Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Blind Swordsman

This November Criterion release their most ambitious title to date, the 27-disc anthology of the Zatoichi films, one of the longest and most popular series in Japanese Cinema. Barnes & Noble are set to ship my copy any day now although I don't hold out much hope that this will arrive this side of Christmas (and in one piece), so with that in mind, I grabbed a little taster of what to expect with the 21st film of the series, from 1970, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire, previously available as part of AnimEigo's 7-disc collection. In this episode, the blind swordsman has been targeted by a yakuza gang for his continued disobedience, and is lured to a festival where he is to be assassinated...

If the short synopsis above seems simple, consider yourself spared. As with some of the other episodes I've seen, eccentric plotting is to be expected. In The Festival of Fire not only is Ichi in peril from the yakuza gang (led by a boss who's also blind), but from a mysterious swordsman seeking revenge for the death of his wife who Ichi may have had relations with. In another plot strand, one of the yakuza lieutenants has enlisted his beautiful daughter to steal the masseur's heart and lead him to his doom. Twists and turns aside, The Festival of Fire hits all the highpoints of the series, and includes some incredible swordplay, like a sequence where Ichi is set upon in a bathhouse by a cadre of naked tattooed yakuza. The film includes some weird moments too, like a new wave-ish dream sequence, while the credit sequence where Ichi is pursued by a dog is one of the most bizarre I've seen in quite a while. Although the series could never match the level of carnage seen in the Lone Wolf & Cub films, the 70's era films had their fair share of gory moments - like a scene in The Festival of Fire, where a yakuza soldier makes his exit with a spectacular geyser of blood from a neck wound.

Ultimately what makes The Festival of Fire so enjoyable and the series so compulsively watchable is Shintaro Katsu and his Zatoichi persona - the tortured brow, the awkward waddle, his exuberance for gambling, women and drink, his supernatural senses, and his extraordinary sword technique which slaughters enemies (and tree trunks) with lightning speed and ferocity. Zatoichi made Katsu a huge star, and by all accounts he was quite a hell-raiser. Katsu was often at odds with Japan's film intelligencia with own brand of popular violent action cinema (he starred in the title role of the Hanzo the Razor series, and produced the Lone Wolf & Cub films), and to borrow a phrase from one of Zatoichi's foes, was the pebble in the rice bowl. Writing in his Japan Journal memoirs, Donald Richie recalls attending a dinner for Japan's film community, with Nagisha Oshima and Katsu glowering across the table at each other. Sadly, the Blind Swordsman passed away in 1997 after battling cancer.


  1. Hey Wes, It's been such a long time since I saw an Ichi movie, I'm counting the hours until my order arrives from B&N. Mine's a birthday present, so even if it does arrive the right side of the 25th I won't get it until a few days afterwards. Hopefully they both arrive in one piece at the very least. Can't wait!

  2. Yep, fingers crossed Mart, I've had two bad experiences with B&N in the past - I ordered Criterion's Eric Rohmer set and they sent me a box of Lewis Carroll books. The second time, they sent me a thoroughly demolished copy of Criterion's Night of the Hunter. Both times customer service sorted it out but still, pretty disappointing stuff. I promised myself I'd never go with B&N but that that 50% discount was too much to pass up - even with the inevitable customs duty added on. Hopefully this time it will work out, but when you dance with the Devil, you gotta take your chances !

  3. Just got my shipping confirmation, so fingers and everything else crossed!

  4. Yep, I got mine too... There was at least two occasions where I had the idea of cancelling this order - literally, hovering over the cancel button - I've been spending way beyond my means recently, but I'm glad now I stuck with it !