ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION

(Aka:  Zatoichi 24)
(Japanese Title: Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue)

(1972 - Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Kiwako Taichi, Kyoko Yoshizawa, Yasuhiro Koume, Katsuo Nakamura
Directed by Shintaro Katsu

Reviewed by JB

Ichi     The first of only two Zatoichi films directed by Shintaro Katsu himself, ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION is the best film to come along in the series since the first one, TALE OF ZATOICHI.  The formula is still there, but it is buried under style and substance and innovation. You'll find Ichi feeling responsible for a character's death at the beginning, a young girl and her little brother introduced a while later, and tons of yakuza goons making life miserable for a fishing community.  But Katsu and the writers felt no need to simply fill in all the right blanks and make just another standard Zatoichi crowd-pleaser. Instead, they approached ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION as if no other Ichi film existed. 

     Although the girl and boy would appear to be typical Ichi-sidekicks, they never get that chance, as their sad story plays out completely outside Ichi's circle.  Neither does Ichi spend much time with the village idiot, who is sexually molested by the local gangsters.  These characters have little contact with Ichi, but their stories serve to set the dark mood of the film and flesh out the depths of repellent evil that are metaphorically, and literally, killing the town.  For the first time, there is evil going on that not even Zatoichi knows about. 

     Katsu shoots his scenes from a wide variety of angles, so that the film looks like no other Ichi film.  Occasionally, he gets so creative with his placement and editing, it is difficult to tell what is happening.  But, that aside, he proved to be a highly creative force behind the camera.  Some of his images are haunting, such as the closeup of the poor old woman clinging for her life before she falls off a rickety bridge.  He also lingers on the sadness of the young girl and boy as they look out on a peaceful ocean, wishing for some of that peace in their own lives.  Even if Ichi is unaware of their problems, we are, and it makes the film's conclusion more emotionally powerful.  Yes, even though the film plays with the formula, there is no way around it - these things have to end with mass carnage.  Even here, Katsu and the writers come up with a way to make it fresh by taking away Ichi's hands, gangsters having pierced both of them with harpoons (Zato-Ouchi!).  Fret not, Ichi fans: the ever-resourceful blind masseuse still finds a way to work his deadly magic.

    Aside from marvelous camerawork, ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION benefits from a score that is, for once, completely in tune with what we see on screen.  No theme song sung by Katsu, no blaring horns or spaghetti western guitars, but a funky '70's style score that, although it may sound out of place, actually enhances the mythical otherworldliness of the proceedings, much like Ennio Morricone's electric guitar scores for Sergio Leone's westerns.

     There was one more film to go in the series before a move to television and a comeback film a decade and a half later, but ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION would have made a terrific movie series finale. ½ - JB

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