My vote for the best of the first dozen
on February 15, 2005 - 11:29 PM PST
of Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (VII) (1964)
3 out of 3 members found this review helpful
Perfection is boring. Luckily for us, the character of Zatoichi is far from perfect.
Zatoichi is a normally humble, traveling, blind masseur who relies on his necessarily honed reflexes and swordsmanship for his own defense in feudal Japan. He augments his income by gambling, using his keen sense of hearing to predict the fall of the dice and to keep the game honest. He is genial and grateful to those who are kind to him. He is generally accommodating to the wishes of others, though at this point he's beginning to realize this just gets him into trouble.
But for a sort of paladin, he has a disturbing dark side. He gambles as often as possible, using his disability to trick other players out of their money. He has the audacity to lecture officials and gang bosses as if they were old friends. And in each installment, whether by a presumed righteousness or threat, he inevitably becomes a vigilante and a bushwhacker, improbably dispatching scads of opponents with strokes of his cane-sword, which whine like a fine dentist's drill. Zatoichi may claim never to draw first, but he manages to provoke that draw successfully from his intended victims.
It is these contradictions in his personality and his outrageously accurate, lightning-speed swordplay which entice us repeatedly to watch Zatoichi just try to get through life in a harsh world.
This offering concerns the forced acquisition of a ferry business by one gang from another. Recognizing the business for the cash cow it could easily become, the primary villain finagles to obtain it and charge people triple the current fare. He is spurred to action when he learns of a free fireworks display, which he believes will draw people away from his businesses. Petty (and deadly) shenanigans ensue.
True to a B-movie series, the plot of this chapter has features in common with the other installments. Zatoichi travels to a new town, in this case to give thanks to a Good Samaritan. Two rival gangs there duke it out with the assistance of some well-placed political corruption. Through his reputation, the people begin to deduce who this masseur must be, and they act accordingly. It falls to Zatoichi to set things right, in part to save his own skin. He might even get the girl again, if he wants her, though it is his habit to be publicly oblivious to the possibility. And once again Zatoichi learns that no good deed goes unpunished.
But revel in the differences. For once, root for one of the gangs, who, through a benevolent despotism, takes on the role of the Good Guys. Learn the practicalities and basic economics of feudal, assisted ford-crossing. Begin to believe, as Zatoichi does, that this world may not consist solely of demons after all.
On the technical side, this is the best color print of the series so far. Look at the striking use of predominant color and camera angle in the separate interior scenes. The outdoor scenes are as well composed, and the camera lingers just long enough for the viewer to take in the panorama of people in the background.
To appreciate the sword fights, you must get over the fact that you're watching an intimate depiction of mass slaughter--though very little blood appears. That said, check out Zatoichi's reaction to being cornered at the ford. And the use of limited but strong lighting will make you believe that the extended, final confrontation is occurring in near-total darkness, though you can see--or imagine--pretty much everything.
The few bits of comedy are a welcome relief to this often intense drama. I must mention one of these. At one point, a hungry Zatoichi tries to respond to his host while snarfing down a large bowl of rice and literally chokes on his words. We then hear, in a wise and hopefully intentional decision to retain what would normally have been an outtake, the not-so-muffled laughter of several people off-camera--even though there are only supposed to be two people in the room
at that time, and one of those has his mouth full. It must be the film crew who are laughing with Zatoichi, and we laugh right along with them.
If this review is your introduction to the Zatoichi phenomenon, I suggest you begin with the first two in the series, which form a complete story arc and introduce at least one character referenced in subsequent installments. The remainder of the first dozen can be seen in any order.
As for myself, I'm looking forward to the next dozen.