Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962) review


Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Yoshiro), Masayo Banri (Tane), Yaeko Mizutani (Setsu), Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro), Sonosuke Sawamura (Kanbei of Seki), Fujio Harumoto (Lord Kuroda)

Directed by Kazuo Mori

"...For the sake of a meaningless war between gangster clans, I lost a man it took me forever to find...a man I could call a friend."--Ichi ponders the previous years duel with Hirate Miki

The Short Version: This lesser sequel follows the popular trend of a fast follow up riding the coat tails of a box office success. At 72 minutes, the script suffers despite some fascinating character angles and exposition. Katsu and his real life brother Wakayama face off the first of two times (again in ZAT #6) and Zatoichi savors and suffers through an unusually high amount of lust and love. A fine sequel, but could have been a bit better. The series would find a lovably formulaic comfortability with its next entry.

Zatoichi returns to Sasagawa one year later to pay his respects at the burial site of Hirate Miki in Joshoji Temple. While he's there, he's invited to lend his massage skills to the lord of the Kuroda household. Learning that the wealthy lord is quite insane, his subordinates can't let this information be revealed so they send killers after Ichi. Meanwhile, Sukegoro, the Yakuza gangster that survived the previous years massacre, learns the blind swordsman is back in town. Around the same time, a wanted man with only one arm appears. Both he and Ichi share a bond and a tragic secret from their past that is soon to come to a head.

Unlike many of the later movies, this sequel has a direct link to the previous picture. Most of the series has no set order, but the first few films followed a sequence to lend continuity to the character and those he interacted with. This is the shortest entry of the entire series running a brisk 72 minutes. It also ends rather abruptly giving the impression that either the studio still didn't have complete faith in the casting of Katsu as the lead (considering how little audiences thought of him in such heroic roles) despite the success of the first picture, or the film was hampered with production problems. However, the plentiful box office receipts ensured that more movies would follow and oftentimes three to four in the same year. From here on out, the remainder of the series would be shot in color.

Katsu and Wakayama--surrounded and outnumbered...big deal

A lot is revealed about Zatoichi in this movie, particularly in the realm of L'Amour--past, present and future. Love (both lost and found), sex and desire are the dominant themes here. This preoccupation with lust and romanticism elevate this fairly average film to another level. Uncovered and explored is Ichi's romantic background involving a past relationship with a woman named Chiyo and his possible romance with the returning character, Tane, who professed her desire to marry Ichi in the previous movie. It was a rare occurrence to see the kindly masseur relishing the company of a woman and this is one of those few and far between occasions. The addition of Katsu's real life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama (billed as Kenzaburo Jo) was a novel touch as well as having them play brothers onscreen, too. It brought a whole other level of tension to the climactic duel scenario that would become an enjoyably recurring theme throughout the series.

Their character arc is a love triangle as both loved the same woman and it was a woman that put a sharp wedge between them; so sharp that Yoshiro lost an arm to Ichi's sword in a fight over her affection. Ichi passionately and angrily explains to Setsu--who bears a resemblance to Chiyo--that she was the love of his life and that she left him upon discovering he was blind. Personally, it's difficult to understand how someone could overlook such a handicap, but then the script doesn't go into great detail and doesn't really need to. What's also intriguing is that Chiyo left one man because of an impediment and through her treachery, caused the crippling of another; even more tragic in that both men were brothers.

Setsu, attracted to Ichi, desires to spend the night with him as opposed to the gruff, one armed swordsman who also desires her attention.

This is also the most fascinating portion of this relatively short little movie. When both Ichi and Yoshiro enter the Inn, it's discovered that Setsu looks very much like their long lost love. It also rekindles the enmity and past jealousy both brothers share between them. Yoshiro wishes to spend the evening with her, but she favors the more jovial masseur. The brothers are inadvertently forced to relive this past tragedy. This is also one of the few occasions where we see Ichi casually entertain the prospect of a sexual dalliance. In other films, he would brush such an offer off, or display reluctance, or apprehension at the thought of partaking in sex. In later films, it would seem Ichi is afraid of love. Well here, he accepts it with open arms!

Tane warns Ichi of Sukegoro and his men trailing him while paying respects for the fallen Hirate Miki.

While the script from frequent ICHI writer, Minoru Inuzuka excels in traversing a side of the blind masseur not normally traveled, this is also to the films detriment. The character of Setsu, who acts as something of a catalyst for the brothers prior female troubles, is summarily dropped from the film after her two day tryst with Ichi. Then, much is made of the return of Tane, yet the film fails to capitalize on her participation leaving her scenes looking like little more than an afterthought. It's possible that scenes were cut considering the shorter running time and the strange, HK cinema style abrupt ending is sloppy in execution. This, too, appears tacked on.

Kazuo Mori directed three ZAT movies and none of them were spectacular experiences, instead being serviceable, workman-like affairs. His best of his trilogy would have to be the comically centered ZATOICHI & THE DOOMED MAN from 1965. His other ICHI outing was ZATOICHI AT LARGE from 1972, an entry produced by Toho following Daiei's bankruptcy the previous year. Mori also directed the third, and weakest of the DAIMAJIN films, WRATH OF DAIMAJIN (1966).

This film is also the first of two Wakayama appearances, the second being the superb ZATOICHI & THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964) where Wakayama plays the main villain in a seething performance that's one of the most imposing of the entire run of Zato pictures. As Yoshiro, Wakayama is playing something of a tragic figure. He's wanted for being a robber, a rapist and murderer, although his roguish behavior stems from his tumultuous past with his brother. In a surprise moment, we don't learn of the two characters brotherly bond till the end of the film. We also learn that Chiyo is still alive and well (Yoshiro claims to have killed her), and while one would expect Ichi to run into her at some point in the series, this plot point is never heard from again.

The brothers duel during the action packed climax

Mori's movie has a lot more action than the predominantly drama-centric material present in its predecessor from famed director Kenji Misumi. This increase in sword action will likely be an attractive proposition to samurai fans as will the participation of the future Itto Ogami, the Lone Wolf himself. Furthermore, with its combination of action and a shorter running time, there's very little dramatic punch here. The filmmakers do manage to tie up the plot strands left open from part one and some of these carry over to the third production, too. The B/W photography may put off some viewers, but dedicated fans to this brand of genre won't mind at all. This was the first of four scores Ichiro Saito would contribute to the ZAT series. It's a standard sounding score especially when compared with any of the 11 the magnificent Akira Ifukube graced the series with.

This is a steady, occasionally rocky entry in the series. The script presents some splendid ideas, but fails to fully expand on some of these. Still, it's the most lovelorn of all the ICHI tales. The ZAT pictures would only improve and become far more melodramatic from here, piling on cliffhanger and suspenseful moments for many of the succeeding entries. The fact that it's Katsu and Wakayama together (the latter with only one arm!) and doing battle with one another is reason enough for both the curious and the casual fan to give this one a spin.


1. We learn Zatoichi is from Kasama in Joshu province. Kasama is located in Ibaraki, Japan. Surrounded by mountains, stone quarries are a lucrative venture there. Ichi returns to his hometown in the last of the 70s entries, ZATOICHI'S CONSPIRACY (1973) wherein he finds conflict with a now wealthy childhood friend attempting to extort a vital stone quarry from villagers.

2. Ichi and his brother, Yoshiro, both vied for the affection of the same woman--Chiyo--who crushed the hearts of both men. Ichi's brother is never mentioned again during the series.

3. Ichi gets a lot of love in this movie, more than in any other entry. We learn of the blind swordsman's failed romances from the past, see his affairs in the present and the marriage possibility of the future. In a rare turn, Ichi jumps at the chance for sex with a tavern girl. In most of the films, he shies away from such encounters.

4. In the previous movie, Ichi leaves his sword at the grave of Hirate Miki. At the start of this movie, he has his sword back prior to paying his respect at the burial temple.

5. There are no gambling sequences in this film; a plot device that would become a major staple of the series.

6. There are no demonstrations of Ichi's sword skills (the amazing 'Ichi Sword Draw') outside of his lightning fast swordsmanship during the duel sequences.

7. The remainder of the series is in color and a formula is established that remains mostly unchanged for the rest of the films.

Feature running time: 1:12:14

This review is representative of the Home Vision DVD.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Famous Monsters Memories: Lots of Lugosi, Lon Jr., Karloff, Creatures & Kong

This jumbo Famous Monsters post covers five issues and a slew of rare photos of fear favorites like Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Karloff, King Kong and more!

A shot from RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) that's not in the finished movie, at least I don't recall it being in there.

A rare shot of the construction of the King of Skull Island from the original KING KONG from 1933.

Issue #92 covers everything Lugosi...

Bela sucks the life from a carton of milk at the HOUSE OF WAX (1953) premiere.

Bela Lugosi in what is presumably his last role in Ed Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1956).

Basil, Bela and Chaney Jr. enjoy a FIENDly get-together.

This cover features a portion of the TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) artwork.

Does anybody out there know what movie this image is from? Even FM's didn't know the films title.

Long before videotapes, laserdiscs and DVDs, there were super 8 film reels. I never had one, but knew some folks that did. Even though you only got a small portion of the films on reels, it was still the next best thing to seeing them in the theater.

A break during the shooting of SCHLOCK (1973) from director John Landis.

The adult geared, fantasy horror B/W comic magazine VAMPIRELLA was huge in the 1970s. This poster was just as big a deal to male monster movie lovers as the later and iconic Farrah Fawcett image that ended up on many a wall.

Jack Pierce applies make up to Lon Chaney Jr. on two different films from 1941 and 1945.

This is half of a spread on Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff appearing together on the TV show, ROUTE 66 (1960-1964).

Frank wishes you all a very scary new year filled with good fear. Happy Horror-days!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) review


Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Masayo Mari (Tane), Ryuzo Shimada (Shigezo Sasagawa), Gen Mitamura (Hanji), Shigero Amachi (Hirate Miki), Chitose Maki (Yoshi), Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro Lioka), Michiro Minami (Tatekichi)

Directed by Kenji Misumi

" said it would be a sight to see a match between me and Sasagawa's samurai. But let me tell life doesn't come cheap."

The Short Version: Kenji Misumi, one of Chambara cinemas finest directorial hands got this vastly celebrated series off and running with this B/W entry that introduced us all to the wonders of Zatoichi. This gritty, yet dramatic feature is light on fights, but strong on characterization that makes what little action there is all the more poignant and powerful. The building of one of cinemas finest creations was a work in progress and would blossom and bloom for years to come. Misumi's milestone is an auspicious beginning and one of many amazing performances by the one and only Shintaro Katsu.

Zatoichi prepares to demonstrate his lightning fast sword draw

Zatoichi, a blind and wandering, low ranking yakuza stumbles upon a gang war between two rival syndicates in the province of Sasagawa. After moving in on his gambling rackets, Sukegoro decides a bloody all out battle is the only way to settle things. The smaller of the two factions led by Shigezo, has master ronin, Hirate Miki under his employ. The lowly blind swordsman is courted to side with Sukegoro, but refuses and instead strikes up a friendship with Hirate, who turns out to not only be a heavy drinker, but also seriously ill. As the turf war heats up between the two gangsters, both Ichi and Hirate know they will have to inevitably fight one another.

Kenji Misumi, most famous here in America for his spectacularly gory LONE WOLF & CUB series, took the reigns of this first film in the wildly popular and classic Japanese samurai series. Spanning 26 official pictures between 1962 and 1973 and one last entry in 1989 directed by lead star Katsu himself (Katsu would also direct 1972's ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION), all of the stories are the work of novelist, Kan Shimosawa. The name Zatoichi has arguably accrued a popularity unlike any cinematic character before or since anywhere in the world.

Aside from the movies, there was also a 100 episode television series that also featured Katsu as the title blind swordsman. Interestingly enough, Katsu wasn't deemed leading man material and it wasn't until his lead as the sadistic and murderous blind masseur in THE BLIND MENACE (1960) that the blueprint for Zatoichi was ironically laid down.

The first and only time in the series where Ichi looks intently at another person with his eyes wide open.

Some of that character is ported over to this new, kinder incarnation. Katsu kept the clean cut lack of facial hair (for the first and only time, we see Ichi getting a shave) and crew cut as well as a nuance or two, but jettisoned the duplicitous cruelty of what could be classified as "Zatoichi's evil alter ego". The biggest difference between Ichi and Suginoichi, the Menace of the earlier picture, is that the former is a superlative and undefeated swords master.

The first of many gambling sequences.

The mannerisms of this soon to be famous film character were in the infant stages here, but would be quickly augmented by the time the third film rolled around. For instance, Ichi shows no reluctance in showing off his sword skills as he would in many later films. From the very beginning, we see Ichi's excellence as a gambler--just one of many skills where his handicap heightens instead of hinders his capabilities. Incidentally, the gambling trick Ichi pulls off here would crop up two more times--again in the elusive and excellent ZATOICHI'S PILGRIMAGE (1966) and once more in the gloomy ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972).

Hirate (Shigero Amachi at left) and Zatoichi (Katsu at right) meet for the first time while fishing.

While the level of action varies from one entry to the next, this inaugural production saves the bulk of it for the fairly brutal and moderately bloody finale. The accent here is on the dramatics of the characters. A good deal of time is spent between Ichi and Miki, the top fighter whom has been hired by rival boss, Shigezo. They become fast friends as they both enjoy fishing. The two formidable sword slashers also acquire a great deal of respect for one another. This integrity shines on more than one occasion such as when Hirate, bedridden from his illness, decides to join the fight when he learns Shigezo is planning on using a rifle to oust Ichi, even though the sightless, and at this time, former masseur (former as stated by Ichi in this film) has no plans of partaking in the skirmish. Of major interest to Spanish horror fans, Shigero Amachi (who plays Hirate) would later co-star with Paul Naschy in the amazing THE BEAST & THE MAGIC SWORD (1983).

Masayo Mari as Tane. She would return for parts 2 and 3. There will be a shocking reveal about her character in the color third entry, NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI (1963).

This picture plants the popular seed of our lovable anti hero having to eventually duel with an unlikely opponent, or one that Ichi doesn't wish to do battle with. This would reach an emotional apex by the third film and would become a frequent plot device from here on out. There's also a subplot about a woman named Tane (Masayo Mari who reprised the role for a few more entries) and Tatekichi, her gangster brother who contributed to a local girls suicide after he had taken advantage of her. The ZATOICHI series is often one about poetic justice and this film concludes with a bit of it in regards to Tane's less than honorable sibling. Also of note, the character of Tane (pronounced Tah-nay) falls in love with Ichi; this, too, is a recurring theme in many of the movies that our blind anti-hero has no shortage of suitors.

The ten minute action sequence that closes the film is ferocious in its violence and brutal for its time.

The film was a sizable success for Daiei and a sequel was ordered. Misumi didn't return for the sequel, but did direct Katsu in a few other ZAT movies and also in the outrageous first entry of the HANZO, THE RAZOR trilogy which was produced between 1972 and 1974. Misumi was one of the greatest filmmakers the Chambara and Jidageki genre ever had lording over it. Having guided the two titans of Chambara, Shintaro Katsu and his real life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Misumi also worked with another Jidageki swordplay giant, Raizo Ichikawa famous for the long running SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series and also such films as KENKI (1965) and THE BETRAYAL (1966).

Ichi uses his almost superhuman skill level to slice a candlestick in two halves. This would be the first of dozens of similar stunts, with each one frequently more spectacular than the last.

Misumi dabbled briefly in the supernatural genre with his own interpretation of the oft filmed 'Yotsuya Kaidan' tale in 1959 (not to be confused with Nobuo Nakagawa's version from the same year) and also combined samurai cinema with the supernatural by way of the Kaiju style with the second film in the somber DAIMAJIN trilogy; released as RETURN OF MONSTER MAJIN (1966) here in America. Misumi's last directorial effort before his death in 1975 was the epic and aptly titled THE LAST SAMURAI (1974).

At 96 minutes, TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962) is one of the longest films in the original 60s-70s run. It benefits from a fine script by writer Minoru Inuzuka who contributed his pen to a quarter of the films in the series mostly during the Daiei years. The score by Akira Ifukube is a magnificent composition and his majestically melancholic themes would grace nearly half the films in this iconic series. Ifukube's signature style would inarguably be most famously recognized in Toho's GODZILLA series as well as other movies dealing with giant, rampaging monsters. Ifukube's musical styling was pure sonic brilliance and of a distinct quality not unlike that of Italian composer Ennio Moriconne. Just like Kenji Misumi, Ifukube said 'Sayonara' to Chambara cinema with Misumi's THE LAST SAMURAI in 1974.

While it's not the best film in the long running and wildly popular series, it's still a great samurai picture rife with compelling characters and situations. TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962) got the kindly champion of the poor, the abused and the oppressed started on his long journey of discovery emblazoning an odyssey of indelible entertainment for fans of Japanese cinema all around the world.


1. Ichi's gambling skills are introduced here although his super-hearing that enables him to win much of the time would be displayed in later entries.

2. For the first and only time, Ichi is seen receiving a full massage of his own.

3. It's stated by Ichi that he was a legitimate masseur three years prior to when the film takes place. He also states he took up sword training so that he would be treated with respect.

4. Shigero Amachi would return to the series for episode #13 as another nemesis for Ichi. Throughout the series many other actors would return in varying capacity.

5. The popular plot device of introducing a powerful samurai that, despite befriending the blind man, is destined to duel with him by films end begins here.

6. The recurring plot point of gang warfare seen here involves two gangs vying for control of gambling rackets with each side attempting to steal customers from one another. Future films would generally feature two yakuza factions battling for various reasons.

7. The first two sequels maintain a link with this first film, but after that, there's no discernible continuity.

8. Throughout the series, Ichi is given assorted love interests. The young girl, Tane professes her love for the blind swordsman in this series opener. Her character returns for the next two pictures.

9. For the first and only time, you actually see Ichi's eyes during the closing moments as he lashes out at boss Sukegoro for his disrespectful nature. From here on out, you only see the whites of his eyes when he happens to crack open his eyelids.

Running Time: 1:36:05

This review is representative of the Home Vision DVD

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