Review – New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

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New Tale of Zatoichi is the third film in the series and one of its best.  The first three films comprise a trilogy of sorts, for which this installment is a fitting conclusion.

The story begins when Ichi discovers that he’s being pursued by the brother of a man that he killed in the previous film.  Ichi is tired of the endless circle of revenge that the yakuza is intent on fulfilling, but the man refuses to back down.  The fight is stopped short, however, when Ichi’s old swordmaster, Banno, appears and breaks it up.

Unfortunately, Ichi soon learns that, despite his teacher’s higher station in life, he is much less of a man than the blind masseur.  Things come to a head when Banno’s younger sister, Yayoi, offers Ichi a way out of his life of violence against her brother’s wishes.

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The usual suspects are all in place here: the enemy out to take Zatoichi’s life, the samurai who might be an enemy or a friend (or both), and the woman who has tender feelings for the blind man in spite of his handicap and low social standing.  What’s different this time is the way in which the story is told.  This film was made only a year after the first and yet the screenwriting, directing, and cinematography all took a leap into the modern age.

The plot is a zig-zagging mix of elements, for sure, but it never becomes confusing.  Director Tokuzo Tanaka, who also directed the first Sleepy Eyes of Death movie the very same year as this one, leads the audience through the story with a deft touch, never forgetting that it’s the feelings of the characters that compel us to care.

Shintaro Katsu gives a shining performance as the blind swordsman, swinging (no pun intended) from enraged condemnation to gentle laughter within a single scene.  Ichi is much more sympathetic this time around, largely due to the warmth he exudes in the face of tragedy.  Katsu’s co-stars are no less adept, but center stage in this picture is reserved exclusively for Katsu.

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Cinematographer Chishi Makiura does a wonderful job of creating lucid imagery that helps us to understand Ichi’s plight.  I’ve admired his work on many films, this being the first where he exhibited a mastery of his craft.  The camera work here is impeccable.  That’s an especially stunning achievement when you realize just how poor some of his tools were at the time.  Scenes never appear to be artificially lit despite the stage-bound nature of the production.  This film is his first, great tour-de-force.

The music is also some of the best in the series.  The great Akira Ifukube is back after stepping away for the previous feature, and this time his score works perfectly.  His music accents the film’s tragic core while simultaneously moving us to feel for the characters.  Despite the fact that most of Ifukube’s 274 scores have a noticeably similar sound, the arrangements make this one really stand out.

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The transfer on the Criterion blu ray is very clean.  It’s not going to win any high-resolution detail contests, but this is the best I’ve ever seen this film look.  Thankfully, Criterion has opted to present the picture with the somewhat muted palette that it probably had when shown in 1963.  I’m really tired of modern transfers of classics that ramp up the color saturation in the name of a more modern look.  You’ll see none of that sort of fiddling here.

If you’ve never seen a Zatoichi film before, this is definitely the one I’d recommend as a starting point.  Very highly recommended.

*NOTE: I originally reviewed this film in 2011 based on a very poor digital copy.  Since the release of Criterion’s blu ray box set, I’m going through and re-reviewing the entire Zatoichi series.