchise gets. Zatoichi has to deliver a baby…again. Zatoichi has to help a woman in legal trouble with the yakuza…again. Zatoichi meets up with a wandering swordsman who wants to fight him…again. Zatoichi has to save the local festival...again. Zatoichi stumbles into a botched yakuza overthrow…again. We are now 23 entries into this series and the formula that used to be so enduring is getting a little worn and tattered and Zatoichi at Large does nothing with the writing to really add anything new to the progress. No wonder the series started adding in guest characters and crazy plot twists in the last few films because this script is mediocre at best. Even the dialogue seems bland.

Luckily, director Kazuo Mori seems to understand that the script is weak and does a ridiculously admirable job at keeping the movie a visual feast since the writing and characters are all things we have seen before in this series. His style still is a bit grittier and darker at times (something that was seen in his previous two directorial outings for the series Zatoichi and the Doomed Man and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues) and it’s his use of lighting – particularly in the second half which takes place predominately at night – and his slick camera movement that makes this film so much fun to watch. Even though the film ends on a rather sudden and sharp note, the swordsman duel is done with an artful manner that the franchise hasn’t really seen before stylistically speaking. It’s definitely Mori that keeps Zatoichi at Large on par with the strength of the rest of the series despite its foundational flaws.

Look at that light design!
It also has to be mentioned that the final fight sequence, once again something that has repeatedly popped up again and again as Zatoichi must fight off hordes of yakuza fighters, is actually really well paced and choreographed. Leading up to this, the film is rather action free, instead focusing on some of Zatoichi’s “showcases of speed” to keep things lively. However, it’s this third act that piles on a serious body count with gore and a real visual knack to keep things tense and fluid. At one point, Zatoichi is actually set on fire and proceeds to menacingly walk towards his prey. Yes, I said ‘on fire.’ In full display of the camera. If there was any Zatoichi film that I could say was saved by the last act, it’s Zatoichi at Large.

In the end, I can’t say that this 23rd entry is going to be one that sticks with the viewer over time. Zatoichi at Large lacks any real depth to the story and the characters are nothing worthy to be remembered outside of another strong performance from Shintaro Katsu. However, for fans it’s going to be the execution of the visuals and an insanely ferocious third act that is going to save the film from being a complete stumbling block for the franchise as it nears its conclusion. It’s enough to make the film fun and effective entertainment. Which, in turn, is really all one can ask for from this series at this point.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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