ZATOICHI: THE FESTIVAL OF FIRE

(Aka: Zatoichi 21)
(Japanese Title: Zatoichi abare-himatsuri)

(1970 - Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Tatsuya Nakadai (as Tatsuya Nakayo), Reiko Ohara, Masayuki Mori, Ko Nishimura, Yoshiyuki Kazuko, Peter
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Reviewed by JB

Crazy eyes!     Or perhaps THE FESTIVAL OF MISFIRE?  With THE FESTIVAL OF FIRE, the Ichi series seems to be looking ahead to the upcoming Roger Moore years of the James Bond series, with the violence played for laughs, silly gags substituting for creative fight choreography.  The nadir of such an approach comes when Ichi is in a local bathhouse, and we are suddenly treated to an all-nude sword fight free-for-all. I love Shintaro Katsu, but I never really had a desire to see him naked, thank you very much.  There are also fart gags and a scene where a horse pees on Ichi's leg.  Perhaps we can be kind and say that the film was also anticipating the death of film comedy thirty years later, when farts and urine became standard gag material.

     THE FESTIVAL OF FIRE starts off well, with Ichi saving a gorgeous tattooed woman (Yoshiyuki Kazuko) from a mistress auction, only to later find her cut down by a mysterious stranger, played by the iconic Tatsuya Nakadai, the samurai film star who rivaled Toshiro Mifune in fame.  The film also ends well, with one of the visually most memorable climaxes of the series, as Ichi nearly meets his end when stranded on a platform at the center of a pool of fire.  His vengeance, in the usual form of wiping out everybody in sight, is fairly standard but executed with a great deal more anger than usual.

     But in between act one and the final curtain, I don't know what the hell this film is supposed to be about. It's weird, it's sometimes fun, it's campy, but it just doesn't work for me.  Ichi falls in love with another beautiful woman (played by Reiko Ohara) and has an out-of-place kind of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" scene that finishes up up with Ichi accidentally running off a cliff.  He also meets up with an androgynous young man (played by the first named only "Peter") who tries to seduce Ichi and then kill him to prove himself to be a "real man".  (Here's a hint, son: a little less makeup.)  Meanwhile, Nakadai is pitifully underused, showing up every one in a while to make with the crazy eyes and utter things like "Your death is reserved for my sword" and then wandering away. 

     It's all such a shame.  ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO was not a great Ichi film either, but there was at least the pleasure of watching Shintaro Katsu and Toshiro Mifune play off each other when the plot wasn't getting in the way.  In this film, the showdown between Katsu and Nakadai is reserved for the final minutes and is over too quickly.  In his scenes, Nakadai displays an athleticism, style and grace that no other previous Ichi villain could match, but there is simply not enough of him.

     Many fans love this film.  I am not one of them.  Katsu, who co-wrote the script, has to take some of the blame for film's chaotic nature.  There are some good ideas here  - Ichi taking on a ruthless, and blind, 16th-century "Godfather", Ichi being hunted down by a jealous husband - but self indulgence, camp and a criminal underuse of a superior special guest star keep FESTIVAL OF FIRE from ever really heating up. ½ - JB

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