The seventeenth Zatoichi film, Zatoichi Challenged, has a lot going for it. With a primo director like Kenji Misumi at the helm it’s hard to go wrong, and yet there is a blatant misstep here that reflects a desire to be hip and with the times. While style that’s hip and with the times might be thought to sell tickets in the short term, it almost always dates a picture and makes it look uglier than it really is in retrospect. Nonetheless, Z17 is a huge step up from Z16, a production that seemed to be flailing its arms as it went under. I’m fairly certain that Katsu Productions hired Misumi with the idea that if anyone could get the series back on track, he could. And they were right.
The screenplay is a mix of many familiar Zatoichi elements. There’s a dying wish, an orphaned child, a traveling theatre troupe, and a whole host of corrupt officials. But added to that already crowded mix are a mysterious ronin and an illegal pornography ring. That’s right–at the core of this story is the illegal production of ceramics that are embellished with pornographic art. The amusing thing about the latter plot point is that such a thing wasn’t really so scandalous in the time period of Master Ichi, but pornographic woodblock prints and literature declined under government pressure after the Meiji restoration (late 1800’s) and then declined again after WWII as western morals took on a greater role in Japan. But I digress.
Screenwriters Ryozo Kasihara and Kan Shimosawa do a wonderful job of weaving all the disparate plot threads together in such a way that one leads inevitably to the next and so on. This way we don’t end up in a tangled mess because some of the story elements are dropped as new elements are picked up.
Shintaro Katsu is great as usual, but there seems to be an effort here to make him a little more realistic. He reacts more like you or I would when suddenly saddled with an orphaned child. He reveals to us that he’d rather not have the burden of finding the child’s father and he’s not entirely kind to the brat of a boy. That might seem out of character for Ichi, but it makes his heroic gestures later in the film even more grand because of the shift.
The supporting cast is great, as usual, especiallyveteran actor Jushiro Konoe as the samurai master Akatsuka. When we meet him we wonder if he’s to be a friend or foe of Ichi’s and he strikes the perfect balance to keep us guessing throughout the film.
Production values are very high this time around, with interesting lighting taking a front seat in several scenes. But it’s the sword fight in the dense snowfall toward the end of the movie that really takes the cake. It’s well-shot and the addition of copious amounts of falling snow add a welcomed new visual element. The fight–a one-on-one fight after Ichi has killed 37 other guys–is easily one of the best in all the Z films and it’s not to be missed.
The snow fight is punctuated by symphonic music by master composer Ikira Ikufube who also composed the music for many of the Godzilla pictures and one of my personal faves, the Daimajin trilogy. In fact, the music cues here are suspiciously similar to those in Daimajin, but they’re also incredibly effective so I’ll cut Ikufube some slack. Unfortunately, some of the other music cues aren’t so great. Early on in the film we’re treated to some Sergio Leone-style spanish guitar which isn’t so bad, but then we get a full-fledged musical number with the theatre troupe that seems like it was ripped from the Japanese version of an Elvis film. Yes, it even has a wacky electric shamisen track! I didn’t even know there was such a thing. It’s an awfully embarrassing moment for a film that’s so thoughtfully assembled otherwise. It really sticks out like a sore thumb these days, but at the time it probably seemed exciting and modern.
When all the dice are down, this is one of the best the series has to offer, especially if you ignore (or fast forward through) the musical number. Highly recommended.