Zatoichi, the 19th century Blind swordsman and masseur makes his 21st film appearance in Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire (Zatoichi abare himatsuri, 1970). Since his 1962 debut, Zatoichi has been transformed from a pathetic wretch who used to shock minor yakuza bullies with his swordplay tricks, to an almost legendary avenger, a major thorn in the side of the criminal underworld. He has become, as someone calls him here, a "force to be reckoned with." By 1970, so too had star Shintaro Katsu, whose longtime studio, Daiei, was dying a slow and painful death, even as Katsu's pictures continued raking in hefty profits.
Indeed, Katsu himself probably contributed to Daiei's collapse by forming his own production company and pocketing a bigger portion of his films' earnings. By the time Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire was ready for release, Daiei was bankrupt and the film had to be released through a subsidiary, Dainichi, and rights to the picture were later sold to Toho. This accounts for the DVD's confusing subtitles: the picture opens with Daiei's logo that the subtitles misidentify as Toho.
Despite Daiei's lack of funds, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire suffers not in the least. Katsu's fame assured its success, and the film arguably is even more lavish than the wholly-Daiei entries of the late-1960s. Indeed, this and adjacent Zatoichi movies from the period were notable for their impressive array of guest stars. Toshiro Mifune and Ayako Wakao appeared in the one before this, while Shaw Bros. star Jimmy Wang Yu, Hisaya Morishige, and Rentaro Mikuni would appear in the next two.
This entry has an especially muddled and meandering script, which finds Zatoichi pitted against nothing less than the "Shogun of the Underworld," a blind Godfather-type played by Masayuki Mori of Rashomon and Ugetsu fame. Simultaneously, Zatoichi is stalked by a psychotic ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) who wants to kill him. In one of the lamest excuses for character motivation heard in some time, the ronin believes Zatoichi slept with his greedy, unfaithful wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), whom Zatoichi in fact had rescued. Rather than kill Zatoichi during any of the half-dozen times he has a chance to do so, Nakadai's swordsman keeps putting it off, telling the blind man that this unjustified death wish is the only thing that keeps him going. Nakadai (not Nakayo, as misidentified in the credits) rather shamelessly cashes in on earlier psycho-swordsmen types better served in films like Yojimbo (1961) or even the overrated Sword of Doom (1966). The character is a nothing part, like something left over from another movie. Nonetheless, the actor's saucer-like eyes and maniacal laugh go into overdrive here, and Nakadai is almost comically bad.
The parade of guest stars doesn't stop here. Peter, the transgendered icon familiar to Western audiences for his role as the jester in Kurosawa's Ran (1985), turns up as a very feminine male pimp, complete with fake eyelashes and lipstick. He tries to seduce Zatoichi in one funny scene, and Katsu should be commended for his broad-mindedness and sense of humor in his playing of this amusing sequence.
Reiko Ohara was borrowed from Toei to play the stock femme fatale whom Zatoichi eventually wins over, while busy character star Ko Nishimura has a thankless part as Mori's lieutenant. Producer Katsu continued to stack the deck by including small roles for the famous Manzai (comedy duo) team of Utae and Reiji Shoji, who play a bickering couple Zatoichi stumbles upon. Kunie Tanaka, meanwhile, must have been a pal of Katsu's; he's billed seventh but is onscreen for all of ten seconds, literally in the final minute of the picture.
The script is such a mess that it falls to the action set pieces to carry the film. These, as usual, do not disappoint. The highlight is undeniably a bloody swordfight between Zatoichi and about 30 yakuza in a bathhouse. Well choreographed and stunningly shot by legendary DP Kazuo Miyagawa, the battle is a tour de force of tattooed backs, flashing swords, and bloody bathwater. The sequence humorously avoids full frontal nudity while offering plenty of naked butts for the series' female fans.
Of course, the unusual setting for this action sequence was necessitated by the series' longevity, and desperation to come up with something new. Early entries often had Zatoichi cleverly avoiding violent confrontations with a simple display of his great skill, such as slicing the wick off a lit candle. But Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire strains all credibility. The bar has been raised to the point where this entry has our hero dispatching upwards of 100 opponents over the course of 90 minutes. Confrontations become so ridiculous this one has Zatoichi catching a raw, unbroken egg in his mouth, which he then spits back into a gangster's face. So powerful is his sword that whole trees and thick support beams slice like butter.
Of course, there are those out there who prefer their chanbara outrageous and bloody. If so than Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire is for you.
Video & Audio
Despite some minor digital artifacting, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire is a mostly impressive transfer in its original DaieiScope 2.35:1 format with a 16:9 accommodation for widescreen TVs. The unidentified color process (processed by Toyo Laboratories) looks great, and Miyagawa's photography is stunning, with random shots suitable for framing. The mono soundtrack is loud and clear. AnimEigo offers two subtitle options, one with English subtitles, the other with more detailed, annotated background subtitles on historical concepts alien to non-Japanese. Kudos to AnimEigo for their usual fine job subtitling all the credits, and for making fast dialogue easy to follow through the use of multi-colored fonts.
Extras include a trailer for this title and three other AnimEigo releases, all in 16:9 format. Also included are character bios and program notes, as well as an index card with yet more historical background.
Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire is cartoonish with a mess of a script which doesn't do much for its all-star cast. On the other hand, the action scenes deliver the goods, supported by Kenji Mizumi's fine direction, some excellent swordplay choreography, a lively Spaghetti Western-style score (by Isao Tomita) and Miyagawa's aforementioned cinematography. A mixed bag, surely, but fans of the series will likely be entertained.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.