Friday, November 27, 2009

“It's like being stuck in a bog; it's not easy to pull yourself you once you've fallen in.”

Samurai are always fun to watch, so I’m not really one to turn down an opportunity to do so when it presents itself. Zatôichi monogatari (or Zatôichi 1) was made in 1962 and was the first of almost thirty films featuring the blind swordsman. That right there’s a phenomenon, so what better way to take a look (incredibly lame pun) at where it all started.

A blind gambler and masseur who also happens to be an expert swordsman arrives at the estate of a rural crime lord/Yakuza. The boss wants Ichi around because a gang war is brewing with the crosstown rivals, who also have a sword master as their guest. Ichi impresses the hell out of his new “boss” and starts orbiting the dirty dealings going on around him. He goes fishing one day and meets the other ronin, and the two become buddies that respect each other quite a lot. However, the gang war becomes inevitable and things get really ugly in the village.

Zatôichi: Shintaro Katsu plays Blind Ichi. He’s a generally patient man, incredibly competent, and a fantastic swindler when it comes to gambling, and can bisect a lit candle so that both sides have wicks that are still on fire. Ichi’s a badass, plain and simple, and one that is capable of sincere vulnerability and morose reflection on his rather unpleasant life as sword for hire in the world of organized crime. He doesn’t like killing, but the life he finds himself in is one where his particular skills are extremely good at keeping him alive. He doesn’t even use a katana. He uses a straight edged sword cane.

Tatekichi: Michiro Minami plays the henchman more or less assigned to be Ichi’s servant during his stay. He starts off somewhat comical and unimportant, but then you find out that he’s trying to forcibly hook up his sister with a gangster buddy and he’s knocked up a girl in the village. He turns into a complete douche bag when said girl in the village ends up floating in the river soon after and you spend the rest of the movie waiting for his sweet, sweet comeuppance.

Tane: Masayo Banri plays Tate’s goodly sister, a nice gal who is trying not to get dragged back down into the gangster world. She and Ichi take a liking to each other.

Hirate: Shigeru Amachi plays the other swordsman, a formidable looking warrior with a few major issues. He’s from Edo, but apparently left under less than ideal circumstances, and he’s also got consumption (tuberculosis) which is slowly killing him. Considering his problems, its not a surprise that he drinks heavily. Circumstances put him and Zatoichi into positions as rivals, but honestly, they’re the most upstanding, honorable and likable characters in the entire movie.

Director Kenji Misumi filmed it in black and white, which gives the movie a great moody feel (and considering the criminal subject matter, there’s a little bit of a film noir feel thrown in). The story itself builds at a slow boil, with characters introduced and a feeling of the inevitable conflict mounts and mounts until you get some big violence at the end and a climactic duel. Misumi does use a couple of moments where he will have the camera in close on the characters, something happens and it zooms out rapidly to reveal a much larger scene. It’s a great technique and the suddenness of the zoom is a good contrast to the more traditional camera pans and whatnot.

Kan Shimosawa wrote the original short story that Zatoichi appeared in and Minoru Inuzuka handled the screenplay. Characterizations are great and you really get a feel for how scummy the crooks are and develop real sympathy for the two swordsmen. The story’s also got huevos for not going for the typically expected ending. Sure, some of it is expected, but there are some legitimate tweaks in it that make it memorable.

The score by Akira Ifukube is used mostly sparingly, for when the movie has its explosive bursts, and its effective.

Zatôichi monogatari is a pretty cool samurai movie. Probably not for everybody because its actually pretty light on action, but the atmosphere, build up and payoff are all really well done. It was a very good movie.

Surprising hard to find a clip of this movie on Youtube.

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