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Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Kasama no chimatsuri

Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)
After two and a half years, I've finally been able to complete the original Zatoichi saga! Zatoichi's Conspiracy (he doesn't actually partake in the conspiracy here), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, is the final movie of the original Zatoichi theatrical run (but not the final Zatoichi film with Shintaro Katsu). His adventures continued in the form of a television series, which I'm not interested in so I'm going to skip on that.

The plot here is, as you'd expect, similar to other entries. Zatoichi goes to a town and fights criminals. In this film, however, the place he visits is his home town and we get to find out a bit or two about his past. It's one of the more elegant and melancholic films of the series, partly because the music returns to the orchestral form after the funky experimentations in the earlier few films. One interesting thing is that, despite saying he hasn't been in his home town for 20 years, he already visited his home town and the old lady who raised him back in the third movie, so either his memory is fuzzy or the Zatoichi series aren't meant to be too consistent in canon, and are more like tall tales whose details are lost in re-telling (to borrow the theory from The Jidai-Geki Knights).

Also, this is one of my favorites of the saga. The fights are very well done and the final ten minutes are very exciting, for sure one of the best Zatoichi finales. The coffee palette color scheme that Kimiyoshi Yasuda's Zatoichi films are known for is improved by most of the scenes here being shrouded in darkness, and the story is pretty interesting to follow. The fact that the enemies here aren't just the yakuza thugs but pretty much the establishment itself also makes it stand out. However, some of the characters here just aren't necessary; the obligatory black- clad mystery ronin (who barely even appears here), and a small band of thugs whom the film could've done without.

Highlight of the film: the final battle, in this case.

Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Lead actor Shintaro Katsu sits in the director's chair for the penultimate movie of the original Zatoichi saga. Despite being the 24th in the franchise (you'd expect them to get worse over time), Zatoichi in Desperation is easily one of the best installments of the series.

The story itself is nothing new. Zatoichi tries to help people and gets into trouble with the local thugs. However, this movie is much darker than any other in the original series. Not only does Zatoichi accidentally cause an old woman's death by falling off of the bridge in the intro, but the remainder of the plot is unusually bleak for the series. There's not much humor either, besides one cum shot gag. One interesting thing about this movie (besides the uncharacteristically silent and black intro credits scene) is that Zatoichi doesn't get to be a savior of the situation at one point, leading to unsettling deaths, which is a cool little piece of subversion. There's also more sex than usual, giving the movie a rougher, exploitation vibe that I can't help but like.

The other thing that sticks out about this movie is how pleasing it is to look at. Not only is the setting a melancholic sandy beach town (not really a typical Zatoichi location), but the camera-work is so over the top and brings to mind some of the techniques from the Japanese New Wave. Sudden zoom-ins and outs, out-of-focus shots, free-wheeling shot composition, obstructions in the foreground, wacky color combos, crane shots, floor shots, silhouettes and dynamic editing. It surprisingly doesn't come across as a pretentious overkill that swallows the story; instead, it makes it a lot more interesting to watch than its predecessors just because it's so unlike the rest of them. The soundtrack has also been replaced by funk music, which oddly fits the movie.

Highlight of the film: Zatoichi gets his hands stabbed, so he ties his sword to his hand so he can fight.

Zatôichi goyô-tabi

Zatoichi at Large (1972)
After the previous installment, which was the least formulaic so far, the franchise sadly takes another turn to the generic with Kazuo Mori's Zatoichi at Large. The truth is, this would be a pretty good movie if it was one of the earliest ones, but as #23 of the series, it comes across as a bland pastiche of all too familiar tropes and elements from the other films.

Apparently, the Zatoichi films would rarely get shown again, so directors would get comfortable with re-using themes. This one begins with the same baby plot as Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (#8) but soon turns into another "town terrorized by gangsters" deal. The final boss here is played by Rentaro Mikuni (his second appearance in the series), but doesn't get to do much that others before him didn't already. An interesting thing about this film is that the first half is utterly goofy while the second is dead serious, but aside from that, this is typical Zatoichi stuff. Of course the mystery ronin appears too, but the battle between them is remarkably lazy, like the filmmakers just said: "yeah, let's get this over with already".

The visuals are a bit above average, with a recurring color scheme of black and blue (there's a very pretty scene where Zatoichi converses with a lady in front of a sparkling creek). The intro song just lists off common Zatoichi situations, as if it's making fun of the repetitiveness of several motives of the series. Speaking of that, some ideas here were downright lifted from previous outings, like Zatoichi breastfeeding a baby (from #8), Zatoichi being mistaken for a murderer (from #22), getting trapped in a ring of fire (from #21) and fighting while on fire (from #8 again). I guess the only unique thing here is that he gets tortured by villains.

Highlight of the film: a comic relief scene where an entertainer does a show with his monkey.

Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjin-ken

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)
It's rare to see that the 22nd installment of a franchise gets to be its finest. I'm still not exactly sure if Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is my exact favorite so far, but it's definitely up there. In the review for the last film I said that that it'll be hard to make the series interesting or fresh for the final few outings, but #22 does it by not following the plot formula that the previous films established and by putting Zatoichi against a charismatic, capable rival.

It's a crossover with the One-Armed Swordsman films starring Jimmy Wang Yu, the third Zatoichi crossover in a row. The Mifune one was utterly meh, and the Nakadai one was barely even a crossover in how he was used in a small side-plot, so it's easy to say this one surpasses them with ease. Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman cannot understand each other because of the language barrier, which sets in motion a very interesting story, but also stands as a simple, but oddly effective metaphor for the cultural differences and conflicts between China and Japan.

To add to this, the final duel in this film definitely doesn't have a predictable outcome like the Zatoichi vs Yojimbo one had. I was actually surprised at it. Also, the sword-fighting scenes are just excellent all throughout the film. The only real weakness is lack of an unique visual style, but that really goes for any Zatoichi film directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.

Highlight of the film: a thug getting his arm chopped off by Zatoichi and not even realizing it until he sees it in front of himself.

Hokusai manga

Hokusai deserves better
This is a biography of the famous Japanese woodblock print-maker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the most well-renowned Ukiyo-e artists. The Japanese title of the movie, Hokusai Manga, is actually the name of the 13-volume sketchbook he published cca. 1814. The sketchbook contains a number of shunga drawings (erotic pictures), which the film decides to focus on as far as Hokusai's work is concerned.

The people from Hokusai's life are all here; his daughter who spent her entire life with him, his friend and Japan's first professional writer, Kyokutei Bakin, an alluring model called Onae (who was, as it seems, invented for the film because there's no mention of her online at least), and even his contemporary Utamaro Kitagawa, another famous woodblock artist.

But really, the film fails to do anything memorable with this ensemble, instead turning into a generic biopic without any eccentricity or artistic vision. The movie feels very drawn out and boring at certain times. There are also some attempts at humor which completely miss their mark in the movie's first half. The second half, where everyone is much older, is a tiny bit more entertaining and the scene where Hokusai paints his famous tentacle porn drawing "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" is pretty hilarious and reminds me of Ed Wood. By the way, the old person make-up is pretty bad.

This is pretty disappointing, especially coming from a great director such as Kaneto Shindo and with a notable cast (Ken Ogata, Jo Shishido, Nobuko Otowa). A bland biography with a very cheap budget. Usually that's not a bad thing in and of itself, but this truly comes off as a cheap TV-production. Campy acting, bad effects and an unappealing visual style where everything is set in like two or three rooms which all look the same in their watery brown-ish hues. There is some nudity in the movie which makes it less boring, but it doesn't save it much. The music isn't bad but sounds like it belongs to an adventure/action movie a la Indiana Jones (take a listen during the end credits).

Zatôichi abare-himatsuri

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (he doesn't actually, there's some poetic freedom in that title) is the 21st film in the series, and by this point, things have gotten beyond stale. This is actually one of the least formulaic entries in the series (it's co-written by the star Shintaro Katsu), but by now, I just don't really care that much for the stories here. It all seems like something we've already seen before.

The cast in ZGttFF is comprised of several well-known faces. The mystery ronin here is played by the brooding Tatsuya Nakadai, who, as expected, gives the best performance. Peter (the transvestite from Ran and Funeral Parade of Roses) appears as a flamboyant wannabe yakuza thug. Masayuki Mori plays the diabolical blind yakuza lord who may be the most wicked villain so far, with Ko Nishimura (once more) as his henchman.

But really, this entry completely failed to draw me in, and I fear that the remaining few films won't have much new to offer either. The film suffers from severe tonal dis-balance, due to which it never really finds a solid footing. There are so many sub-plots here that the main string is hard to find. Nakadai's plot is the most interesting in its depiction of a troubled, violent ronin eaten by jealousy, and there are nifty surreal flashbacks to his past. Mori's sub-plot is kind of similar in tone, but is too talky and filled with too much dead air at times, which ruins the action flick pace a bit. Then, the film takes a pseudo-romantic turn, with a young woman (who's actually a spy for the blind lord) going for Zatoichi, which I didn't care for in the least. Then there's the needless sub-plot with Peter, filled with homoerotic undertones. Then the odd touches of comedy, particularly a baffling bath-house swords-fighting scene where Zatoichi slaughters a bunch of thugs to Oriental surf music and comically struggles to cover up his junk in the process.

There are quite a few good individual scenes in the movie (and I'm glad Zatoichi has hair again because the bald look really doesn't fit him), particularly the amusing fight between a bickering village couple randomly thrown into the film, but all in all this just didn't do anything for me. Not as generic as some of the other ones, but didn't feel like anything new either. As a useless side-note, this may or may not (I don't exactly remember) be the first Zatoichi film where (female, duh) boobs are shown.

Highlight of the film: the bickering married couple in the village, of course.

Mikreh Isha

Great Israeli avant-garde film that needs a lot more attention
A Woman's Case, the only feature film directed by Jacques Katmor, a prominent member of the Tel Aviv artist collective Third Eye Group, is an avant-garde condemnation of the dehumanizing side effects of modern life.

It's a simple story of a woman hooking up with an advertising executive and being found dead, the underlying theme of which seems to be a portrait of the times when materialism started to take off in popular culture and people, specifically models, being treated as disposable faces and bodies, without much individuality and with almost masochistic compliance to the society's whims. The message thankfully isn't preachy, and since Helit Katmor, the leading actress, is beyond beautiful, the movie is a really easy watch. She later became known for her translations of Proust into Hebrew while Jacques Katmor sadly became a tragic figure over time, sinking into alcohol and drug addiction.

The grainy B&W visuals are typical for the '60s counter-culture aesthetic but still very lovely - melancholic and playful at the same time. There are many vignettes in this film set to excellent psychedelic rock (more precisely, the song "Open Up Your Eyes (Take a Look Around You)" by The Churchills, recorded for the film) and containing mostly of surreal imagery, dance scenes, depictions of women being bound or choked, as well as countless pop-art pictures, comic book panels, naked photos, all portraying the female body in one or another way. Naturally, the visual appeal of these erotic images is lost very quickly because of how numerous and repetitive they are, but that seems to be the point.

This is an excellent and criminally neglected art film, somewhat stylistically reminiscent of the Japanese New Wave films by Toshio Matsumoto and Susumu Hani, made in the exact same time as this one was. Highly recommended.

There's also a funny little hourglass joke/anecdote towards the end of the film, which I'll definitely be stealing.

Zatôichi to Yôjinbô

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
After a year-long hiatus, I return to the Zatoichi saga. There's not many movies left in the original run, and this one in particular is interesting because, as the title indicates, it's a crossover between Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) and Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune).

Now, I don't really know if this is even the same Yojimbo (bodyguard) character as in the two Kurosawa films, but if he is, then he's under a different name here. Anyway, not only is Toshiro Mifune present, but the film happens to be directed by Kihachi Okamoto (who made The Sword of Doom) and there's also a role by Ayako Wakao, the notable actress from many a Yasuzo Masumura New Wave film.

Unfortunately, this movie isn't anything to write home about. It utilizes every single trope of the Zatoichi franchise. Really, every single one. There's a town that got taken over by bad guys, there's an old flame of Zatoichi's (just how many towns across Japan does he have an ex-lover in?), there's Zatoichi briefly ruminating on his violent ways, there's a mysterious thug wearing a black kimono, there's a Chō- Han gambling game again, some comical moments, and finally a duel.

The one thing that sets this apart from the rest (besides Mifune) is the 2-hour long runtime. Certainly excessive for a Zatoichi film, especially when the plot is so convoluted such as in this one. Visually, there's the dull gray + brown palette again, but there are some nice shots, especially during the final duel which is quite atmospheric despite the outcome being obvious. The music is pretty good in this one, too.

Highlight of the film: the duel between Zatoichi and Yojimbo, naturally.

Yasagure anego den: Sôkatsu rinchi

Weak film salvaged by its finale
Teruo Ishii's sequel to Norifumi Suzuki's outrageously entertaining Sex and Fury unfortunately isn't anything to write home about, as it is weaker than its predecessor in almost any way. Reiko Ike returns as Ocho Inoshika, and the film starts with an obligatory sequence where she slaughters some thugs while naked, but that's pretty much all these two films have in common.

Female Yakuza Tale suffers from a boring, convoluted plot with pointless characters and awful dialogues. Even though the story is about a Yakuza clan that uses a gang of female thieves for them to smuggle drugs in their vaginas, the film fails to properly execute that bizarre concept. There's also Osho's backstory, which sees her getting saved from having to cut off a finger by a Yakuza kingpin, who then gets murdered by the current boss, who also kidnaps his daughter and puts her in a mental hospital with kabuki-practicing mimes. As ridiculous as it all sounds, the film is quite boring and it feels like it lasts much longer than 85 minutes.

There's also a supporting character, this guy who, despite throwing bullets into people's nostrils and glasses and shooting their moustache off, is not charismatic at all. He's helped by a female prisoner Scorpion lookalike, some Christian assassin who "prays before she kills", who barely contributes anything and about whom we learn nothing. The visual style is almost ordinary compared to Sex and Fury, the comical scenes mostly miss their mark, and the soundtrack is some kind of a mix between '70s funky music, bouncing springs and Ocho's theme song (?) sung by Reiko Ike in the final scene where she walks off into the Sun (not a sunset, just the sun).

The action is scarce and the sex scenes are numerous but poorly executed, except for the one where Ocho has sex with the boss. It's all just an unfocused mess, where you're never sure if the sex scenes are here to serve as filler to the plot or the plot is just jumbled together to string the sex scenes together (okay, it's definitely the second one). However, the climax of the film is so outrageous and hilarious that it makes up for the rest of the film. The gang of naked female thieves fights against the clothed male gangsters in an epic display of playing card blades, bullets, knives, swords, píss, bottles of cocaine, fists and frantic editing. Has to be seen to be believed.

Joshuu sasori: Kemono-beya

Somewhat weaker than the first two
Actress Meiko Kaji returns once more in the third installment of the FPS series, Beast Stable, the last FPS film directed by Shunya Ito and the second-to-last film in the original series overall. Based on the manga by Toru Shinohara, it's the seminal Women in Prison movie franchise, although you wouldn't immediately guess the sub-genre based on this third film alone.

Unlike the first film, an entertaining exploitation sleaze-fest, or the second, the quasi-feminist trippy road film, the third one is a lot more serious and quite darker than the first two. The pacing is much slower, the colors much dimmer, and the setting is mostly urban, except for the final 10 minutes which do take place in prison.

Once again, Meiko Kaji barely says anything (on her request, because she felt that her character in the first film was too obscene), but still has a great screen presence. The story is, unfortunately, not that memorable. Aside from exploitative elements such as a prostitute pregnant with her retarded brother's child, the entire film just feels like it packs lesser of a punch than the first two did. There's an interesting sub-plot where a guy blackmails Matsu into being his girlfriend or else he'll turn her in, but that gets resolved way too quickly. The main villain is fine, but the other one, the ex-inmate turned brothel owner and a Cruella DeVille lookalike, is so ridiculous and annoying. She also keeps a huge cage of crows for some reason (which later gives way for a short but bad visual effect of a flying crow), maybe to resemble a comic book villain, but that feels out of place.

The surreal elements are also fewer. Even though the abortion scene set in a white room with blood splattering all over is very good, the others consist of applying lazy filters to the image, or focusing on the motif of matches being struck and thrown, which I admittedly don't get. Unfortunately, Meiko Kaji doesn't sing a second theme song here (like she did in the previous film) and overall the movie just feels uneventful, despite the strong beginning and a stylish ending scene. Great cover art, though.

Joshû sasori: Dai-41 zakkyo-bô

A decent sequel to the first Scorpion film
Meiko Kaji returns as Nami Matsushima aka Scorpion, this time singing two theme songs (one of them being the classic "Urami bushi") and saying only two lines of dialogue, continuing to suffer abuse and humiliation only to slaughter everybody with her knife. Jailhouse 41 is the second film in the Scorpion series, way more surreal than the first one (also directed by Shunya Ito).

This film has far less nudity and seemingly lower production values than the first one, but it's a bit more violent in comparison. The story takes place mostly outside the prison but it isn't anything special. Matsu escapes with six more convicts and is trailed by the vengeful warden whose eye she has stabbed in the first film. The dialogues could've been better, and I really don't understand why the other inmates hate her in this film. The surreal sequences are hit-or- miss. Some of them, like the waterfalls in a national park (?) turning red after a corpse is thrown into the water, are pretty memorable, while others, like the part where they come across an old woman who sings their backstories in the "He Had It Comin'" from the movie "Chicago" fashion, before dying, making Autumn come prematurely and getting buried with leaves, are just baffling.

Some of the supporting characters include the two guards from the first film, the slightly Mexican one and the slightly nerdy one, who serve as second-to-final bosses. There's also a busful of rapey tourists, some of them being WWII veterans who brag about having raped women in Manchuria, which makes this one of the rare films to mention Japanese war crimes in Manchuria. The final scene has one of the coolest screen transitions I've seen; Matsu simply slices the screen in half and moves to a different location.

The story to this film is a lot weaker than the one in the first film, and there is some awkward editing, but it's still entertaining and worth a watch.

Joshû 701-gô: Sasori

The Seminal WiP Film
The Women in Prison exploitation sub-genre, like many others, found its way to Japan in the '70s, resulting in probably the most well made prisonsploitation series of films to ever grace the screen. It's the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, a pinky violence extravaganza starring the badass Meiko Kaji as the stoic vengeful lady who can't keep herself from getting imprisoned. Kaji signed with the Toei studio in order to avoid having to do pinku films for Nikkatsu, but in this film she nevertheless appears naked, while her character suffers some heavy abuse so I imagine filming some of these scenes must have been a bit stressful.

This is essentially a revenge tale peppered with gore, heavy nudity and some almost surreal moments which showcase the high production value this film had going for it. All kinds of weird colors and gruesome deaths find their way into this film, with Meiko Kaji's awesome theme song "Urami bushi" playing on top of it all. This is a highly imaginative and entertaining WiP film and one of the best Japanese exploitation films.

Poruno jidaigeki: Bôhachi bushidô

Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight
This film, also known as Bohachi Bushido: Porno Period Piece, is one of many wacky achievements by schlock-meister Teruo Ishii (based on a short manga by LWaC creator Kazuo Koike). Outrageously cheesy and sleazy, it never disappoints in delivering what it's set out to: lots of tits, lots of blood.

Tetsuro Tanba plays a stone-faced suicidally depressed ronin who joins an extremely immoral clan which turns women into prostitutes through rape and torture, only to rule over the local prostitution industry. It's never clear what the depression aspect of his character actually adds to the story, so that was kinda disappointing. Then again, this probably isn't the type of film where you can expect fully fleshed out characters.

Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of swordfights and nudity. Naked women being tortured, naked women raping nuns, naked women engaging in swordfights, naked women casually walking around, the protagonist slaughtering everyone while on opium, entertaining sleaze all around. The dialogue is sometimes didactic ("He stabs himself to get rid of opium's effects": Okay, thanks, I understood it fine), but who cares, really. Definitely check this out if you're into the pinky violence subgenre.

Ai no bôrei

Empire of Passion
Nagisa Oshima's second co-production with France, Empire of Passion (based on the manuscript of Itoko Nakamura's then-unpublished novel), is often falsely considered to be a sequel to his previous film, In the Realm of the Senses. However, despite featuring the same lead actor (Tatsuya Fuji), the two films are only loosely connected by some of the similar themes they share, making them a diptych of sorts.

Empire of Passion is set in the Meiji era and, like the previous film, focuses on the nature of passionate love, or the consummation of sexuality and how it can offer an escape from the repressive outside world. However, the two protagonists in this film are doomed from the start because of this, as the fleeting sensations lead them to irreparable life choices which then take a heavy toll on their psyche. The film is much less sexually explicit than Realm, but is more disturbing and overall it's a much darker tale, with some kaidan (ghost story) elements. The appearance of a traditional Japanese depiction of a ghost fits into the whole "folktale" mood of the film, complete with a narrator voice of a creepy old lady.

Unlike Realm, Empire is set in the natural world. Thus, the film is defined by seasonal shifts (it actually goes in reverse, Winter-Autumn- Summer-Spring) and the two main characters are left in mercy of the chaotic, indifferent world of nature. Some of the most beautiful shots from the movie are in fact landscapes, or seen from under a well. Toru Takemitsu's soundtrack is quite good as usual.

Unfortunately, the film seemed to meander a bit, and some of the ghost scenes are pretty cheesy. The theatrical acting was a bit too much in several parts (lead actress Kazuko Yoshiyuki is beyond cute here, though) and overall, the film didn't quite click with me.

Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)
Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) takes place in near-future (the seventies?). It's unclear what happened prior to that, but it left the streets desolate and there's a group of members of a secret army planning to overthrow the government or something. It's an absurd, nihilistic, a bit confusing but always captivating film with the usual political ideas, characteristic of Oshima's work. The youth is aimless and violent, the soldiers are disillusioned, and everyone is obsessed with death and violence, talking about guns all the time while a 18-year old nymphomaniac girl wanting to have sex with each character is constantly ignored, only to become a means of salvation at the end.

The movie is shot exceptionally well - the B&W photography is especially creative in the opening 20 or so minutes, but it stays strong all throughout, with its elaborate lighting schemes, precise actor placement, rapid pans and unusual angles. The entire film is somewhat funny, yet somehow unnerving at the same time. It's totally "artsy", but also straight-forward and entertaining. Hard to describe, but worth a watch.

Nihon shunka-kô

Sing a Song of Sex (1967)
It's interesting to me how basically each Nagisa Oshima film is so stylistically different even though most if not all deal with the topics of sex, violence and politics. Sing a Song of Sex (aka A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs), based on an essay by Tomomichi Soeda, is a strange hybrid of a transgressive teenage angst film, a political manifesto, an off-beat musical, an indictment of society and a hallucinative art film.

The movie follows four students whose teacher (played by Tampopo director Juzo Itami) delivers long drunken speeches about bawdy folk songs and how they were invented as a sexual outlet by and for the oppressed people. The students take in a different message and go on with their weird rape fantasies, mostly hanging around and singing bawdy songs. The film is a bizarre portrayal of the aimless youth of the time, but it also criticizes the Japanese intolerance towards Korean minorities (a theme later explored in two other Oshima films). Beyond that though, the movie is a bit too strange to make a head or tail out of it. It oscillates between light confusion and uncomfortable strangeness, always faithful to the red-black color palette (which I really dig) and its soundtrack composed of bawdy folk songs and American evergreens. A recommendation, maybe.

Hakuchû no tôrima

Violence at Noon (1966)
After Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), Violence at Noon (1966) is the second Nagisa Oshima film to based on a work of literature, this time on Tsutomu Tamura's novel which was in turn inspired by actual crimes that took place in a Japanese rural community. The movie adaptation is a strong stylistic departure from many of Oshima's previous (and subsequent) films.

The story itself is very bleak and distressing, but always captivating. It focuses on a few characters with questionable motivations and uncertain fates. Due to being linked with a murdering rapist, their lives take a turn for the worse, casually discussing suicide and pondering on their heavy situation, their philosophy of love seeking no rewards now being put to test. The story is non-linear and characterized by sudden leaps between flashbacks and current time. Despite this, the movie is miraculously easy to follow and never becomes confusing, even if we consider the break-neck editing style which sees over 2000 cuts throughout the duration of the film. It disorients the viewer, but at the same time keeps your attention.

The film is inspired by the French nouvelle vague, as made evident by the film's title card which pops up randomly several times during the intro like it's a Godard film. The music is great and the B&W cinematography is fantastic, always finding new ways to focus on the close-ups of Saeda Kawaguchi's gorgeous face and to justaxpose the characters' worried faces with the grayish environment. All in all, a fantastic movie.

Zatôichi kenka-daiko

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)
Kenji Misumi's Samaritan Zatoichi was the last Zatoichi movie produced by Daiei Studios (before the bankruptcy), opening with a stylish title sequence with flashy colors which just scream '60s. It continues with the excellent first act, which balances humor, drama and action in an impressive fashion but the initial momentum of the film kinda slips away during the second two acts in a manner I can't quite explain, all I know is that the remainder of the film wasn't as interesting as the beginning.

This movie had the potential to become one of the best in the series, but for every good idea, there was a bad one. Zatoichi's friend is an interesting character who successfully brings some manzai humor into the film, but he appears and disappears from the storyline without rhyme or reason. Although the movie is visually accomplished with excellent cinematography, the soundtrack abandons the spaghetti western influences and returns to the melodramatic orchestral scoring. Zatoichi is shown vulnerable in this film, making bad decisions, killing the wrong people and cheating at gambling but there are unfortunately also some ridiculous scenes (like the one with the mat). The final battle with the mystery ronin is great, but there's essentially no point to that character. As a trivia fact, Ko Nishimura (from Zatoichi the Outlaw) returns as a different government official (with a similar fate).

Highlight of the film: Zatoichi giving nearby kids advice on how to catch sparrows.

Zatôichi hatashi-jô

Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)
Kimiyoshi Yasuda's Zatoichi and the Fugitives (not to be confused with the earlier entry called Zatoichi the Fugitive) strays a bit from the usual formula but it's still a recognizable Zatoichi picture in general and not a particularly good or a bad installment of the series at that.

The plot is typical; Zatoichi enters a town run by gangsters and corrupt officials - nothing new. But, despite the usual slow pacing, this entry is a bit more modern than its predecessors. The violence is pulpy, bloody and plentiful, there's a bit of comic nudity, the Spaghetti Western-like scoring style is perfected and perfectly combined with Zatoichi's new theme song, and the villains are noticeably more ruthless and sadistic than usual. There is also a lot of killing in this movie; it has what must be the largest body-count of any Zatoichi film so far and the final boss kill is particularly good. Fun fact; legendary actor Takashi Shimura appears as the benevolent town doctor (usually the same actors repeat in this series so it's always interesting to see a famous face).

Highlight of the film: Zatoichi removes a bullet from his shoulder using his cane-sword.


Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)
Nagisa Oshima's Pleasures of the Flesh is the first film produced by his first studio, Sozosha, after he parted ways with Shochiku in order to make provocative films, even though there's nothing in this movie that's more radical than his earlier works, which were equally as aggressive. Similarly, this film is often classified as a pinku movie, but it really isn't (for starters, there is no nudity), so I think that classification comes strictly based on its title. Also, for some reason it's listed as a comedy on several sites, despite being anything but.

The movie presents a line-up of low-lives, immoral characters and all- around unpleasant people typical for Oshima's social realist dramas. It's a dark tale of lost love, obsession, cruel ironic twists, aimless lives and a shallow, materialistic society whose members are doomed from the start. The main character is a major douche-bag, but it's not like the people around him are any better. There's a jazzy undertone reminiscent of the films of Seijun Suzuki and Kiju Yoshida, and Mariko Kaga, one of the best '60s Japanese actresses, appears as the female lead. All in all, pretty good, but the story's potential is greater than its realization. Also, the colors are really washed up, which particularly ruins the night scenes.

Zatôichi chikemuri kaidô

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)
Director Kenji Misumi returns to the series once more to direct Zatoichi Challenged, the 17th installment of the saga. Coming off from Zatoichi the Outlaw, one of the fresher entries, you might be surprised to find out that this movie is back to the old generic roots without much, if any, innovation. The plot is lifted from Fight! Zatoichi! Fight! (also directed by Misumi), except the boy that Zatoichi takes care of isn't a toddler in this case, and overall the film feels very plain, without anything new thrown onto the table.

There's a peculiar sub-plot with the baddies smuggling some dining plates with pornographic drawings on them (inspiring the excellent Criterion artwork), but it doesn't live up to the potential and in fact sounds more like a plot for a Hanzo the Razor film. The kid's acting is pretty bad, and the movie starts off like a musical, with one song after another. Luckily, it quickly abandons this idea. There's also another mystery ronin, this time a bad guy, unlike the altruistic philosopher from the previous film. Here, the movie ends with a duel between him and Zatoichi, and what makes it interesting is that the ronin's fate is radically different from the other bad guys' from the franchise.

The only thing #17 improves as opposed to #16 is the soundtrack. Sei Ikeno's music in #16 is too intrusive and melodramatic (but I forgive him, for he composed one of the best movie soundtracks ever for 1968's Affair in the Snow), while the soundtrack to #17 almost feels like it belongs in a spaghetti western.

Highlight of the film: Zatoichi slices off some guy's eyebrows.

Zatôichi rôyaburi

Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)
Zatoichi the Outlaw (not really the first time he was an outlaw) is different than its predecessors for a few reasons. First, it's the only Zatoichi film directed by Satsuo Yamamoto, a director noted for his anti-authoritarian films (and indeed, there's a political side to this one as well). It also has a new screen writing staff and it's the first film produced by Shintaro Katsu's own company, Katsu Productions.

Stylistically, this movie is a bit more rough compared to its predecessors. While the pittoresque, colorful images of feudal Japan are still here, the sword-fights are bloodier. Limbs and heads are hacked off, women are raped. Zatoichi makes some truly horrible life choices that profoundly affect the lives of a nearby family, and he's never really sure whom to trust in this movie. The pacing is also unusual, making the film take place across a whole year instead of a few weeks max. Two notable actors also make an appearance; Rentaro Mikuni and Ko Nishimura.

The film's highlight: Zatoichi kills a moth by throwing a toothpick at him, the stabbed moth landing on a bad guy's face.

Taiyô wo nusunda otoko

The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979)
This is the second and the final film directed by Kazuhiko Hasegawa (excluding a super-obscure pinku film), whose mother was subjected to the Hiroshima radiation while she was pregnant with him. As chance would have it, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a film that deals with nuclear paranoia, its title mirroring the scary idea that practically anyone could make an atomic bomb if determined enough. Some of the footage from the film was cut at government request because the bomb-making instructions were too detailed. The film was co-written by Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader), who lived in Japan at the time.

The two main characters are polar opposites in terms of their significance in pop-culture. The protagonist is played by Kenji Sawada (aka Julie Sawada), a pop-star and a plain symbol of the new generation, while his rival is played by Bunta Sugiwara, who became famous playing hard-boiled gangsters (one character in this film remarks; "He looks more like a gangster than a cop to me"). Their cat and mouse game makes way for an unpredictable plot, partially set during the actual Communist Party May Day march, where the scenes were mostly shot without permission, and assistant director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (later a famous director of his own) got arrested for throwing fake money off of a building and almost inciting a riot.

Despite its preposterous length, the movie keeps your attention throughout with the help of many tonal shifts. Without pardon it goes from a hostage crisis thriller to a cutesy school drama, action comedy, nuclear thriller, quirky romance with a radio host, experimental lunacy, car chase and finally an epic standoff as a part of an outrageously ballsy and over- the-top finale which makes everything worthwhile in the end. Amazingly strange. I also dig the 70s feel to it, from the soundtrack to the color scheme where everything is seen through pink lens.

Aru kyôhaku

Intimidation (1960)
Based on a story by Kyo Takigawa, the 65-minute crime flick Intimidation (1960) is often referred to as the first Japanese film noir, but the very same director, Koreyoshi Kurahara, made a noir film titled I Am Waiting three years prior so we can safely say that this isn't the case. So, while Intimidation might not have big historical importance in the film world, it's a fine film on its own.

Despite its short running time, the film is heavy on character backstories and there really are no wasted moments - every scene is here for a reason. It's a pocket noir tale which intermingles the situations faced by a corrupt bank manager blackmailed to rob his own bank and his timid underling (played by Ko Nishimura, a face probably familiar to you if you've seen a few old Japanese films) who got screwed over by the manager in terms of career and family life. There are twists and turns at every corner, and I also really like the bank robbery scene, conducted in absolute silence. Also, where can I get one of those floral clocks?


Revenge (1964)
Revenge is a good example of a zankoku jidaigeki (cruel jidaigeki) film. In other words, a samurai film criticizing the feudal system and the Bushido code, a dark film where everything is doomed from the start and where there are no positive characters, only slightly less negative ones. Director Tadashi Imai's other z.j. film, Cruel Tales of Bushido, may be a better example and a better film, but Revenge is nevertheless a striking film, one of the most underrated samurai movies.

The film is a harsh critique of the mentality at the time, rendering the Bushido code as pointless in comparison to human life and criticizing the feudal clans for the inhumane efforts they resort to in order to save face. The plot is gripping, but the film's main problem lies in the way in which it was told. The first thirty minutes rapidly introduce a large number of characters and you have to pick up on them fast or you'll get confused. Also, the transitions between the present and the flashbacks are barely noticeable and you have to pay close attention there as well.

The film's main strength lies in the explosive main performance by Kinnosuke Nakamura, but also in the impressive fight choreography and the misty B&W photography. I also have to mention the final 30 minutes, which are just incredible.

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