Published on March 23rd, 2006 | by The Beige Baron


Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

— By The Beige Baron
Makoto didn't predict the horrible consequences of furnishing the kindergarten class with moonshine and matches for that year's Festival of Fire

Makoto didn’t predict the horrible consequences of furnishing the kindergarten class with moonshine and matches for that year’s Festival of Fire

You might have seen the 2004 remake of Zatoicihi: The Blind Swordsman by Japanese film veteran Takeshi Kitano ( Violent Cop, Battle Royale, Brother ), but I rented Festival of Fire to get an idea of how the original 70s versions compare. This particular episode of the Zatoichi saga is superior to the remake in almost every way.

The plot of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman — Festival of Fire is pretty basic — blind samurai master wanders earth saving helpless people/defeating evil yakuza with his miraculous ronin fighting powers.

The original concept for the film originates back to 1968 and was developed through to 1989. About 20 film and TV versions were made during this period, like a Japanese version of the Bond films. Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire was made by legendary Japanese director Kenji Misumi and starred Katsu Shintaro, the most popular “Zatoichi” actor. I think it’s a mid-70s movie and it really blew me away how it melds different film genres together. It’s a mix of old school Spaghetti Westerns, Hong Kong kung-fu films and those old New York cops and robbers, Al Capone style TV shows — and even elements of musicals. The score plays an important role in the film, allowing non-Japanese speaking viewers to take aural cues about certain characters and to punctuate the movie’s action and concerns.

Zatoichi wanders around 19th century Japan working as a masseur, drinking shitloads of sake, playing dice gambling games (his special hearing powers allow him to guess odds and evens, and win all the time) and basically posing as a harmless old blind guy. But he’s something of a Good Samaritan and his defence of the innocent, poor and down-trodden in the most violent of fashions seems to constantly place him in dangerous situations.

The Yakuza or Japanese mafia have the townsfolk over a barrel, demanding “favour money” and basically lording it all over the shop. The boss of these guys is also blind, to add pleasing balance to the tale, and is defended by a phalanx of kick-ass swordfighters. He is wonderfully eee-vil.

There are also a transvestite geisha, a few other geishas and this one other mysterious samurai who claims Zatoichi’s death as his own quite early on in the film, and pops into scenes from time to time to be impressed with Zatoichi’s style and sort of hover in the background looking enigmatic. He makes a few menacing remarks from time to time, wanders off into the forest again, only to resurface at the climax of the movie — and he’s pissed off .

In terms of an action film, it is nothing short of spectacular. Forget other period samurai pieces with hoards of kimono-wearing henchman running in one at a time to be dispatched with unconvincing swordplay and the standard high-pitched screams and gurgles. The sequences in this film usually involve packs of henchmen charging in at once, and Zato using his blade-cleverly-concealed-in-a-walking-cane to slash them into tiny, bloody pieces, usually to a huge blast of traditional and rock ‘n’ roll music.

The fighting is just incredible. I’d imagine there were a few injuries during filming. It looks dangerously convincing. Likewise the costumes are beautifully detailed and authentic, the cinematography is breathtaking, the sets elaborate and the sound resembles that classic reverbed cowboy-boots-over-hardwood floor effect with an interesting mix of the traditional and the new. The music is often hugely exaggerated — blasts of shrieking sound at climactic moments which add greatly to the enjoyment and humour.

The death toll is enormous by film’s end, and the final climactic fight scenes are nail-biting. One scene Zatoichi kills about 20 people in a bath-house — the fake blood would rival Jackson ‘s Bad Taste .

It’s not a two-dimensional film by any means, with a good mix of characters both good and bad, but pleasingly, a few characters have elements of both, which makes it hard to make up your mind about some of them.

There are some genuinely funny moments in this movie too, although perhaps not all of the truly funny moments were intended by the director. In all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable foreign movie, I watched it twice in a row and plan to get it out again at my earliest convenience.

I got a 80s Zatoichi out too, but it was disappointing — same actors but different director. Make sure you get Festival of Fire . The others can be hit or miss.

Festival of Fire is a very subtly-crafted piece of film-making and highly entertaining slab ultra-violence. Four blood-soaked stars.

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Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

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