AND THE DOOMED MAN (1965)
As our blind masseur/swordsman hero stands on an unusual rock formation contemplating (as best as he can) the seas, for the first time in his life, he asks a passing urchin if one can see the other side. His reply: "it doesn’t have another side". This somewhat gnomic reply, both accurate and ultimately inaccurate, reflects the insularity of the Japanese of that time before the opening of the West, and epitomizes the somewhat melancholy, disillusioned flavor of this the 11th episode in the series.
We actually begin with brutally comic violence: our hero interrupting a beating with absurd questions to his punished, reminiscent of the raucous mayhem of his previous years smash, YAKUZA SOLDIER (in which as a gangster drafted into the wartime army, he calmly absorbs numerous beatings from higher ups—at one point licking his lips after a good right to his jaw—then dishes it out to himself. Immediately afterwards, he gets stuck with an obligation to write a wrong—but for the first time, our noble masseur decides not to follow up, explicitly looking out for number one.
Of course fate decrees otherwise, but this film documents a series of disillusionments and betrayals with seemingly everybody—not just the crooked officials and scheming gang bosses indulging in flim flams and con games. Carnival tough guys decide that the winner of their archery game doesn’t need those winnings; likable rogue Kanbi Fujiyama dresses up as a Buddhist priest even as he tries to "hold" Zatoichi’s winnings, then masquerades as Zatoichi himself in a hilariously bumbling impersonation; a helpful young boy leads Zatocihi into a dangerous setup, an attractive woman pretends she’s an old friend of our hero to get out of a jam; and then of course there are the obligatory corrupt oyabun looking out for number 1.
The uncharacterististic loose ends of the plot further re-enforce the mood of melancholy, detachment, and contemplation. A rogue actually does deliver paper when you are sure he’ll run off with it; a long lost son never does meet his father or learn his fate; a big festival is repeatedly mentioned but never happens; a likable scamp is hauled away by the authorities under Zatoichi’s nose without him lifting a finger to help—even the saving of his victimized is done off screen or thrown away dramatically, while Zatoichi only indirectly avoids the beautiful woman who’s fallen for him, and—there’s no perennial cheat-the-blind-man gambling scene!
Ultimately the numerous shots of waves breaking on the beach, the unusual references to Buddha, and the close-ups of Zatoichi lost in thought after seemingly throwing off his crusaders costume give a sense of almost Zen detachment, quite striking in this series. This is not to say that the requisite thrills and stunts are missing. The final showdown is an epic 7 minutes, staged on a misty fishing village set, with Shintaro Katsu taking on waves of enemies while shrugging off fishing nets, avoiding a matchlock rifle, and ultimately wielding two swords at once to murderous effect. But that’s just one of the new skills he evidences throughout the film: he wins an archery contest—by ear alone—to the tune of 50 ryo; slices a moth in mid-flight; slashes a candle so delicately that it stays upright until the vibration of a sliding shoji topples it (which plunges the room into darkness as an assassination squad rushes in). In addition, our hero seemingly invents Braille by reading a wayside sign post by hand, and fumblingly manages to tread on the toes of the girl who laughingly teases him about it. Perhaps the note of contemplation and melancholy should not be over emphasized. Its there for the aficionados, who will note the subtle differences in tone, and the changes of expectations; but for all audiences, it is like all the others packed with action.
Director Kazuo Mori had previously helmed Episode Two in the series and he would later do another, episode 23, ZATOICHI AT LARGE, one of the better entries; but overall he would direct Katsu 16 times in 13 years, including five entries in Katsu’s BAD REPUTATION series, and once in the YAKUZA soldier saga. He would also direct an entry in the rival KIYOSHIRO SOLDIER saga. He actually began by directing two screenplays by Akira Kurasowa, THREE HUNDRED MILES BEHIND ENEMY LINES and DUEL AT THE KEYMAKERS CORNER.
ZATOICHI AND THE DOOMED
MAN is presented in a 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This is an
impressive visual presentation, thanks in no small part to Home Vision's
restoration efforts. As a result, we're presented with a clear source
print that has only minor defects, as well as a sharp, clean overall image
to experience. The colors have a little flatness in a few scenes, but seem
bright enough in most, so no complaints there. As far as contrast, I found
detail to be high and black levels look great, leaving me to score this
one rather well. I commend Home Vision for their work here and of course,
hope to see this kind of transfer on all their Zatoichi releases.
A mono soundtrack is present here, which preserves the original Japanese language and while not too memorable, this is a solid track. I heard little in terms of distortion, while hiss is absent and that's great news, without a doubt. The musical contributions of master composer Akira Ifukube are quite good (though used sparingly), but of course, it isn't too expansive, thanks to mono's limitations. The sound effects follow the same order, as they sound good, but also restrained to some extent. But this isn't exactly new showroom material, so I think we can cut it some slack. The dialogue is sharp and never gets muffled much, so even if you can't understand what they're saying, at least it sounds clean. This disc also includes highly-readable English subtitles (in case you don't speak Japanese).
The only extras on the disc is a Photo Gallery showcasing about a dozen production stills.
Great Chambara film with some things that we have not seen before in the ZATOICHI saga. Shintaru Katsu once again charms the shit out of the audience. I dare non-ZATOICHI people to watch this film and not get taken by the Katsu's patented charisma. Again, the only thing we can complain about on Homevision's DVD is the lack of extras.
-- Mike Jeck