Friday, January 23, 2009

REVIEW: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

続・座頭市物語 (Zoku Zatōichi monogatari)

Released: 1962

Kazuo Mori

Shintaro Katsu
Yoshie Mizutani
Masayo Banri

Tomisaburo Wakayama
Yutaka Nakamura

Running time: 72 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

I’ve always equated "Zatoichi" with "Columbo". From the moment I first saw Ichi on screen, I immediately thought of my afternoons watching Peter Falk grace the small screen. Both are very recognizable and at the time of their release, popular in their native countries. Both have had a long running stint in both TV and movies (TV movies in "Columbo's" case). And both appear to be bumbling halfwits. Sure they stumble around, acting like their completely unaware of what’s happening around them, but they both use this to throw their opponents of guard, causing them to underestimate the samurai and/or detective. However, Columbo only sends his antagonists to the slammer, while Zatoichi sends them to their grave. But they both do it in a similar manner. Sudden, with completely focus and usually out of left field.

"The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" picks up one year after "The Tale of Zatoichi" ended. Ichi swore he would visit the grave of Miki Hirate, the ailing samurai he killed in "The Tale of Zatoichi". He winds up selling his masseuse skills to a local lord. But when Zatoichi becomes wise to the bizarre mental illness that afflicts the lord, his devoted samurai decide they must get rid of Ichi before he can spread the information of their masters mental ineptitude. Of course, killing Ichi is no easy task, and the samurai quickly fall to his shikomi-zue (cane sword). With samurai jumping out of everyone corner, keen to end Ichi’s life, he must still deal with Tane, the young village girl who offered her hand in marriage to Ichi during the first film, who is still eager to be his bride. He’s also confronted by a wandering one-armed samurai (Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu’s real life brother and the man who depicted Ogami Itto so well), whose style of swordsmanship is sloppy at best.

"The Tale of Zatoichi" is a chanbara classic, and the perfect introduction to Ichi, who would become one of the most popular on screen characters in Japanese history. "The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" adds a great deal of depth and history to the Zatoichi mythology, completing story arcs that started in the first. The reasons for Ichi turning down Tane’s hand in marriage are revealed in flashbacks and voice overs, as we discover he was once in love, but was dumped for his older brother when she discovered he was blind. We discover how his relationship with his sibling helped influence his decision to pick up the sword. Narratively, it’s the perfect follow-up to the first film, generating the same balance of humour, drama and rapid fire sword fights that have become the norm of the series. My only one contention with the film is that technically, it just isn’t as sharp as it’s predecessor. Maybe it’s because "The Tale of Zatoichi" was directed by Kenji Misumi of "Lone Wolf and Cub" fame, a man who fills every frame with both beautiful and sometimes surreal imagery, while "The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" was directed by Kazuo Mori, who would have a less successful career, directing a few more films in the series and some of the lesser sequels of the "Shinobi" series. Maybe they rushed the production of the second film after the success of the first (it does seem that way, as the second is only 72 minutes long as opposed to 96 minutes for the first). Either way, visually the sequel seems sloppier than the first, the cinematography not as controlled. But regardless, "The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" is a strong follow-up in the classic series.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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