ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW

(Aka: Zatocihi Breaks Jail; Zatoichi 16)
(Japanese Title: Zatoichi roobayuri)

(1967 - Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Rentaro Mikuni, Mizuho Suzuki, Ko Nishimura, Yuko Hamada, Tatsuo Endo
Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto

Reviewed by JB

     The first Zatoichi film for Shintaro Katsu's own production company, ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW features fine production values, good swordplay, a lush musical score, a strong if confusing plot, generous amounts of blood, and Katsu himself singing a song on the soundtrack (he's got a voice like Melina Mercouri crossed with Matt Monro, if such a thing can be imagined). It even ends with one of those classy but now ubiquitous Hollywood-style "Johnny LaRue" crane shots. Yet, with all of this, it still ranks below such other simpler offerings as THE CHEST OF GOLD, FIGHT ZATOICHI FIGHT and ZATOICHI'S CANE SWORD thanks to a curiously silly middle section.  It's also one of the most violent and depressing Ichi films of all time, with several de-limbings, two suicides and even a beheading thrown into the mix.

     In this film, Ichi is used by two separate bosses for their own purposes.  The ritual mass-slaughter of one of the bosses (played again by the roundheaded Tatsuo Endo from the previous film ZATOICHI'S CANE SWORD) occurs halfway through the film, at which point Ichi is sent away on sabbatical by the other boss.  It is during this sabbatical that the film really sags.  Although it is intended as comic relief, the scenes featuring Ichi as part of a group of local "anmas" (blind masseurs) are almost completely pointless, their only purpose being to mark time while offscreen action occurs over the course of a year.  The other anmas are played with such unsubtle comic gusto, they make the Three Stooges look like Bob and Ray.

     Still, there are at least two highly memorable characters.  Boss Asuguro (Rentaro Mikuni) is initially a gentle man who cares for the peasants who make him wealthy with their gambling habits, but by the time Ichi returns, he has taken a post with a local official and has degenerated into the usual mean-spirited yakuza boss that will inevitably be cut down by Ichi.  You almost feel sorry for the poor schmoe - he was a good, decent man, he just lost his way.  And thanks to Ichi, he loses his head too in a scene just about as unconvincing as Monty Python's "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days".

     Then there is Shushai Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), a swordless ronin who has dedicated his life to organizing the local peasant farmers.  He gives "sermons" to the poor, is arrested for undermining the authority of the government, and is stoically accepting of the beating he is given and his seemingly inevitable death sentence.  He may be based on an actual hero from Japanese history, but the Christ-like overtones are unmistakable.

     ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW has many clever touches, such as how Ichi manages to escape a bullet while traveling down a road, or seeing what he can do to a moth using only a toothpick, but it is that middle section featuring the Four Blind Stooges that bring this film down by at least half a star.  ½ - JB

Zatoichi: Blind Swordsman     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

NOTE: A word on the Animeigo Company that is in charge of the DVD releases of some of the later Ichi films.  And that word is "Bravo!".  The DVDs feature two separate sets of subtitles, one in simple English and one in expanded English.  The expanded subtitles go further in translating what the characters are actually saying, and use two different colors, yellow and green, whenever two characters are talking at the same time.  The DVDs also feature helpful liner notes which put certain plot points in historical context and explain certain Japanese terms.  It may not be essential to know that the walk-on part of a shrieking hag was played by a popular Japanese standup comedienne, but as useless and pointless knowledge, it's cool.  I doubt that the translators actually spent "hundreds of hours" trying to translate a particular Japanese pun that occurs in a snippet of a song that last for all of five seconds, but that they spent any time at all worrying about it is impressive.  Not to knock Home Vision Entertainment, which releases the bulk of the films and does a fine job with the translations and prints, but the Animeigo releases are just better.


ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON

"No gambling, no whores, no fights? It looks like I stumbled upon one strange village!"

HAPPY TRAILERS TO YOU

"Reverse Cutting!  Acrobatic Cutting!  Random Cutting!" - from the trailer of ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW.  The "cutting" of course, refers not to the actual editing of the film, but to Ichi's various ways of slicing a man down to size, as illustrated by some memorable moments from previous films.

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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee