Friday, July 23, 2004

Zatoichi The Fugitive (Zatoichi Kyojo Tabi)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July at the Brattle Theater (The Art of Samurai Cinema)

ShintarĂ´ Katsu starred as Zatoichi (Ichi), the blind samurai/masseur, 25 times between 1962 and 1973. I imagine that the stories for most of those movies are similar to this one, the fourth in the series - the blind samurai comes to town, is thought to be little more than a begger, but soon finds himself embroiled in a local dispute. The villains, of course, grow angry when they are humbled by a blind man early on, and eventually set a whole bunch of ronin or yakuza on him, whom he dispatches because though blind, his senses of hearing and touch are refined well enough for him to compensate.

Such is the case here. Granted, things were contentious at the start - Ichi has a price on his head for humiliating someone in a wrestling match, and a local innkeeper who used to be a yakuza boss has hired a ronin to eliminate the boss who has taken over his gaming hall. Ichi naturally winds up staying at this man's inn. Complicating matters is that in innkeeper's daughter and the heir to this yakuza are in love, and the ronin's wife is a woman from Ichi's past.

There's a formula to this type of film, and from the look of things it was working pretty well here. Katsu is comfortable in his role of a warrior who is blind but not bowed, and the story unspools at a somewhat leisurely pace. I imagine that, if you're familiar with the culture and genre, this is a very comfortable movie, with the appeal of a favorite television series - not terribly creative, but with nice production values and a familiar, likable protagonist.

Unfortunatley for me, I don't have the background. Everything I know about the samurai I learned from Akira Kurosawa and the recent Twilight Samurai, and much of my yakuza knowledge comes from Takashi Miike (disclaimer: do not try to learn anything from Takashi Miike's movies). So when Ichi says "we fought according to the rules" or some finer point of the samurai code, or honor, or shame is mentioned, I'm somewhat lost. Not that a film made in 1963 for a Japanese audience should worry about explaining things for an American who would be born until ten years later watching it in 2004, but it seems worth mentioning that I never remember feeling quite so lost during a Kurosawa film.

The movie looks nice; the Brattle was advertising it as a new 35mm print, and the original elements were apparently well-preserved. Director Tokuzo Tanaka used a lot of greens and gets good angles for the swordfights, which are well-choreographed.

I enjoyed the movie. Not enough to seek out the rest of the series, but enough to solidify my plans to see Takeshi Kitano's new Zatoichi movie in a couple weeks.

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