Friday, February 6, 2009

REVIEW: Zatoichi: The Fugitive

座頭市兇状旅 (Zatōichi kyōjō-tabi)

Released: 1963

Tokuzo Tanaka

Shintaro Katsu
Miwa Takada

Masayo Banri
Junichiro Narita
Katsuhiko Kobayashi

Running time: 86 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

I’m sure it’s no easy task to maintain an audience’s attention throughout a film series, to keep them interested, to ensure they’re still surprised and enthralled. Being able to find that balance between originality and the comfort that comes with reoccurring characters, stories and events is sometimes hard to maintain. And yet it seems that Japanese studios from the late fifties until the early seventies were adept at churning out films in series, sometimes several in one year. Nikkatsu was expert at this, releasing the eight part "Gambler" series in a span of 3 years and the six part "Hoodlum" series in 2. But Daiei and eventually Toho’s "Zatoichi" series is a whopping 26 films, released from 1962 until 1987, although the first 25 were released by 1973 (Daiei released the first nineteen films, Toho the next six and Shochiku the last). It’s obvious by the length of the series run that it did indeed captive Japanese audiences for a long, long time.

"The Fugitive" is the fourth film in the Zatoichi series. It was one of three made in 1963, the second to be filmed in colour and the second to be directed by Tokuzo Tanaka. After being attacked by a wandering thug, Ichi learns a price has been put on his head. Haunted by the lingering question as to why a bounty has been placed upon him, he soon becomes embroiled in a bitter power struggle between local Yakuza bosses. Sakichi, who reluctantly inherited his father’s territory after his death, is in love with Nobu, the daughter of an innkeeper who lost his territory to Sakichi’s father five years ago. The remaining local bosses, viewing Sakichi as weak and unworthy of his title and position, scheme to usurp his territory from under him. Add into the mix a scruffy Ronin who seeks the reward on Ichi’s head, who also happens to be romantically involved with Tane, Ichi’s admirer from "The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" and "New Tale of Zatoichi", and you’ve got a pressure cooker under which Ichi will finally break.

While "New Tale of Zatoichi" delved into Ichi as the tragic hero, who tried to give up the life of a warrior for love and happiness, here we explore Ichi as the vengeful, angry hero who fights because he craves blood. It’s a new side of Ichi, and it keeps the film fresh and exciting. While the action is sparse, until the epic climax, the tension slowly builds as the inevitable clashing of swords grows ever closer. Ichi tries to find a peaceful resolution to the bosses’ problems, and even when surrounded by a small army of Yakuza, he chooses to maintain his distance, protecting Sakichi and Nobu. But when tragedy strikes, Ichi snaps, and he transforms into a wild beast. The ensuing battle is unlike anything from the previous films. And while it lacks the spraying of blood that would soon flood the Chanbara genre, Shintaro Katsu’s performance of Ichi fills the screen with a raging inferno of anger. It’s pretty spectacular. While it features the usual Zatoichi tropes, they are all filtered through this vision of vengeance. It gets sloppy and dirty, and the show down between Ichi and the Ronin isn’t quick and neat like his usual duels, but is protracted, grueling and vicious. By the time the film ends, Ichi is a changed man.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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