Tag Archives: Zatoichi

Fight Scene Friday — “Zatoichi Challenged”

by Gabriel Valdez

Too often, we think the purpose of a fight is to best our opponent, to dominate, to prove we’re better. To win a fight best, however, is to not have to have it in the first place. There are times when it’s unavoidable, as in this scene from Zatoichi Challenged, but we have this idea that backing down, that begging, that reasoning is a cowardly option.

Zatoichi, the blind swordsman played by Shintaro Katsu in 26 films and a TV series, is not a samurai. He is legally restricted from carrying a katana. He carries a cane sword which breaks regularly. The character’s name is Ichi, his blindness at the time (in both the movie’s Edo Period and 1960s Japan) was considered a mental inferiority, and his rank within the society of the blind is the lowest possible: Zato. He is essentially a homeless wanderer.

Ichi often uses his place in society to linger and listen in on plots, villains barely even noticing someone who they consider inferior. He almost always ends up helping civilians who are being chased by gangsters or the government – often, there’s little difference between the two.

Japanese filmmaking after World War 2 was shaped by a cultural shame and self-judgment for blindly following Imperial edict into war, and – like many films of the time – it used historical drama to reflect on and criticize the attitudes that led them into unnecessary wars.

That brings us to Zatoichi Challenged and one of the most beautiful sword fights ever put to film. I can’t analyze the choreography as I often do because the sword styles at play are very different from what I’ve been trained in, but everything in the scene – the music, the sound, the franchise’s trademark underrated art design – frames this moment. Besides, it doesn’t rely on Ichi being the better swordsman, it relies on his being the better human being.

Half the fights you face, you don’t win because you’re the better fighter. You win because you’re the better thinker, or the better diplomat, or the better actor, or the better comedian. You win because you can defuse the tension, or reframe the worth of a fight, or find that one unexpected response that makes someone else hesitate. And occasionally, very occasionally, you can win a fight in the most legendary of ways – you can be the better person. Don’t get me wrong, it’s risky. It won’t always be your smartest option, but the fights you do win that way? You will not ever have to fight them again.

By the way, The Criterion Collection has made their remastered editions of all the Zatoichi movies available for free on Hulu. I can’t recommend them highly enough. (If they come up out of order, they’re all marked sequentially.) They are thrilling, they are touching, and they are an absolutely essential piece of cinematic history.

We Need You, Godzilla

Godzilla 2

What drove Japanese film in the 1950s was a national shame at having blindly followed the ruling class into a decade of war and social disrepair. Yes, Godzilla was a manifestation of the fear of atomic weaponry and the lasting repercussions it would have, but he also represented a sort of angry god.

America in the ’50s made monster movies so that we could demonstrate how capable we were at overcoming anything and everything (hint, hint Russia). It was patriotic jingoism and boasting. Japan, on the other hand, has a longstanding tradition of creating monsters that reflect its cultural fears and demons. I think it comes from having so much Animist tradition that made it into their current religion (sort of like Mexican Catholicism’s treatment of spirits and ghosts). In the ’50s, Japan translated that tradition into oversize, culture-wide vengeance demons.

A new American Godzilla comes out on May 16. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, a bold choice by Legendary Pictures. His only previous feature film cost $400,000 to make; this Godzilla cost $160 million. Early trailers look and sound phenomenal, exciting, artistic…but can he adapt that core spirit of Godzilla (at least in his initial outing) that is so difficult to communicate to Western audiences?

Yes, Godzilla looks a certain way and roars a certain way, but to achieve what the monster initially meant in Japan, he has to be a judgment against our cultural transgressions. He’s not just a monster; he’s corporal punishment on a nationwide scale. Being big and eating trains and making noise didn’t make him terrifying. There was an underlying, creeping sense that no one in particular had earned his wrath, and so no one in particular could beat him. An entire culture had earned him through the hubris of imperialism and turning a blind eye to the actions of their own country. An entire culture could only avoid his wrath again by changing its values.

It’s a unique point in time for the American psyche to have a monster that reflects that. How you translate that sense of fear and responsibility for Godzilla…that’s achievable. How you translate that national sense of shame…well, we’re not a culture that considers shame a valuable emotion. The most overwhelming component of Japanese film in the ’50s was a shame so deep that penance was more often an unattainable pursuit than an achievable goal. When it was reached, it could only be measured in lifetimes (a theme constantly revisited in Akira Kurosawa films like Stray Dog and The Silent Duel, and explored repeatedly by the Zatoichi blind swordsman movies).

If you can get that sense across to a Western audience in a blockbuster film, let alone a Western monster movie, then you’ve stayed true to the original 1954 film. That may be a tall order, but I’d rather see a failed attempt at one of the most impossible cultural translations in cinema than just another monster vs. military ordeal with no real terror to it. I guess we’ll find out soon.

Good luck, Godzilla. We could use you at a time like this.