Between 1962 and 1972, eight directors left their stamp on the character of Zatoichi across twenty-three films. That’s twenty-three times the bumbling, humble, and tortured blind master-swordsman has wandered from town to town helping the downtrodden and unfortunate people who don’t have any means of fighting back, spurred on by past sins incurred as a Yakuza. And in those ten years, across all twenty-three adventures, Shintaro Katsu has been the sole creative constant, playing Zatoichi in every film. But for the twenty-fourth adventure, Zatoichi in Desperation, the star in front of the camera also becomes the man behind the camera. So how did Katsu, the person who understood the title character better than anyone, decide to direct himself and weave the narrative for the character he had become so accustomed to? By sending Ichi straight to hell, of course.
What if the mishaps that kickstart all of Ichi’s adventures are really his fault? What if his heroics to save the downtrodden aren’t done out of the kindness of his heart, but as penance to ease his conscience? What if he can’t save anyone? Or, worst of all, what if those Ichi tries to save, don’t want to be saved in the first place? These are the questions Katsu is interested in as he tortures the character he has long since inhabited, twisting familiar scenarios into grotesque forms more reminiscent of circles of hell than the light-hearted adventures he usually finds himself in. A blisteringly colorful whore house becomes a garish embodiment of lust, the twisted and sweaty hoards in a flame lit gambling den become feverish packs of greed personified, and the beach side ransacking where villagers’ property is burned and innocents slaughtered is a terrifying reminder of the wrath of Yakuza. Ichi is transformed into Dante as he navigates a harsh landscape of sin, vice, and anguish, as he is plagued with the questions that Katsu has so diabolically burdened him with.
At the offset of this particular adventure, Ichi – wandering aimlessly as he wont to do – is involved in the accidental death (rendered through a shocking series of smash cuts that will haunt him throughout the film) of an innocent woman on a perilous bridge crossing. And, as in his other adventures, Ichi attempts to right this wrong that plays to both his guilt and his innate morality. Only this time, instead of an injustice committed by a Yakuza that merely reminds him of the many he himself perpetrated in the past, this death is senseless; it is somehow both a freak accident, and also preordained. Ichi has become so cursed by his past that his mere interaction with someone can doom them to a horrible fate. With nobody to blame for jostling the cruel Rube Goldberg causality of his universe into action but himself, Ichi is haunted by this particular first act horror in a deeper way than past films. Unfortunately, the desolate seaside village his path to atonement leads him to offers little in the way of solace or answers. Instead, it is perhaps the absolute embodiment of everything that has driven Ichi throughout the series to this point: injustice incarnate.
If the opening sequence on the bridge isn’t enough to clue you in to the fact that Katsu is diverging from the series tonally and aesthetically (more on that later), then the following title card’s superimposition over the scene of a suicide victim’s dangling corpse should serve as an ample informer. The image is a grim spectre that looms over the rest of the film, a constant morbid omen of Ichi’s own inner torment. Following the grim portent of the opening sequences, Katsu only amps up the levels of violence and sexual content to lurid, even exploitative, proportions. The whole film makes you feel dirty and uncomfortable, which is bold territory for a series that has become something of a comfort watch, with its carefree attitude and well worn scenarios. Occasionally Katsu even allows himself to go too far with the shock tactics, particularly in a grossly uncomfortable scene where the local Yakuza sexually and physically assault a mentally disabled man for no apparent reason. It serves as a gratuitous and redundant reminder to the senseless horrors that have already been well established by this point in the film, and to make matters worse, it’s partially played for laughs.
Most of the sheer terror presented in this film isn’t solely for shock value, thankfully. In addition to deconstructing Ichi through sheer torment, it serves to make the action beats, scored by an incongruous – yet oddly fitting – funk soundtrack, all the more satisfying and harrowing, as there’s a real sense of harm lingering in each dramatically composed frame. Indeed Katsu breaks Ichi down so thoroughly, both mentally and physically, throughout the film, that the final battle feels like his lowest point yet in the series. This of course makes Ichi’s inevitable survival feel like a triumphant exclamation mark to counter the questioning and trepidation that pervades the film, and boldly reinforce the unyielding heroism that has defined his character.
Not content to dive deeper into Ichi’s character through the narrative alone, Katsu and cinematographer Fujito Morito lens the film in such a way that gives the closest possible visual approximation of experiencing the events as Ichi might. Shots lurch between strings of unsettling close-ups, and unbalanced frames where shadowy objects loom and obscure the focal points of the shot. It’s a disorienting in limiting approach, especially when coupled with the occasionally impressionistic editing style. Its lack of clarity is no mistake, however, as it seems to represent an artistic interpretation of Ichi’s own limited point of view. Giving a fragmented impression of the action heightens the feeling of danger the world poses to him, even with his almost supernatural abilities. While we learn shockingly little about Ichi’s own history throughout the many films up to this point, and this entry is no different in that regard, its attempt to at least make the viewer understand him on a sensorial level is a welcome and unique twist to a series that’s never been short of bold visual styles.
As the director, star, and producer of Zatoichi in Desperation, Katsu could have easily steered the direction of the film towards more self-aggrandizing territory that flatters Ichi’s – and by extension, Katsu’s – talents, charms, and heroism. This film could be accused of many things, of which flattery is not one of them. Who would have thought it would take the star himself to build up the nerve to break the hero down, rather than continue to build him up? And while it may not be the most successful film in the series, Desperation is perhaps the most interesting, as Katsu ably proves that twenty-four films into the series there is still something vital to say about the character.