Zatoichi: Festival of Fire (Zatoichi #21) is a big step up from the previous film, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, but it’s still mired down by some of the same problems. There are too many plot threads, many of which are only tenuously related to the main story, and it’s difficult to fathom the motives of some of the characters. Nevertheless, director Kenji Misumi, the man who started it all and the director of some of the best installments in the series, takes the director’s chair one last time and does all he can to weave this messy tale into a cohesive whole. He’s not entirely successful, but the movie looks very good and each scene plays well on its own even if the overarching narrative doesn’t quite work.
The film begins with Ichi at a “mistress auction”. Women are being bought and sold as consorts (or worse) and the man Ichi has been hired to massage is looking to buy a new toy. The woman he ends up purchasing is truly beautiful, even to the blind masseur, so after she’s been paid for, Ichi frees her from the palanquin she’s being transported in and kills the man who bought her.
During Ichi’s escape, a mysterious man shows up and helps him, then quietly follows him to his hiding place and surprisingly kills the woman. Ichi finds the body and buries her, expressing his regret over the fact that his actions may have shortened her life, then he sets off to visit the village of one of his yakuza peers. When he gets there, he finds rampant corruption amongst his peers. The yakuza oyabuns (bosses) have been subjugated by a sort of uber-boss named Yamibuko who is rolling in money and power. Ichi meets this man and finds out that he’s also blind, but after Ichi makes some off color remarks at a gathering of the lower oyabuns, he’s inexplicably marked for death by Yamibuko. Perhaps Yamibuko is afraid of Ichi, but his thirst for Ichi’s blood is never clearly explained.
What follows is a series of events that involve elaborate plots to rid Ichi of his life. The problem with all of this is how easily he might have been killed if he were attacked more simply. It reminded me of some of those ridiculous James Bond death plots where the villain sets up an intricate apparatus that gives Bond numerous chances to save himself. Yes, there are some awesome scenes wherein Ichi dispatches several dozen opponents on his own, but the lack of clear motives on the part of the villains makes those scenes less exciting than they could be.
Since this is the second Ichi film of the 1970s, it has some mod new stylistic elements like multiple boxed images onscreen together, a silent dream sequence, and hipster music (in this case by famed composer Isao Tomita) along with generous helpings of nudity and gore. In addition, there’s the very first sexually ambiguous character in an Ichi film. The young pimp, Umeji, appears decked out in makeup and he even makes a pass at Ichi. I doubt this is the first time this sort of androgynous character appeared in Japanese cinema, but it’s a first for the Zatoichi series.
There are some good fight sequences in the film, the most unusual of which features a cadre of nude yakuza attacking Ichi at a bath house. Unfortunately, this fight in particular is marred by wacky music and some slapstick moments with wash buckets, but it’s somewhat interesting to see how the filmmakers kept all those penises out of view.
Performances are good across the board, but there’s a new face that will be instantly familiar to Japanese film fans. Tatsuya Nakadai appears here as the ronin with no name. Nakadai has appeared in over 130 films to date (he’s still working), among them a litany of Kurosawa films, The Sword of Doom and the original Hara Kiri. His turn here is striking, playing a husband who doesn’t want his quest for revenge to end.
Overall, this isn’t one of the best of the series, but it’s far from the worst. Recommended for hardcore Ichi fans but not for the casual viewer.