Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Blind Man’s Bluff

Zatoichi 21 – The Festival of Fire

 
In a series as long as Zatoichi (26 films in total) you are bound to have some hits and misses. By any standards “Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire” (Japanese title: “Zatoichi abare-himatsur” or “Zatoich: The Raging Fire Festival”) is a full-fledged home run.

First, let’s talk about that cast. Aside from Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro, you have the amazing actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, The Sword of Doom), the flamboyant Peter (best known as the jester Kyoami in Ran, or the voice of Rem in Death Note II: The Last Name) and making his final film appearance Mori Masayuki (Ugetsu, Bushido, The Bad Sleep Well). Back in the director’s chair is original “Zatoichi” director Misumi Kenji (The Tale of Zatoichi). That is some serious talent coming together for a “Zatoichi” flick.

Plot-wise, it is a classic set up. Zatoichi rescues a beautiful young woman who has fallen on hard times and was forced to sell herself. Her jealous ex-husband however, (Nakadai) follows her killing anyone who has touched her, finally killing the woman herself. He thinks that Zatoichi is one of his wife’s purchasers, and so dedicates himself to slaying the blind masseur. Zatoichi, on the other hand, has other things going on when he comes across the promotion ceremony for a new yakuza boss and promptly inserts himself. The boss (Mori) is a blind man like Zatoichi himself, and serves as Zatoichi’s opposite, immune to his usual tricks. Complicating matters even further is a young pimp (Peter) looking to get himself in good with the mob boss while still remaining essentially a pure heart. As you can guess, swords are drawn, alliances are created and broken, friends become enemies and enemies friends, and Zatoichi’s cane sword will run red with blood before the final credits roll.

There is lots of good stuff going on in “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire.” Nakadai’s character is almost a re-play of “Sword of Doom,” a man so dead inside he kills without joy or remorse. His desire to kill Zatoichi is not based on revenge or passion, as he has killed too many over his wife’s betrayal. Being the last on his list, Zatoichi is all that keeps him going, and he knows when he has struck the blind man down the next act will be to take his own life. Mori is a classic character as well, charming and sensitive on the surface but hiding a black heart. Being blind himself, he is immune to Zatoichi’s tricks, as he shows them when the two set down to gamble at dice.

Animeigo has done their usual top notch job with this release. Not a lot of extras or anything, but they have the best subtitles available for Japanese films, and always treat every movie with respect and care. “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire” is also available as part of the Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman DVD Collector’s Edition Box.

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The Wolves

wolves

5.0 out of 5 stars Two houses

This is an intensely cool movie. A dark and brutal power struggle between two rival gangsters, this is no slick action fest but more of a Shakespearean slow decimation of power. It is, quite simply, one of the best yakuza flicks I have every seen.

Directed by Gosha Hideo (Sword of the Beast, Three Outlaw Samurai), the movie trudges through the underworld of Japan’s gangster society, the yakuza. Unlike many Japanese genre films, this one starts with a quick bang and then switches gears to a more personal battle. Filmed two years before the seminal yakuza epic Battles Without Honor & Humanity, you can see some of the groundwork being laid here for the film that would transform the genre forever. Although “The Wolves” is not nearly as groundbreaking as some that would follow it, it is genre done to absolute perfection.

“The Wolves” (“Shussho Iwai” or “Prison Release Celebration”) is set at the dawn of the Showa Era, when the new Emperor granted amnesty to over 400 prisoners in celebration of his ascension. One of these men is Iwahashi Seji, played by master actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, Ran, Yojimbo). Iwahashi must deal with the fact that his former master is now dead, and the power structure has swung in balance to a rival ganglord. Moreover, Iwahashi’s best friend, Tsutomu, has disappeared following the pardon and Tsutomu’s girl Aya is about to marry the rival ganglord. All his time in prison has been for nothing, and now he must determine his course as one of absorption or revenge, of accepting things the new status quo or striking out like a wolf.

Much of the power of this film is visual. Gosha has taken some interesting risks, going away from the splashy and fantastic and into the gritty and realistic. A fight scene is not one man leaping and slashing with a blazing sword against countless foes, but two guys struggling desperately for one knife, rolling in the dirt and putting everything they have into it knowing only one will walk away. The colors are muted, and there is something about the entire film that seems like it has been soaked in mud. But in a good way.

The use of music is also outstanding. Decades before the release of Hero, we have two men battling in intense action with no sound other than the mournful twang of a shamisen. “The Wolves” features a powerful score, with contrast of “speed of music” and “speed of scene” being a prominent theme.

The Animeigo DVD release did a fantastic job restoring this beautiful and important film. The picture and sound are great, and the subtitled track is done in the unique Animeigo style, where cultural “footnotes” and projected as well, providing a basis for some aspects that may be confusing to Western viewers. I have seen this format before in Wakeful Nights, and it really adds to the enjoyment of the film as well as being a study guide to the Japanese language and culture.

Battle of Okinawa

battle

5.0 out of 5 stars Typhoon of Steel

Although best known in the West for his samurai flicks such as The Sword of Doom And Kill!, almost 1/3rd of director Okamoto Kihachi’s work was war films. A soldier himself during the Second World War, he knew first hand the trauma and cost of total war. It is never simply a battle between soldiers, and non-combatant citizens often pay the heaviest toll of all.

“Battle of Okinawa” (“Gekido no showashi: Okinawa kessen”) is Okamoto’s attempt to tell the story of one of the bloodiest battles of the US/Japan war. Unlike such films as Tora! Tora! Tora! and Letters from Iwo Jima, this movie is told entirely from the Japanese point of view, or more particularly the Okinawan point of view. These are the people…general, barber, soldier, nurse, farmer, student, prostitute…who lived and died under the “typhoon of steel” lasting 82 days and ending with 1/4th of the civilian population of the island dead along with roughly 66,000 dead Japanese soldiers and 12,000 American.

A movie without main characters, an ensemble cast of familiar faces play the various walks of life bound up in the conflict. Kobayashi Keiju (Chushingura) plays the old Gen. Ushijima, a man trying his best to fight a hopeless battle with dignity and honor. His two aids, Tamba Tetsuro (Three Outlaw Samurai) and Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri) are the classic Hawk and Dove, with Tamba pushing for a glorious all-out attack and Nakadai wanting to go defensive and save lives. Tanaka Kunie (The Wolves) plays a hapless barber who joins the military staff in order to provide for his family, who has been sent to the mountains to hide. Ozora Mayumi (Samurai Banners) is a cheerful prostitute-turned-nurse who tries to keep spirits up while everything turns bleaker. There are many, many other characters that appear and disappear, live and die, in an eye blink, but add to the overall tapestry.

Politically speaking, as all war films are political, the general message is “war is bad for everyone, but especially the losers”. Although told from a Japanese perspective, there are heroes and villains enough to satisfy, and this definitely isn’t a “poor Japan”-type of flick. The soldiers try to believe they are dying for a good cause, but that belief becomes harder and harder to maintain. The civilians want to support their country, but they end up being slaughtered by ally and enemy alike, and sometimes it is easier just to kill themselves and get the job done early. The massive suicides of the Okinawan people are covered in this film, although the controversy surrounding it remains neutral in tone.

Almost a documentary more than a movie, the different character threads are intercut with actual war footage and voice over. This affects the pace of the film, which is slow and sometimes undynamic. Okamoto makes sure that the history is correct, and doesn’t sacrifice reality for drama. Not that it is by any means boring, but there is something quite studious about it. Animeigo clearly recognizes this, as some of the bonus features are intended to be used in a classroom setting for those studying WWII. I could imagine this film to be quite the effective learning tool for high schoolers, putting a face on the enemy and understanding the true cost of war.

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