Directed by: Kenji Misumi | 96 minutes | action, drama, adventure | Actors: Shintarô Katsu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Reiki Ohara, Masayuki Mori, Peter, Kô Nishimura, Yoshitaro Asawaka, Ryutaro Gomi, Yuuji Hamada, Yukio Horikata, Shingo Ibuki, Ryunosuke Kaneda
A director who is asked for a “Zatoichi” falls into a bed. He doesn’t have to think long about the image and the characters, they are all already known. The stories are ready and are always well put together. You don’t have to worry about the lead role by Shintarô Katsu, that will all be fine. However, there is still a difficulty: how do you make an original film from a fact that has already been milked out in this way? Add to that that Shintarô Katsu doesn’t seem to have been an easy one on set. Perhaps he got starred and drew more and more business to himself. Started writing the scripts, producing and later even directing. Fortunately Kenji Misumi was an old acquaintance in the series. He directed the very first part of a total of 25 (!) Zatoichi films and eventually did five, of which “Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire” was his last. And it turned out to be a good one again.
The music is beautiful and reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s scores. The plucking shamisen (a typical Japanese string instrument), which imitates Morricone’s banjo well, contrasts with a light tone the harsh male world of pugnacious, easily insulted samurai and sweaty yakuzi. Later in the film even the characteristic sound of the electric guitar emerges, which confirms the Morricone “influence”. Well, it works great anyway.
There are some extraordinarily beautiful scenes in the movie. Especially the one in which Zatoichi has to compete in a bathhouse without a sword against a bunch of fully tattooed yakuzi (gangsters), with a beautiful choreography, creative use of the limited space and beautiful dramatic construction. In another special scene, which doesn’t seem to mean much at first, a man and a woman have an argument. Here it is mainly about the characters, a man and a woman, who then kick each other (literally) and scold each other and then stroke and love each other again. The scene comes out of nowhere, but in the end beautifully illustrates the theme of the film: the eternal struggle between the two sexes, who cannot live with or without each other.
However, most of the characters in “Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire” are somewhat less innocent. And it is mainly women who have to suffer. Fortunately, they can count on Zatoichi’s support. One woman in particular, Okiyo, the daughter of a yakuzi boss, has stolen his heart. This is a good response to the fact that Zatoichi is also a lonely man, blind and without family or at home. Women then turn out to be his Achilles heel. In fact, he is always looking for love, which he finds in a friendship and in a sweet woman. In his world these things are often not granted to him, at least, usually not for long.
This film is definitely one of the harder episodes in the series, due to the brutal, relentless violence. As said: the world in which Zatoichi lives is not intended for soft-boiled eggs. The violence is never as violent or explicit as it regularly occurs in films nowadays, but in that dark world that is sketched, in which people do not allow each other much, it sometimes hits hard. Nevertheless, or if you prefer, precisely because of that, a good film.