I’ve never been able to figure out why movies in general got better looking over time, right up until we got to the 1970s. Then the look of everything just went to hell. Maybe it was lower budgets or the new film stocks that didn’t live up to their promise, but whatever the reasons, the Zatoichi films are as much victims of the 70s curse as any other series. Zatoichi at Large, the first of two Z films from 1972, looks particularly bad. It’s dark and muddy. Admittedly, that could be partially due to the poor print that was transferred for the AnimEigo DVD I viewed, but I think it also has to do with the way the film was shot. Cinematographer Fujio Morita just couldn’t resist trying new things here and he mostly fails. That’s okay, because some of the over forty titles he shot over his career were genuine milestones of Japanese cinema. To me, it just shows how even talented people must risk failure in order to grow as artists.
But back to the film at hand. Zatoichi at Large (Z23) has all the usual suspects for a successful Z film. Ichi, played with grace and style by Shintaro Katsu, is once again on the road where he stumbles upon a woman who has just been robbed and stabbed. Since Ichi’s blind, he doesn’t realize this, instead thinking she’s simply in labor after he realizes she is with child. He delivers the baby only to have the woman die suddenly after she mutters a few key words about the baby’s father. Just like in a couple of other Z films, Ichi is saddled with delivering a child to its family in a not-so-nearby town.
When he arrives at the town, Ichi not only finds that the newborn’s father is missing, but also that it’s a town that is completely free of yakuza. The town constable, a particularly righteous man, even by Japanese standards, has somehow managed to keep them away over the years. Now that novel status is being challenged by a particularly evil oyabun right before a big festival. Of course, Ichi ends up in the middle of the conflict.
Z23 is a decent effort that could have easily risen to the top of the list were it not for a couple of key problems. One is the overall look of the picture, mentioned above, but that’s not the biggest problem. If a story is clearly told, I could watch it on VHS and still enjoy it. Surprisingly, the biggest issues here all revolve around the story, and particularly the fights.
As usual, Shinataro Katsu’s combat skills are excellent. Ichi’s displays of swordsmanship early on in the film show us glimpses of what’s to come. They prime the pump and make us eager to see the inevitable final battle. A skillful ronin named Denjuro is even hired by the oyabun for the sole purpose of disposing of Ichi. Why, then, is Denjuro completely absent when the chaotic battle happens? We know he craves a one on one with Ichi because he told him as much, but doesn’t it make sense for him to lead the charge? Instead we get a chaotic bunch of clashes with some cool gimmicks but no clearly fought skirmishes. It just seems like a lot of people running around and swinging swords in the dark without clear actions or consequences.
*SPOILER AHEAD!* (highlight with your mouse to read)
When the smoke clears (literally) and Ichi bids farewell to his new friends in the town, we get the unexpected arrival of Denjuro, who Ichi dispatches in five seconds! What the what?! I hated the ending so much that it tainted what is otherwise a pretty good movie.
Honestly, if I didn’t know better I’d swear that veteran director Kazuo Mori hadn’t been at the helm of this one. Maybe the 70’s just got the better of him this time around. Z23 is recommended for those (like me) who simply love Zatoichi films. If you’re a casual viewer, there are better places to start.