I finally got to see of the latest entries in the Zatoichi series last week: Takeshi Miike’s 2009 theatrical production and last December’s supposed final entry ZATOICHI: THE LAST.
It’s kind of an understatement that attempts to revamp the ZATOICHI franchise in the last decade has been a mixed bag. The most successful was “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 revamp. Then there was Miike’s 2007 stage production, an attempt to reboot the franchise with a cute girl in 2009, ICHI, and then ZATOICHI: THE LAST.
The problem with trying to continue the franchise is the lead. The role had been strongly identified with the last and only other actor to play him, Shintaro Katsu. Katsu played the blind swordsman in 25 movies from the Sixties to the early Seventies, then in a TV series for the rest of the 1970s that lasted 100 episodes before one last movie in 1986, which was an attempt to re-launch the franchise at the time. You need someone sufficiently charismatic and larger-than-life like Katsu was and Kitano at least fit the bill. The thing is, Kitano’s portrayal felt temporary, like he was just trying on the shoes, since he was never a fan of the character or the series, and he made his movie a kind of Brechtian comedy while retaining all the conventions of a Zatoichi story.
The owners of the franchise had favoured Kitano over Miike, who was a fan and had desperately wanted to make a movie that did Katsu proud, and give the saga of Zatoichi a decent ending. I guess the owners wanted a re-launch rather than a finale. About three years after the release of Kitano’s movie, Miike got to stage a theatrical production starring Sho Aikawa.
Miike’s production was not actually anything particularly radical like a grand finale to the story of Zatoichi but a fairly standard tale, albeit a love letter to Zatoichi and the expected tropes of a Zatoichi plot. In a variation of YOJIMBO, as most Zatoichi’s movie plots were, the blind swordsman finds himself travelling with a musician and entertainer to rendezvous with a theatrical troupe stopping to put on a show and earn their keep at a mountain village ruled by two rival gangs. They get wind of a treasure map revealing the lost gold of a long-dead samurai clan the gangs are fighting over and decide to see if they can get the map and the treasure before the gangsters do. Then there’s the disgraced samurai working as a bodyguard for one of the Yakuza bosses who turns out to be the former lover of the woman leading the theatre troupe, another corrupt samurai who’s actually an undercover government official sent to spy on the gangs who decides to grab the treasure for himself, various betrayals and twists that will culminate in Zatoichi being the catalyst to an all-out massacre by the end of the story.
We should remember that Miike had a background in experiment theatre before he became a filmmaker, and here he brings an almost avant-garde sense of minimalism to the staging, relying on basic, abstract sets and special lighting to go from naturalist village settings to a more abstract atmosphere suggesting Zatoichi’s state of mind, and also alternating between traditions of bawdy humour, pathos and choreographed action in both theatre and movies. What the script does is emphasise the class commentary that was always inherent in the movies: that ordinary people were often victimised by the forces of greed and corruption in the form of gangsters and government officials, and were often caught in the middle of their fights. Zatoichi may be part of the underclass and another outsider, but he’s a force of nature, some might say even a monster, who ends up laying waste to the forces of evil, but not before they’ve left a trail of dead innocents in their wake. By the end of Miike’s production, Zatoichi is once again the only one left, saddened by the slaughter as he walks away, and nearly everyone else is either dead, maimed or traumatised.
Then there’s ZATOICHI: THE LAST.
When I heard that this was supposed to be the last ever Zatoichi movie, my curiosity was piqued. ICHI was not a box office hit, so I wondered if this was a way to shut the franchise down for a few years before they found another way to start it up again, like Toei Studios have done with Godzilla.
The problem I had with ZATOICHI: THE LAST is that it just… feels… wrong. Directed by journeyman director, the movie covers the last days of notorious blind swordsman Zatoichi. Except it’s not really Zatoichi as we’ve come to know him in more than 20 movies, it’s some young, clean-cut bloke. The script is really a standard “gunslinger settles down and tries to give up the Life, only to be pulled back in one last time” but it’s just wrong from the get-go. For starters, Zatoichi here is played by the much-younger Shingo Katori, who looks way too clean-cut and middle-class and doesn’t convey the grit, dirt and exhaustion of a man who’s been living on the road with only his wits and his sword to get him through the day. And then they give this Zatoichi a saintly young wife who of course is conveniently killed by baddies to spur him on to an eventual tragic showdown with lots and lots of mean people with swords. Of course, many of the usual elements you expect from a Zatoichi plot are here: the evil gangster lording over the town, the corrupt government officials, the renegade samurai who’s going to fight Zatoichi, the downtrodden villagers and the hordes of disposable baddies with swords to be cut down. The script offers no real surprises or the necessary humour to lighten up the grimness that we’ve come to expect from a Zatoichi story.
This is the style of directing where everytime someone starts crying, the camera will slap a big whopping close-up on their face and hold it there for a small eternity. The biggest problem is the script just gets Zatoichi totally wrong. This Zatoichi is a young guy who decides he’s going to settle down with a wife, which is not the Zatoichi that has been established over the course of over 30 years’ worth of stories. I suppose it does come down to Katsu’s portrayal: his Zatoichi was a hard-living, whoring, fun-loving wanderer who would never settle down, because he knows he can’t – you never want to hang around a town after you’ve slaughtered a few dozen people there in a big swordfight, even if they were bad people. Katsu’s character was defiantly, inescapably working-class as befits someone not living in comfort or privilege and he carried that in his body language and the nuances of his speech and face. Kitano, himself from a working-class background, could carry that as well. His Zatoichi exhibited a more dry sense of humour and the air of a guy who sliced up evil bastards mainly because he couldn’t be bothered to talk them out of trying to kill him. He really shot his movie as a kind of Brechtian joke without abandoning any of the tenets of a Zatoichi story. Unfortunately for ZATOICHI: THE LAST, Shingo Katori didn’t have the necessary gravitas about him, and there was also the uncomfortable sense that he was Acting throughout his movie. He’s a hardworking actor with some respectable credits on his CV, including playing the Monkey King in the latest TV series remake of SAIYUKI aka MONKEY aka JOURNEY TO THE WEST, but here, through no fault of his, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching someone cosplaying as Zatoichi for two hours. Even Sho Aikawa, a more seasoned actor, conveyed the hard-living roughness of the character in Miike’s stage production, but both the stage show and THE LAST only reminded me of how much I miss Katsu’s version. The movie doesn’t seem to have made much impact in Japan, since I couldn’t find much written about it beyond the odd review.
So yes, Zatoichi does die in THE LAST, but it doesn’t really feel real. At the end of the day, he’s a fictional character and anyone else could come up with a new story or even a new ending. I like to think there might have been a whole bunch of Zatoichis wandering around fictional 19th Century Japan and sooner or later someone would tell their story. Even Katsu’s TV series version had a finale – the final episode, written and directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, who directed the classic WOMAN IN THE DUNES in the 1960s, ended with Zatoichi regaining his sight. But I guess it’s become a problem for a franchise when the best actor who played the role has passed on and the next best actor, Kitano, doesn’t seem interested in doing it more than once, so the best thing to do is to put the character in a box for a few years until someone with a good new idea comes along. After all, it worked for DOCTOR WHO.
(Neither ZATOICHI X MIIKE nor ZATOICHI: THE LAST are available officially on DVD with English subtitles at the moment. I watched them with the help of someone translating for me.)
Blind as a bat and without a sword at firstname.lastname@example.org
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