Today I watched Kenji Misumi’s Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)
It has been some time since i have reviewed a film from the Zatoichi franchise, all the better to come at this film with fresh eyes. It is one of the main problems with franchises and revisiting them; films in a successful franchise need to meet the expectations of an audience looking for more of what brought them there in the first place. Of course if you like the flavour of a franchise, then it is a good thing when the series is consistent in delivering and thankfully for me, I do like Zatoichi quite a bunch.
Samaritan Zatoichi is a relatively quiet and downplayed film, especially for how intense it can get. The film makes excellent use of silence and stillness to get into the minds of the main characters. The details of the narrative, which concerns Zatoichi trying to protect another damsel in distress, do not feel nearly as important as how the characters feel and think. Really there is a lot of coincidence in moving the actual events forward because the time that could be spent on action has been better spent in expressing the feelings of the characters and then when the action does inevitably come, it is all the more powerful.
This film does an incredible job of balancing humour and darkness, not just in the same scene but in the same action. A moment of slapstick can have dire consequences in this film and that has an incredibly sobering effect on the atmosphere. This film marks one of the very few times that Zatoichi’s own gambling habit is actually portrayed as a negative influence on his personality, which among other details, really helps to re-humanize the character who was coming dangerously close to cliched self parody. That goes along with another detail, in past films Zatoichi’s reputation had always preceded him, here his legend as been excised from the script and he can introduce himself without anyone knowing him to be the famous ‘Blind Swordsman.’
Samaritan Zatoichi is an invigorating entry into the extensive series. It moves slowly and methodically, getting the audience into just the right state of mind before hitting them with some very creative and cerebral images. The film isolates important sounds to get us to understand something about Zatoichi’s own perceptions and the lack of sound makes the intense percussion that kicks up during the climax fight incredibly powerful. This film, and the Zatoichi series in general, are great examples of the less is more philosophy at it’s best, while it can be indulgent and pulpy at times, it captures silent moments of realism and poignancy in events as simple as a blind man walking down the road. 5/5