Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The best fight sequences in Chang Cheng Ho’s otherwise unremarkable Five Fingers of Death (1971) pit various trim, clean-featured young Chinese boxers against the most outlandishly lethal trio of killers I’ve ever hated myself for loving to watch. Lanky, slack-limbed, sullen and arrogant-looking youths they are, with mops of very long, disheveled hair and an insouciant manner out of which flowers without warning that bafflingly beautiful series of swift karate movements for which they have been hired—out of Japan—by a deep-dyed Chinese bad guy named Meng. Invincible Boxer was the movie’s original title. But these three imported killing machines are the ones who appear invincible, not the bland Chinese hero of the title. Still, a Chinese audience knows the foreigners mustn’t really be invincible; and of course all three eventually do hit the dust and the audience goes home satisfied.

Japanese are stock heavies in Hong Kong movies, and the more dangerously skilled they are, the more ruthless, the more bizarre, the more exciting the buildup and bloody comeuppance. Don’t worry, experience whispers, as Chinese bones crack and astonished kung-fu masters reel away from the killing-floor spurting buckets of blood; don’t worry, folks, foreigners always finish last.

But wait! here’s producer Raymond Chow’s spiffy Vancouver Chinatown showcase, the Golden Harvest Theatre, bringing in a Chinese-Japanese coproduction! Sixty-four-dollar question: who’s gonna walk, or limp, away intact from this crosscultural showdown? Wild horses, flying thunderbolt kicks couldn’t keep me from Zatoichi and the One-armed Swordsman‘s opening night.

Well, I should have known. In the interests of international amity (or of a sequel?), the match seems to end in … a draw. Thrust, parry, flash—one-armed swordsman’s neatly tied braid has been severed! Wang Yu’s jaw drops in amazement—the first strong emotion drawn from this actor in some 80 minutes of screen time. Grunt … kick … jump … thud: Zatoichi (The Blind Swordsman) is down. He’s cut badly; it’s all over. One-armed swordsman walks slowly, ruefully away. Closeup: blood jets from somewhere beneath his garments … an artery? The scene recedes rapidly and the two wounded antagonists become very small figures in a stony landscape.

Hsu Teng-Hung/Yasuda Kimiyoshi’s coproduction only looks like a draw, though. In fact, the Japanese have won hands down. Between Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, and Wang Yu, the One-Armed Swordsman, it’s simply no-contest. They are both, I gather, top box-office draws in their respective lands. Maybe it’s a cultural block on my part, but damned if I can see why Wang Yu’s a star. Whatever he’s got, it sure ain’t charisma, not from where I sit, and to my layman’s eye his fighting style doesn’t have much zing either. Every time he’s in a tight spot, up he goes, he sails right off the top of the screen, comes down in a tree, say, or behind his confused gang of opponents to continue the fight. First time, magic. Thereafter, big deal. And no humor, nothing. I kept thinking of young David Chiang (Heroes Two), with his mocking smile and classy fighting moves: now he might have held the screen against Zatoichi. Maybe.

Shintaro Katsu, Zatoichi, is larger than life. He out-sanjuros Sanjuro. Remember Mifune’s scruffy samurai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro)? Zatoichi, if you can imagine this, is about ten times shaggier than Sanjuro was. He twitches; he blinks; he scratches. Food gets shoveled helter-skelter into his hungry maw, let the scraps fall where they may. This irrepressible, un-housebroken (but kindly) blind man shambles down the road, talking to himself, his legs considerably bowed, a pair of dirty white leggings visible below the cloak. And with it all, a legendary swordsman, his movements, like Mifune’s, literally too swift for the naked eye.

As if that weren’t enough, Katsu’s got one more thing going for him here that Wang Yu utterly lacks. A director. I know no more about Yasuda Kimiyoshi than I do about Hsu Tseng-Hung; but I’ve seen a few samurai flicks, and whenever things got to looking kinda … stylish up there, it seemed fairly evident to me that we were temporarily in the hands of the Japanese half of the directing team. You know: low-key lighting, atmospheric color, moody composition or camera movement that makes you aware of the big Scope screen’s dimensions.

OK, here’s three examples of what I took to be the stylo-Kimiyoshi at work. I cite them at length because they also exemplify, I think, the sort of thing that can make going to (and writing about!) a pop film par excellence like this one more than the mere exercise in trivia, or trendiness, which it threatens to become when the viewer doesn’t see himself as a genuine member of the mass audience at whom the film is presumably pitched and isn’t even a member of the culture—either culture—upon which it draws.

1) An interlude in the action: a genre scene of a type familiar to me from those brooding fierce period samurai movies. Zatoichi comes into a noisy, busy eating house. Another blind masseur (Zatoichi is that, too), even scruffier than Z., is seated at a table gambling with two low-life companions. The blind swordsman joins them. The masseur, wary and rather pugnacious, is nonetheless obviously interested in this blind newcomer. To the amusement of all the onlookers, the two begin gambling, very quarrelsomely. They play heads-or-tails. One of them disputes the toss, calls the other a liar, and the paranoia gets thick enough to cut with a knife. Just when you expect violence to erupt, one blind man leans across the wooden table and whispers furiously into the other’s ear. Both burst out laughing, uproariously. More whispering; more bursts of laughter. The onlookers are nonplussed. “What the hell’s going on?” complains one. “What was that all about?” Neither blind man ever bothers to answer him. And we never come out of the dark either; we never learn what mysterious private joke has been passing rapidly back and forth along the alternating current of communication established so suddenly between the suspicious, scabrous blind men.

2) The treatment of action. Certain boring conventions are common to both the “Japanese” and “Chinese” segments. The hero, surrounded by twenty or thirty menacing armed men, proceeds improbably to slaughter every last one of them, suffering only minor scratches. The two heroes are really on the same side, but treachery or misunderstanding turns one of them into the sworn enemy of the other: hence the climactic duel of the swordsmen. About the best you can expect in the way of surprise during Wang Yu’s fight-scenes is the old levitation number. Zatoichi, though, keeps doing the whimsical, the capricious, in the very midst of battle. He’s just fought his way out of one of those rings of soldiers, see, and all of a sudden he’s gone. All of the baddies are prowling around the premises looking for him—this fight is staged in some sort of lumberyard or primitive factory—busting up wagons and overturning barrels. Aha! This one extra-1arge barrel seems to be rolling along the OK Corral–ish main street completely under its own steam. Quick shot of Zatoichi, slightly wounded, scrunched up inside the barrel and turning it with his feet. The barrel hits a big stone and stops. A particularly mean-looking bozo comes up to it, sneers, leans forward and … raps hard on it, three times. Long pause. Inside shot, again, of Zatoichi crouched, waiting, every sense alert; slightly smiling. The blind man leans forward, and cheerfully raps back, three times.

Another long pause. All at once, a frenzied thrusting of swords, from every direction, into the barrel. But of course, everybody’s a split second too late for old Z. They’re all impaled already, on thrusts made from inside the barrel. Immediately, we see him burst right up out of the barrel, like a chicken out of an egg, in a flurry of quicker-than-the-eye sword strokes that leaves soldiers dead or dying all around. Behind him is, I swear it, an unmistakably chick-coming-out-of-the-egg irregular aperture in the busted wooden barrel.

3) End of the OK Corral fight. Most of the soldiers are dead, their bodies strewn among the barrel staves and smashed wagons littering the main street. Chief Teng, brutal head honcho, knows his number is up. In small, frightened steps, he retreats from the implacably advancing blind man. Zaioichi’s sword is poised for action. A sudden motion: with his free hand, the blind man reaches inside his cloak and brings out—what is it? A cigar—? The thing goes into his mouth; he continues shuffling toward the trembling Teng … you hear this sprightly, piping dirge. It’s a little wooden flute!

The advance on Teng continues, so does this simple faintly Mahlerian melody. Zatoichi comes abreast. Pause. A sequence of movements too fast to follow. Teng’s pinned through the heart against a wooden post. In the middle of a phrase, the music stops.

Direction: Hsu Tseng-Hung, Yasuda Kimiyoshi. Screenplay: Kimiyoshi.
The Players: Shintaro Katsu, Wang Yu, Wang Ling, K. Hama, Chang Yi.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler