Sunday, February 23, 2014

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

There's madness and manic energy all over Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, the 21st film in the series. There's blood, there's slapstick, there's pathos, there's partial female nudity and lots of male butts, and when the violence occurs, it's a frenzy. There's so much going, so much to consider; I enjoyed the movie immensely, but admittedly I may have to watch it again to think about where I'd rank it in this whole series. So much of the time watching Fire Festival, I laughed in joyous disbelief at how badass and how strange things got as the film progressed.

Fire Festival is packed with enough ideas for maybe three separate films, though they're jammed together into this single movie, with the three strands linked by a loose consideration of masculinity, whether through notions of moral duty or assertions of strength. Part of the plot involves Zatoichi dealing with a jealous husband who believes that our blind hero slept with his wife (played by the gorgeous Reiko Ohara). This nameless ronin who ominously wanders the shadows like some analog for Robert Mitchum is played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai, who you may recognize from Yojimbo, Harakiri, Ran, The Human Condition, and many other great Japanese films. His sword work is spectacular, with confident, forceful, arcing strikes, often with his katana glinting through bodies in the dark. And yet Fire Festival is not just a tale of misplaced jealousy, but also one of men treating women like chattel. Zatoichi saves the ronin's wife from a mistress auction. It's a particularly memorable scene in which a crowd of dirty old men pay good money to buy a woman and use her as they will. It's as seedy as it sounds, and of course Zatoichi, who's good at heart, saves the day (but apparently only for the fairest of them all).

There's also the matter of Umeji, an effeminate pimp and would-be gangster played by the androgynous Pîtâ aka Peter, who also appeared in Ran and (frighteningly) the sixth Guinea Pig film. The gender play and odd sexuality of Pîtâ was something I didn't really expect from a Zatoichi movie. It makes for a comic and surreal scene between Shintaro Katsu and Pîtâ later in the film, one that makes me wonder how it played in Japan in 1970. Watching the scenes with Umeji, I began to ponder various expectations of masculinity and how they're being subverted, especially in chambara films and especially given the context of would-be yakuza. There's a way of being classically masculine in this cinematic world (i.e., Katsu characters, Nakadai characters, Toshiro Mifune characters), but Pîtâ upends this idea, even just at the surface level: he's a pimp, but he looks as pretty as the women he's pimping.

There's also Lord Yamikubo to deal with, a cruel blind crime boss who serves as a kind of anti-Zatoichi. He's played by Masayuki Mori in semi-cataract contact lenses, though his blindness doesn't seem as debilitating or complete as Zatoichi's. (Mori's also appeared in Rashomon, Ugetsu, and The Bad Sleep Well.) Yamikubo's a good foil for Zatoichi, and more a mover of pieces than a fighter himself. He understands the longings in Zatoichi's soul, and he seduces Zatoichi with this sense of mutual understanding. He even suggests directly to our hero that Zatoichi's existential plight is his own. Of course, he's a hypocrite and a mirror opposite who seeks to negate Zatoichi by whatever means possible.

Fire Festival is the last of these films directed by Kenji Misumi, who has five others in franchise to his credit (The Tale of Zatoichi, Fight Zatoichi Fight, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, Zatoichi Challenged, and Samaritan Zatoichi). There are flashes of artifice, impressionism, and expressionism in this film that seem new to Misumi's bag of tricks, and which help pave the way for some of the bits in his Lone Wolf and Cub films. Each of Misumi's contributions to the series have seemed like essential viewing for the gestalt experience of Zatoichi as a character. (Overall, this is a series with no awful films, just some that are not as good as the others.)

While the penultimate battle of Fire Festival is inspired, the most memorable set piece in the entire movie, and one of the standouts of the Zatoichi series, has to be the battle in the bath house. What begins as a chance to unwind becomes an explosion of madness. Throngs of tattooed yakuza come at Zatoichi, with everyone fighting bare-ass naked. Think that fight scene in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises but multiply it by 10. The fighting itself would be remarkable since Katsu always moves well with a sword and the action is always staged with great in-frame movement, but what really makes the scene is Isao Tomita's score. Sheer god damn anarchy. It's like someone took the Batman '66 fight theme and married it to sneering guitar psychedelia and the most blaring work of Steroid Maximus. It's zany, it's dangerous, it's impossible to pin down, and it shouldn't work since the pieces are so tenuously joined and threaten to undo the whole, but it holds together precisely because audacity is a special kind of adhesive. So too is the state of this film.

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