Judge Neil Dorsett once had his own festival of fire. He now curls into a fetal position when he hears the word "butane."
Your death is reserved to my sword.
The blind masseur sets out on his 21st adventure in this color outing from Daiei by way of Toho, brought to us by the fine importing specialists at AnimEigo. Katsu Shintaro stars as usual as Ichi, the skilled, sanguine, and seemingly superhuman round-faced blind swordsman who makes his way among the lower echelons of 19th-century Japan's crime-ridden countryside and villages. This time Ichi has fallen among a community that deals in women. When a customer refuses to pay Ichi because he's too smitten with one of the subjects of an auction—a geisha who happens to be the wife of a powerful Shogunate retainer—Ichi decides to take a hand of interference. Using nothing but his frightening masked and tongue-waggling visage, he rescues the lady and spirits her away to seeming safety, although she thinks at first, quite naturally, that Ichi is merely another bandit out to claim her. She steals Ichi's coin purse (with his tacit permission) and sneaks away, but a mysterious swordsman (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the scene and murders the woman without a word, displaying a remarkable ability to hide from Ichi's famously acute senses. Upon finding her corpse, Ichi displays genuine regret at having rescued her. His urge to heroism has cost the woman what might not have been a good life, but at least was a life. Sobered, Ichi moves on and into a large village run by the "Shogun of the Underworld." He's introduced to a young pimp (played by an actor known as Peter), whom Ichi assumes will be a burly, argumentative type. Instead, the pimp turns out to be a highly effeminate young man with a single facial expression similar to that of Snuffy Smith. This pimp becomes something of a friend to Ichi, who tries to mend the fellow's ways and set him on a more productive path; when they get stuck together after some complications, though, the lad reveals a desire for something more than friendship, making for a humorous scene as Ichi tries to wriggle out of the situation without hurting the boy's feelings unduly and embittering him.
The plot is concerned with three showdowns of sorts. We have the mysterious and pervasive samurai who has taken it upon himself to haunt and then kill Ichi. We have the Shogun of the Underworld (Masayuki Mori), who like Ichi is blind and has learned to compensate for his sightlessness with abilities seeming to border on the mystical. And, quite unusually for an Ichi film, we have a love interest! Yes, Zatoichi falls in love in this movie and undergoes a musical love montage sequence! Granted, this love may have a dark secret, and the pair's idyll is interrupted by a husband and wife comedy team who may well be known as the Battling Bicker-sans. The crimelords' attempts to take out Ichi do not disappoint either, with one amazing scene (featuring a wonderfully goofy music cue from Isao Tomita) where Ichi must fight, nude, against about thirty assailants, also nude, in a bathhouse. This scene is completely insane, a far cry from the somber beginnings of the Ichi series, but damn if it isn't a hoot and a half. Ichi leaps around, covering his privates with an urn lid and sending his foes flying all about the slippery room, finally emerging through a cloud of blood out of the large tub where the fight began. No full frontal nudity, of course, as the movie plays games with the grand tradition of convenient genital obfuscation. As always, Ichi not only fights but gambles, this time refusing a loan from the local boss in favor of taking his money the old-fashioned way. In the end, Ichi must fight his way through a massive conflagration on an island in the center of a small lake, in a spectacular confrontation with the Shogun of the Underworld.
My experience with Ichi had before been limited to only a few of the very early black and white entries in the series; to say that this one contrasts with them is something of an understatement. There's a massive difference in tone and the movie seems less concerned with linear plot. On the other hand, the action is much more elaborate and the entertainment factor is ramped up a good bit. I enjoyed this movie pretty well, although it did seem to wander a lot. The strange bickering couple seemed to have no relevance; from that I am presuming that they were reprised characters from a previous Ichi film or maybe even some other source entirely. One thing that I did find a bit strange was the choice to allow the color-coding of the subtitles (an excellent way to distinguish between speakers) to overwhelm the traditional top-to-bottom display. It's not bad once you get used to it, but the first time you suddenly see a subtitle appear above the previous one, it's a bit disconcerting.
AnimEigo has not fallen down a bit in the quality of their releases of the Ichi films. The anamorphically enhanced print is sharp and strong, and the color is very rich but not oversaturated in the least. My only quibble with the video is the embedded 3:2 pulldown; as I've noted elsewhere, the player should create the pulldown. In this case, the results are not too destructive, and the video quality is otherwise so good as to make this both a shame in that it could have been just that much better, but also no reason to avoid the disc. Audio is presented in the original monaural mix and is clear with the unusual Tomita score coming through brightly. Extras are the usual for an AnimEigo Zatoichi or Kozure Okami release: a small assortment of trailers for the films of both series, a thorough credits listing in English, and helpful historical liner notes. The subtitles, as usual, are offered in both a full translation and a more minimal version to allow a viewer to follow the story while becoming fully immersed in the picture. I preferred the full subtitles; the minimal ones were a bit too minimal for my taste. For instance, the minimal subtitles completely ignore the long text and voiceover that opens the film. Overall, however, the idea seems solid.
AnimEigo has once again done a thorough and respectful job of presenting the classics of Japanese swordplay pictures with Zatoichi and the Festival of Fire. All parties involved with the creation of both movie and disc are free to go, although a small fine will be levied as an incentive to provide progressive transfers in the future. We stand in recess!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub Theatrical Trailers
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