Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 1

Ever since the debut of Kenji Misumi and Shintaro Katsu’s landmark film THE TALE OF ZATOICHI in 1962, audiences and filmmakers have been mesmerized by the idea that a blind masseuse, who wanders the lands of the Tokugawa Shogunate, is more lethal in a pinch than any gang of outlaws, in-laws or scofflaws could ever hope to be. More than that, Ichi attempts to live as humble, kind and honest as others will let him and is a time-bomb of explosive fury over injustice and cruelty. To modern, cynical audiences this may seem a bit too saccharine, but in the gifted hands of now legendary actor and filmmaker Shintaro Katsu, it never crosses that line from being a flawed hero to being a pious preacher. As a matter of fact even with changing directors, writers and co-stars, the series lasted a total of 26 films with only a handful of missteps. 25 of the films were made from 1962 to 1973 and even during that time there were many filmmakers, both Asian and Western, who fell under the influence. Ranging from blatant rip-offs such as the BLIND OICHI series (released to Western audiences inexplicably as CRIMSON BAT) to, ironically, the traditional Western reinterpretation of the Samurai film, the Western.

1969 saw a series of what is arguably Japan’s most popular knock-off of Shintaro Katsu’s character, Oichi the blind swordswoman, played by Yoko Matsuyama. In the first film of the four-part series, CRIMSON BAT: THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (1969, aka BLIND OICHI STORY: RED BIRD OF FLIGHT), directed by Sadaji Matsuda, we are given the grim introduction to Oichi as a little girl. After being abandoned in the forest by her mother, a prostitute who’s current boyfriend wants her to ditch the kid, a bolt of lightning comes crashing down in front of Oichi, blinding her and leaving her sobbing on the ground. Years later she has found her grandfather who tells her that her mother is running a brothel in a northern city, only to be cut down by the swords of a criminal gang that he was once a part of. As we all know, great, kindhearted masters of martial arts do nothing but wander around the countryside looking for people who are have been victimized, so that they may nurse them back to health and teach them the ways of the martial arts so that they may set out on the road to some well earned revenge. So our scruffy master, does what all scruffy masters do best and we flash forward some years and find that Oichi has grown in to a lightning fast, sword-wielding harbinger of destruction.

You’d think from here, this being a rip-off, that Oichi would now march down that path between heaven and hell burning with the hellfires of vengeance. But not so fast! Not content to merely ape the semi-tragic nature of Katsu’s films, here there is nothing but grief for Oichi. Everyone she loves or even so much as kinda digs either abandons her or is murdered, the rest just try to kill her or take advantage of her. Her mother abandons her in the forest; her sensei knowing that he cannot return Oichi’s affection, leaves her in the middle of the night; her loving grandfather murdered. Even incidental characters try to rob, cheat and rape her. On her path northward she runs afoul of evil gamblers, the leader of which is a female bolas-wielding croupier and a man who’s orphaned daughter has been sold into prostitution. She eventually does find her mother, but instead of a tearful reunion with a nice reparation and resolution that you would find in an American film, here the tearful meeting is an unspoken acknowledgement and the scent of death in the air. Many subplots and plot-twists later, we find that those that mess with Oichi do not end well, yet neither does Oichi, who, as the narrator gravely intones at the end of the film “Oichi went away on the cold wintery wind, carrying with her her sword-cane and a great deal of loneliness… Her sightless eyes filled with tears”. Yeah, it sounds a little over-melodramatic, but this is 1969 after all and seriously, if I have to choose between that happy Hollywood horseshit and a little excessive melodrama, I’ll go for the later every time.

While the film is mercilessly downbeat, it does have a moment or two of levity such as a throw-away gag in which a blind masseuse wanders through a scene and is unceremoniously thrown out of it by a couple of hoodlums who give him a swift kick in the ass and mutter “damn masseuse!” Following a mere nineteen installments of the ZATOICHI series, I’d guess that there might have been a few peeps in the audience who were feelin’ that. What is really striking about the film is that in spite of its apparent low budget and imitator status, like the Italian horror knock-offs of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it goes to great lengths to be its own film. It makes the effort to wash the screen in striking visuals and colors; a scene in which Oichi and her sensei are practicing in the snow foreshadows her abandonment by isolating the two characters in a spotlight with inky blackness and white snow-flakes between them. Unlike Zatoichi, Oichi is possibly over compensating for her blindness by always being impeccably dressed and never pretending to be poor or submissive. The fight scenes are well choreographed, though seasoned samurai fans will no doubt leap forward to bring up examples of better, they are more than adequate with Oichi’s bright red robe and cane-sword adding a splash of kinetic visual appeal during the fights. Also Oichi’s fighting style is sort of a “drunken master kung fu” style that has been turned into “blind master sword” style. In combat, Oichi appears to be constantly off-balance, stumbling and falling in just the right ways to avoid her opponent’s weapons and slice the living bejeezus out of her enemies. Perhaps the filmmakers did not intend for this to be a “style”, but more of a way to create excitement by having her blindness putting her in imminent danger of falling into someone’s sword, but either way, it’s still interesting and unusual fight choreography that sets it apart from the massive amount of samurai outings of the day.

Like many films of the era, since TV was still in its infancy, these films were shot back to back and released in serial fashion. The second entry in the series, TRAPPED: THE CRIMSON BAT (again directed by Sadaji Matsuda), has Oichi, presumably hardened by the traumatic events of the past, seemingly embracing her life as a wandering cold-blooded bounty killer. Lingering around a small village, she runs afoul of a gang of cutthroats who are peeved about her poaching bounties on their turf. The thugs are headed up by a female Yakuza who wields a razor-tipped whip made of hair and as it turns out they are also in league with a corrupt governor who is extorting all of the food from the local farmers. Yep, you got it. That means lots of enemies to kill! There are several subplots, some of which are a little odd. In an early one we find Oichi living with a teenage girl who seems to be very attached to Oichi whose trust was gained by telling her that she was an orphan. There is a lot of physical touching and emotion between the two and it doesn’t take much to come to the conclusion that they are more than just friends. Like all of Oichi’s relationships things do not end well, but this time it is Oichi that pushes the girl away after finding out that she lied about being an orphan and was really just a runaway pretending to be kidnapped. This entry again rolls out the obligatory gambling sequences in which Oichi can “read” the dice by listening to them and an otherwise honest villager is fleeced by the Yakuza-run gambling hall.

Ditching the heavy pathos and most of the style, Oichi returns with a new director (Hirokazu Ichimura) in WATCH OUT! CRIMSON BAT. Largely dumping the pathos, stylized visuals and gambling scenes, this outing is more of a European cold-war / espionage type of film. Don’t believe me? Try this plot on for size! An elderly science guy has created the plans for a powerful weapon, which could change the balance of political power if they fall into the wrong hands. Of course they have been stolen and multiple parties will kill for it but our hero is the only one with the mad skills to get them back! Since this is feudal Japan, that science guy is a gunsmith and his McGuffin is a scroll on which is his latest formula for gunpowder. Even a circus knife-thrower turns out to be an assassin! Cue Henri Mancini score… or not. The film opens with a wounded rider being dragged by his horse. Oichi cuts him free as he drags by and as he dies, he implores her to take a scroll to its rightful owner. After that Oichi is beset by local thugs, assassins disguised as priests and a corrupt general who is kidnapping villagers and forcing them to manufacture and test his gunpowder. Oh yeah, and a couple of homeless kids. A wandering samurai who was a student of the gunmaker is also after the scroll. I say he “was” a student because in a lapse of logic that only the NRA could appreciate, he was expelled by the gunsmith and denied the marriage to his daughter because he killed someone. Ummm… Old dude. You are designing and making guns. You got about as much right to be pious as an ex-Nazi would be if he were made Pope. Ha! Like that could happen!
*ahem* Anyway, with so many people after the scroll, it’s a fair bet that a lot of ‘em will get to taste Oichi’s blade, and that is a bet you will not lose… even in a Yakuza-run gambling hall. Heavy on the action, Oichi is a flat out killing machine at this point. She has a sense of justice, a sense of purpose and a weapon to make it happen. While this is something of a departure from what makes the series a cut above (yeah, yeah, I can see your eyes rolling), at the same time, it’s pretty damn fun. The ending fight sequence is straight up 15 minutes of Oichi and two ronin cutting down an entire army in an explosives testing facility. In the end, this time Oichi isn’t abandoned by anyone and actually turns down the companionship of a man who admires her. Never mind that it’s the very same man that tried to rape her in the middle of the movie!

The final entry in the series, CRIMSON BAT: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (again directed by Hirokazu Ichimura) finds Oichi with a bounty on her head – no doubt the government was a little pissed about having their army decimated in the last film – turning the hunter into the hunted. A small fishing village is being evicted from their land by the government who wants to build a major port there. The corrupt officials are actually swindling the fishermen out of the gold the government has provided as compensation and are trying to use brute force to throw them out. Meanwhile three bounty hunters (a wandering ronin, a master of sickle and chain and a hulking ex-monk) team up to take down Oichi who happens to be in town. After rescuing a woman, and herself from being raped, things get ugly as Oichi tries to save her own skin and eventually even the score for the fishermen. Along the way there she is framed for murder, falls for the ronin and gets into a little obligatory gambling. This is probably the most straight-forward of the series. The score is very modern, there is very little tragedy and the ending is ridiculously upbeat, particularly compared to the endings of Sadaji Matsuda’s entries. Plus there is plenty of action to go around. The action sequences mimic ZATOICHI’s quite a bit now as Oichi fights with a sheathed sword as long as she can, only resorting to killing her opponents if absolutely necessary. No longer the proud bounty hunter of TRAPPED, Oichi is now more of a humble traveler. Well maybe "humble" isn't quite the right word as she is still decked out in flawless fashion and doesn't kowtow to anyone. In addition to the contrasting styles of the two directors, it’s interesting to see the character arc from film to film.

While the series seems to walk the line between comic-book exploitation and tragic drama, it stands out of the pack as an entertaining and, ironically, unique series in the Japanese swordsman genre.

Zatoichi Goes West… NEXT!

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