• Shin Zatôichi monogatari / New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

    New Tale of Zatoichi is the third entry in the franchise centered around the skilled blind swordsman with the strong moral compass. It's also the first movie of the franchise to be shot in color. However, it's also the weakest part of the franchise thus far but still an above average experience. Zatoichi is hunted down by the family of a yakuza he killed in the previous film when he is unexpectedly saved from trouble by his former master. He agrees to stay with his former master and his younger sister and also visits his solitary grandmother. What seems to be a joyous reunion soon turns sour when Zatoichi realizes how his master has changed for the worst. His former master tries to marry his sister to a man whom she doesn't love, kills unarmed people for unjustified reasons and cooperates with a ruthless gang of criminals by taking advantage of his pupils' rich parents. Zatoichi can't ignore the truth and ends up challenging his former master to a decisive duel.

    The third installment of the Zatoichi franchise must be separated into two parts. The first half of the movie is quite pointless and could also be told in five minutes or less. We follow Zatoichi traveling across rural Japan and meeting former friends and foes. The movie plods along and is only average at best because of an imprecisely meandering plot. Up to that point, the film could be considered an at best average slice of life or road movie. Things however improve by a few notches when his former master's sister proposes to Zatoichi. From then on, the characters are developed in depth, philosophical topics such as dishonor and honor are discussed and the movie skillfully mixes beautiful fight choreography with a tragic love story. The second half of the film is the most emotional passage of the franchise as we witness Zatoichi's desperate quest for love, peace of mind and renaissance which he simply cannot find as he is constantly challenged, judged and haunted by the demons of his past.

    In the end, despite being the least interesting part of the franchise thus far, New Tale of Zatoichi is still worth your attention because of an emotional second half that pardons for a plodding first half. The movie stands out with a sad, melancholy and gloomy touch and makes the viewer empathize with the haunted swordsman more than ever before. Fans of the franchise should definitely watch this film while occasional martial arts fans should rather try out the first installment, The Tale of Zatoichi.

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  • Zoku Zatôichi monogatari / The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

    Even though it was only released a few months after the first movie, The Tale of Zatoichi, the second and last movie of the Zatoichi franchise shot in black and white, takes places exactly one year after the events of the first film and is directly related to it. It's nearly impossible to watch this movie independently as it complements the brilliant first strike accurately. Despite an overall faster pace, it has a more melancholy atmosphere due to the main character's goal to pay respects to his fallen friend and opponent and a moody soundtrack.

    Zatoichi is on his way to pay respects at the grave of his friend Hirate whom he was forced to kill one year earlier. The movie has three different plots leading into one. First of all, Zatoichi is hired to massage a powerful lord but when he realizes that the nobleman is insane, he is tracked down by the lord's retainers and hired samurai who want to prevent Zatoichi from telling other people the truth about the lord's mental condition. Secondly, the movie follows a one-armed swordsman and his associate who claim to be samurai but are actually criminals on the run. Thirdly, the movie gives us some more details about the yakuza Zatoichi teamed up with in the first film who felt insulted by him and decide to track him down when they hear he is coming back to town. The movie has a twist that links the three story lines together and ends in a rather abrupt way but still manages to answer all essential questions in just seventy-two minutes.

    If compared to the first film, this one has a much faster pace and features more spectacular sword fights. Zatoichi regularly faces big crowds on beaches and in gardens and shows off his precise skills in breathtaking manner. From that point of view, the vivid sequel is more spectacular than the first film. The characters have as much depth as in the first film as Zatoichi still proves he has a strong moral compass while he meets ruthless criminals, charming prostitutes and people somewhere in between on his way to his friend's and opponent's grave. The element that is less convincing than in the first film is the more fast-paced and at times slightly confusing story that feels rushed in just seventy-two minutes and doesn't develop as much depth as it could have requested.

    If you are looking for breathtaking martial arts choreography, you might prefer this movie over the first film. If you are looking for a skilled plot with atmosphere and depth, the first movie is clearly superior. I personally prefer the more intellectual first film but must admit that the second one is definitely energizing and entertaining. It's positive that the sequel didn't just try to copy the style of the first film and tried out something different. Overall, it's a quite good movie that justifies the numerous sequels based upon the first Zatoichi film and that should please to any fan of Japanese culture and martial arts cinema.

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  • Zatôichi monogatari / The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

    The Tale of Zatoichi is the first in a long series of samurai movies centered around the blind gambler and masseur turned lowly yakuza who has a strong moral compass and makes us feel empathic not because he is blind and underestimated but because he is brave and honest as he always tries to do the right thing. This first movie is one out of two shot in black and white and has a unique atmosphere that makes life in rural Japan come to life in an authentic manner. This film shows how Zatoichi gets caught up in a war between two rival gangs. Even though he isn't respected by the gang he is supposed to represent and uncovers unfair gambling methods, misogyny and murder, he has accepted the fate that he has to live the life of a lowly criminal that he never really wanted. He develops a profound friendship with the rival's ronin who suffers from tuberculosis as they have similar values and share a passion for fishing and sake. However, one day, the two friends know they must face each other in a decisive battle.

    There are several elements that make this movie so outstanding. First of all, the film's authentic settings bring the culture and history of rural Japan to life in a very authentic way. Secondly, the protagonist convinces as a man who relies on his moral compass and cleverness first and foremost and only draws a sword if he doesn't have any other choice. Thirdly, the numerous side characters are quite interesting as well, especially Zatoichi's wise opponent Hirate, the ruthless criminal Tate and his proud but desperate sister Otane who ends up falling in love with Zatoichi. Fourthly, the dialogues are really to the point and add something to characters and plot unlike many contemporary martial arts flicks. Fifthly, the few fight sequences in the movie are carefully choreographed and would go on to inspire any other genre film that would follow this movie.

    By today's standards, The Tale of Zatoichi might not be the most vivid genre film but it's crafted in an artistic, detailed and intellectual manner that still stands out far over five decades after its initial release. Any martial arts fan should give this movie a chance. I would highly recommend the stunning Criterion Collection of the Zatoichi movies that truly offers value for money. Movies of this quality are rarely made nowadays and should be hold in high regard.

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  • Shurayukihime: Urami Koiuta / Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of  Vengeance (1974)

    Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance is the very good and often underestimated sequel to the first Lady Snowblood movie released one year prior to this feature. Lady Snowblood turns out to have survived the events of the first film but is hunted down by police forces for her numerous murders. She gets tired of living on the run, stops fighting, gets arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On the day of her execution, the secret police force frees her and offers her to work as spy and assassin for them. Lady Snowblood is supposed to work as maid for an anarchist who has a document that could lead to a turmoil in the fragile country. She is supposed to steal the document, kill the anarchist and prevent a revolution. However, the more time she spends at his house, the more she questions whether she should complete her mission or switch sides. Lady Snowblood soon becomes a key character in the clash between ruthless government officials and desperate anarchists in the beginning of the twentieth century.

    Just as the first movie, this sequel convinces with a solid dose of realism and social criticism as it shows the rift between rich and poor during Meiji period. Due to its plot, historic setting and characters, this sequel isn't a tale of revenge but rather a political drama with martial arts elements. On one side, this change is quite interesting as this film offers something different from the first film but it also takes away from the first movie's gloomy atmosphere and more personal connection to the main character. The rest is business as usual on a very high level. The film-making is detailed, precise and visually stunning, the fight sequences once again find the right balance between elegance and violence and the acting performances are all excellent. If you liked the first film, it's very likely that you will also appreciate the sequel because it kept most elements that made the first film particularly outstanding and added more historic, political and social components to it.

    I can highly recommend the recently updated Criterion Collection including both the original Lady Snowblood and this surprisingly solid sequel as well as additional interviews and trailers. It's a shame that there weren't more Lady Snowblood movies because the feminist character is particularly unique and perfectly portrayed by a stunning Kaji Meiko. Martial arts fans and those interested in Japanese culture should be familiar with Lady Snowblood.

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  • Shurayukihime / Lady Snowblood (1973)

    Based upon the manga of the same name, Lady Snowblood is a dramatic action-thriller set in late nineteenth century Japan during Meiji period. It tells the fateful story of a quiet female assassin who was born in prison and who must carry out the task to avenge her murdered brother and father as well as her abused mother as she grows up under rough circumstances. Supported by a friend of her mother, her severe teacher, an ambitious author and outcast villagers, she tracks down the three surviving persons responsible for her family's gruesome fate one by one.

    Aside of having inspired Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill franchise, Lady Snowblood is a movie that manages to stand out among numerous other martial arts films of its time. First of all, the tale of vengeance has a few clever twists and turns and convinces with a non-linear storytelling which adds depth to the characters and evokes empathy for the silent assassin. 

    Secondly, it's the first movie of its kind to focus on a female lead character who isn't portrayed as weak woman but as pitiless assassin who is cleverer, faster and more determined than her numerous male counterparts which makes this feminist film almost revolutionary for its era. 

    Thirdly, the precise fight sequences are as elegant as painted pictures and their exaggerated elements only add to the movie's vivid flow. The film finds the perfect balance between artistic elements and quite explicit scenes which were shocking for its time.

    Fourthly, the acting performances are stellar as Kaji Meiko convinces as beautiful yet deadly assassin with a haunted past. Even the supporting characters are nicely developed and very interesting to follow. The three villains are quite diversified and complement one another perfectly.

    Fifthly and most importantly, the movie develops a gripping and gloomy atmosphere when the silent assassin is walking through snow-covered landscapes, abandoned cemeteries, muddy villages, poor suburbs and decadent mansions. The rift between rich and poor during Meiji period comes alive authentically as the movie criticizes abuse of power which was quite unusual for Japanese movies back then. The film is captivating from start to finish, gets constantly more intriguing and ends on a particularly high note that leaves no questions unanswered. The movie is executed so perfectly that I could easily watch it once a month without getting bored.

    Lady Snowblood keeps the greatest elements of classic period martial arts movies and adds gloomy atmosphere, fascinating characters and excellent film-making to make this movie one of the greatest of its kind. Even nearly five decades later, this film's excellent execution in unparalleled and still highly diverting. The sequel isn't as great because of a slightly less intense plot but still convinces in all other departments. It's a shame that only two movies revolving around this fascinating character were made. Make sure to purchase the recently updated Criterion Collection including the two movies as well as additional interviews. Anyone who likes martial arts cinema should own these films.

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