Tag Archives: zatoichi

Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold—It’s Gold Jerry (1964).

By 1964, the relatively modest Zatoichi series had become a cult sensation equal to the more austere chambara productions of the era from the likes of the “Emperor” Akira Kurosawa himself.  Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (No. 6 of 27) was the series coming out party so to speak as it took the franchise to the next level with radically improved direction and photography.  Shintaro Katsu’s portrayal of Zatoichi, an already likeable character, really comes into his own with great professional swordsmanship precision, excitement and that venerated undercurrent of righteously fighting for the underdog.

The James Bond films must have copied the opening of this movie where our hero is surrounded in the inky darkness of the night as he fights off numerous swordsmen.  The viewer is treated to seeing some of Ichi’s best moves in the first few minutes of the film.  It is clear that the star is astonishing in his ability to dodge and weave through attackers while swinging and thrusting is blade with extreme precision all in wide and unedited shots. The sixth film in the series also brings increased talents behind the camera as the lens masters for Rashomon, Yojimbo and several other famous samurai movies take over the filming conveying a polished and creative look unlike we see in any of the previous pictures.

In the Chest of Gold, Ichi becomes more of the action hero that in earlier episodes.  At the end of the movie, Ichi’s wasted a caravan of guards, six of whom carry rifles and another force of soldiers he dispatched while carrying a small child on his back.  We are not totally left with this new blind superhero as he is up to many of his old tricks like splitting a coin in half in mid-air, jams on both flute and drums during a village celebration, and impishly shares a bath with a well-endowed female spy.

Zatoichi returns to a village to pay respects to a local he mistakenly killed some time ago.  The dead man’s sister trails him throughout the story, at first looking for a chance to get revenge.  She gets an opportunity when the villagers’ tax payment of 1000 ryo is stolen and she points out that Zatoichi was seen near the chest of money.  In truth he was sitting on it, but was unaware of what it was – being blind and all.  The villagers cry for blood and Ichi vows to get it back.  The trail leads to a Robin Hood-like criminal named Chuji Kunisada (Shogo Shimada) hiding out with his few starving followers on a nearby mountain.  Although Chuji has repeatedly aided the villagers, they suspect this “gangster” of stealing the taxes.  After a Mexican standoff between the men, Ichi deduces that the real criminal turns out to be Monji, the corrupt magistrate that demanded the tax payment from the villagers.  As Monji’s soldiers close in on Chuji’s shabby hideout, Ichi diverts the soldiers while fighting to protect a small boy in his care.  Ichi finally faces Monji and Jushiro (Tomisaburo Wakayama); the magistrate’s former hired samurai and a master of the bullwhip.

And the best is saved for last.  Having overcome all previous obstacles, Ichi takes on the film’s fiercest criminal fighter, Jushiro.  Sporting a facial scar and a bullwhip, he shows up early in the film as one of the hired men who steals the tax money.  He teases the viewer by nonchalantly dispatching his enemies with murderous precision, yet steering clear of Ichi.  As all great antagonists would do, Jushiro distances himself from the petty desires of his former master to focus on his need to see a great swordsman like Ichi cut down by his own hand.  Tomisaburo Wakayama, who plays Jushiro, is the real life brother of Shintaro Katsu, so the final duel is in one sense a family affair.  Tomisaburo had also played Ichi’s brother in Zatoichi 2, but any chambara fan knows him as Ogami Itto, the star of the Lone Wolf and Cub series we previously reviewed.  It’s no surprise that this fight is one of the best in the series.  Initially, Jushiro is on horseback and wielding his whip, leaving the blind swordsman at a serious disadvantage.  But that soon changes as our hero, though seriously wounded, lives to fight another day.

As mentioned before there is some continuity throughout all of the Zatoichi films such as Ichi’s ability to sniff out gambling cheaters, his amiable relationship with comically unattractive women, and his love for song, drinking and dance.  If you’re already familiar with the character, one of the most memorable scenes is when Shintaro dances as he approaches the villager’s celebration before taking up the drums himself. 

There is little left to say, except that Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is really the springboard for what is the longest running and what is arguably the best film franchise to date.  I suggest that you watch some previous films first so you can fully appreciate the character and increased quality of this film.


Posted by on January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Lone Wolf & Cub Five: Or don’t try to pass off a girl as a boy. It could cost you your head.

This is the 5th in the Lone Wolf & Cub series.  It also marks the return of Director Kenji Misumi who directed the first three Baby Cart films.  It combines the films strong period feel, a convoluted affair and a fantastic amount of onscreen schematic violence.  Including some of the best death scenes in the series particularly the deaths of the messengers, each die a spectacular death.  For example, Itto slashes one of the poor saps who falls into Itto’s campfire’s red-hot coals living in agony only long enough to relay a complex message before finally he is finally engulfed in flames.

I guess I should explain the reference to the messengers in the preceding paragraph.  Ogami is being vetted by five messengers who all try to kill him.  That is some original job recruiting by an employer; I don’t think we would have an unemployment problem if more employers took these types of actions in while headhunting.  After defeating all the messengers, Ogami learns he must kill a young girl who is being raised as a boy to become heir of a local daimyo, while the real heir, a little boy, is kept locked away in a castle tower.  I have to ask wouldn’t someone notice along the way that the child is growing into a woman rather than a man?

The assassination assignment includes murdering the senile old lord, his concubine and the girl masquerading as a boy, plus Ogami must also stop a document revealing this sham from reaching the hands of his mortal enemy, Yagyū Retsudō.  While on the job, his son Daigoro is once again separated from his father and proves his courage and sense of honor as he refuses to admit the guilt of a woman pickpocket he promised not to rat on.  With his father looking on and giving his son ever so slight nods approving of Diagoro’s refusal rat on the woman, the boy is beaten, doesn’t talk and has taken his first major step to becoming a samurai.

For Itto it can be said that although Tomisaburo Wakayama plays a very stoic, virtually emotionless character, he does it very well.  This is perhaps due to his years of real martial arts training.  He handles his sword normally without any of over the top moves because of his skills, however, he can pull it off as his movements are focused and intimidating.

Now as a chambara fan, I must confess that the combination of stylized violence and the existential mystical look at both historical Japan and the genre conventions that form chambara, sure come through in this film.  It might not be as groundbreaking as the first two entries in the series; it is after all following well-tested tradition, but it is done with such conviction and deliberation that one has to give it its due.

As with other serialized characters of the chambara universe like Zatoichi or Nemuri Kiyoshiro, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons meets one’s expectations as a pure Lone Wolf movie that doesn’t frustrate one the way Hollywood sequels do.  Master film-maker Kenji Misumi breaks the traditional forms of the period drama that make even a fifth entry of this tried and tested recipe very palatable.

The idea of the five Samurai, each giving Ogami a part of his mission as their dying words is an imaginative one.  The fight scenes were excellent, particularly the underwater fight scene.  While the final battle was not as epic as some of the others in the series, Ogami still fights an entire army single-handedly, as fans have come to expect since the second film.

While some may say Baby Cart in the Land of Demons isn’t as enjoyable as some of its predecessors, I think otherwise.  It’s very solid from a technical standpoint and probably the most beautifully-filmed of the bunch.  The Spaghetti Western cinematic influences are present throughout in the form of tight Leone-esque camera shots and certain musical cues.  At times, there’s also a subtle otherworldly atmosphere, which may or may not be suggestive of Itto and son’s further descent into the depths of hell.  Even the supporting characters in the film are somewhat allegorical in a way: the clansmen of the Kuroda wear demon masks, and the initial five Kuroda representatives that Itto battles in the first act of the film wear veils that feature drawings of the “Beasts of Hell”.

As with anyone of the series see it, you won’t regret it.


Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews


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Zatoichi The Fugitive: Better Late Than Never.

Yes, I know it’s overdue, but here is my personal take on “The Fugitive.”

Zatoichi “The Fugitive” is the fourth in the Zatoichi series that centers on a blind man wandering the Japanese countryside, ostensibly making his living as a masseur. In reality, though, he is a professional gambler, a Yakuza (members of traditional, organized crime syndicates in Japan) and most importantly, an outstanding swordsman.  Zatoichi is a master of the “iaido” style—that consisting of the smooth, controlled movements of drawing the sword from its scabbard, striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade, and then replacing the sword back into the scabbard.

Like most blind people, Zatoichi possesses extremely heightened remaining senses.   His senses are so sharp, in fact, that he can hear the way dice role in a cup, differentiate between a man and a woman by their distinctive scents, and use his swordsmanship with deadly precision and lighting speed.  All of these abilities go a long way in keeping him alive in a time and place abounding in death.

In “The Fugitive,” Zatoichi strolls into a town that is in the midst of hosting a Sumo wrestling match.  Ichi decides to participate in the Japanese tradition and wins the requisite five matches to take the tournament, while the local Yakuza loose face, since they were beaten by a blind man.  After the matches have ended, Ichi is enjoying a snack next to a pond when he is attacked by local scoundrel trying to capture the 10 ryo (gold currency used during the period weighing about 16.5 grams) bounty that was placed on Ichi’s head.  Ichi cautions the man to discontinue the attacks, but his warnings go unheeded.  Ichi makes quick work of the man, and while he is dying, Ichi is able to find out the name of the mother of his latest victim.

Ichi sets out to—and does—find the dead man’s mother (herself a Yakuza) and begs for her forgiveness.  While apologizing, Ichi stumbles upon a local Yakuza power struggle, takes the side of the underdog, and eventually restores the balance of power, ending a violent turf war and returning the town to a state of peace.

While intervening in this struggle, Ichi is forced again to deal with the bounty on his head as well as with a skilled, angry Ronin.  In the end, Ichi and the Ronin fight a grueling battle, and Ichi, again, is the warrior left standing.

I must profess–I love the entire Zatoichi series and have all 26 movies.  While the general storyline in “The Fugitive” constitutes the basis for each of the Zatoichi films, they are all enjoyable individually and stand up well on their own.  Many of the original Ichi movies surprisingly contain a fair amount of humor, unlike the 2003 remakethough, which was a grim and bloody tale of the blind man’s journey.

I agree with my counterpart’s (Silver) review in several respects.  First, the Lone Wolf and Cub series (also one of my favorites) plays on the same general theme.  One could easily conclude that both of these series reflect the sentiments of Japanese movie culture popular at the time.  More importantly, I also agree with Silver in that this is not a Yojimbo or some other cinematic masterpiece, nor was it meant to be.  These movies were made to be enjoyed by a more general, mainstream audience and they were obviously very successful at doing so.

Despite its age, the movie is about 40 years old, “Zatoichi—The Fugitive” continues to entertain and provides an excellent representation of period Asian Samurai cinema.


Posted by on May 7, 2010 in Movie Reviews


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Baian The Assassin–The Review.

Since I have been in an Asian mood lately, I decided to watch a popular Japanese TV miniseries entitled “Baian the Assassin” starring Ken Watanabe as Baian Fujieda, an acupuncturist by day and an assassin by night.  His preferred method of dispatching his prey is inserting a long needle into a certain place on the victim’s neck.  His friend Hiko, a toothpick artisan by day, is also an assassin by night and often teams up with Baian to assist in their complicated and diabolical deeds.  The series comes in four parts and while it was made for the general audience of television it nonetheless contains many elements of the more violent assassins like Zatoichi and the Lone Wold.

Another interesting technique used in this miniseries is a fair amount of narration. Some found the narrator to be annoying or otherwise unnecessary, however I found it quite helpful and appropriate given my general unfamiliarity with the subtle rules of assassination.

The entire series consists of four DVDs each containing several episodes lasting about 90 minutes apiece. I must say for a TV show this isn’t too bad at all. I don’t have a problem watching one of the episodes over again particularly when I’m with somebody who has never seen the series.

All in all it’s worth a watch, but it is not always the easiest flick to find. It certainly is not crap. Plus I never knew anyone could make a living making toothpicks by hand as our friend Hiko does in his day job.


Posted by on January 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews


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