Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

Shintaro Katsu had quite a run with the Zatoichi franchise: twenty-six feature films from 1962 to 1989. For the final film he directed someone else in the role, but there were also four non-consecutive seasons of the 1974-1979 TV series. Tora-san still has him beat in terms of longevity (48 films, from 1969 to 1995), but Zatoichi definitely has a much higher body count. This time around, Katsu’s Zatoichi also gets to play Robin Hood. It is considered one of the more visually stylish entries in the popular series, so it is quite fitting Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

Zatoichi (often just plain Ichi) is coming to town, so you know there will be trouble. In this case, his motives are pure. He has come to pay his respects to a yakuza he mistakenly cut down. Apparently, mistakes like this can happen when you are a blind swordsman, even if you have Zatoichi’s remarkable skills. Unfortunately, while contemplating mortality, he sits down on a stolen chest of gold. That would be the villagers’ tax payment, which agents of the Intendant have stolen, so the corrupt official can double collect.

To be frank, Zatoichi maybe should have wondered what that wicker chest was doing in the middle of a field and why were people suddenly attacking him for it. Regardless, the villagers will somewhat logically suspect him of aiding and abetting the theft, so he will have too clear his name by finding their gold. Fortunately, he will have some help from Chuji, a rebel-bandit holed up in the mountains and Chiyo, the sister of the dead man Zatoichi laments.

The opening sequence is definitely one for the Miyagawa highlight reel. Bathing the foreground in darkness, Miyagawa creates a kabuki-like vibe for the sword fight, through judicious use of focused, golden light, approximating the chiaroscuro effect in Flemish masters. In fact, there is quite a bit of visual panache throughout the film. Shôhei Miyauchi’s fight choreography is also widely hailed as the roughest and toughest thus far (we’re six films into twenty-six at this point). Indeed, it definitely should hold up for Chanbara fans. One thing that might jump out at genteel viewers is the ugly contempt for the blind expressed by the villains, but that makes their anticipated comeuppance even sweeter.

Obviously, Katsu has a good idea of what he is doing as Zatoichi by this point. Machiko Hasegawa also has some amusing scenes with him and her femme fatale presence is definitely intriguing, but Ikehiro lets her disappear for far too long. However, Tomisaburo Wakayama (future star of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise) really fills up the screen as the Intendant’s unrepentantly villainous Samurai enforcer, Jushiro.

Chest of Gold must be a fun movie, since they made twenty more Zatoichis (not including reboots). It definitely delivers the hack-and-slash, but the way Miyagawa lensed the action represents some true artistry. Highly recommended as a fan-pleasing, expectation-beating, formula-stretching Chanbara film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens this Friday (4/20) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.