Although these final shots break with "realism", they perform a crucial function in visibilizing a form of power that can be characterized as indirect, multilayered and hidden. Zatôichi's journey through the dark alley is metaphorically a journey to the heart of this power, a journey that is necessary in order to cut off the roots of the corruption pervading the visible everyday world of the town (a corruption hinted at in the name Kuchinawa, "rotten rope", with the additional meaning of "snake"). That this journey is necessary explains why the final dénouement must involve an intellectual development. It cannot simply be a showdown with the visible "bad guys" but must also involve a dissection of the interior of the sick body, making this hidden power visible and surgically removing it.
The Zatôichi-character is certainly entirely improbable - a seemingly weak and helpless figure who journeys about as a unfallible, divine justice machine, never losing a duel. Yet he fascinates. Why? At least part of the answer, I believe, is that he embodies the fantasy that a cure to Japan's ills is possible. He is the man who cures Japan of its rotten heart, from the disease that has eaten itself into its soul - from the sense of stagnation and decay that has befallen the "Japanese model" during its recent "lost decades". Seemingly alone in seeing the real culprits behind the decay, his nightly journey to the Kuchinawa boss becomes a journey to the hidden heart of Japan. Guided by supernatural intuition, he becomes the savior of the small, orginary good people while all the experts stand clueless.
This image of Japan as ruled by a power that is hidden and unaccountable is also popular in literature. Turning to Murakami Haruki’s writings, for instance, one finds a vision of the system as an encompassing whole – composed of big companies, shady right-wing organizations and criminal syndicates – in which all opposition is recuperated and co-opted. In A Wild Sheep Chase, "the man in black" describes the shadowy syndicate headed by the right-wing “boss” in the following way:
We built a kingdom…. A powerful underground kingdom. We pulled everything into the picture. Politics, finance, mass communication, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you would never dream of. We even submitted elements that were hostile to us. From the establishment to the anti-establishment, everything. Very few of them even noticed they had been co-opted. (Murakami 2003:118)Matthew Strecher observes that this syndicate – being an organization which “is neither government, business, industry, nor media, yet which somehow holds all of these powers at its disposal” – is “a manifestation of the postmodern State: hidden, elusive, and unaccountable”. It is the very “adversary State against which his [Murakami's] generation battled in the 1960s” which “is now more powerful, and, indeed, more deadly, than ever” (Strecher 1998:358, 361). The picture of society as a total system is perhaps carried farthest in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which Japan is dominated by two giant conglomerates known as the System and the Factory. While battling each other in a war of information, the two conglomerates are also suggested to be “two sides of the same coin” and maybe even run by the same persons (Murakami 1993:299).
|Famous kuromaku Tanaka Kakuei|
Yet this image of power hasn't always been as pervasive as it is today. One way of bringing that out is to compare Zatôichi to an earlier, classic film to which it makes repeated references and of which it might almost be seen as a pastische, namely Kurosawa Akira's 1961 film Yôjimbô. Let me quickly enumerate some of the similarities. The setting is the same: a small rural town in which two rival gangs battle for supremacy and in which the good, small people suffer. In both films, strangers arrive in town that act as catalysts for the mutual destruction of the gangs and the restoration of peace. In both films, a masterless samurai arrives and finds employment as a yôjimbô (bodyguard) in one of the gangs. In both films, a revolver - a sinister piece of Western technology - appears in the final showdown but proves unable to stop the hero. Furthermore, in both films, the inn functions as a form of prototypical "public sphere" where people meet and information is exchanged about the situation in town.
Now for the differences. The most immediately striking difference is that in Zatôichi, it is no longer the masterless samurai who acts as the purifying force, but an itinerant blind masseur (ama). While Hattori is not evil per se, he soon becomes enmeshed in evil and part of the general corruption. Corruption has become much more pervasive. This is evident in the fact that the "public sphere" of the inn too has become corrupt. While the inn functioned as neutral ground and even as a shelter for the yôjimbô of Kurosawa's movie, it is now a place which is run by an innkeeper who reports to the Ginzô gang and who, in the end, turns out to be one of the gang leaders.
One of the more useful ideas given to us by Fredric Jamison is, I think, the one that ideology can be understood as the attempt to forge an "impossible", ideal solution to a real contradiction (an idea which, admittedly, ows a lot to Lévi-Strauss as well as the Frankfurt School). One of my friends, Göran Wernström, used this idea in his dissertation in order to argue that Kurosawa's films are animated by an impossible desire to combine socialism with a Confucian respect for hierarchy (Wernström 1996). To solve the contradiction, Kurosawa constantly had to portray "Confucian supermen" - as in Yôjimbô or the Seven Samurai - who through their superior fighting skills help bring about a society in which the small, ordinary people can live in peace but who then have to disappear from that society in which they no longer have a place, and thus "abolish themselves".
What is problematic here, perhaps, is that this "people" is not really portrayed as capable of helping themselves. Despite the toughness and resolve of the Naruto siblings, for instance, they would have been helpless against the gang without Zatôichi's assistance. While Kurosawa's earlier film offered a kind of role model - a model for the elite, to be sure, but nevertheless a role model that at least some people might strive to emulate - Zatôichi offers little but faith in the possible arrival of the gods. There's little that the small people can do except to wait for the arrival to town of the divine surgeon with his razor-sharp lancet.
In view of the fact that Zatôichi is a film that is usually described as a comedy, that invites lots of laughter and that prominently features lots of beautiful dancing and a matsuri (festival) at the end, it might seem surprising that the film is actually so dark. It's image of society - a nest of corruption that can no longer be cured of its ills through ordinary human powers - is far darker than in the earlier film. This, perhaps, explains the prominent role in it of folklore and religion. In other films too, Beat Takeshi seems to delight in Japanese folklore. Perhaps this is best seen as a religious movie - an apocalyptic, millennarian, religious movie.
Cassegard, Carl (2007) “Exteriority and Transcritique: Karatani Kōjin and the Impact of the 90’s”, Japanese Studies 27(1): 1-18.
Murakami, Haruki (2003) A Wild Sheep Chase (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), London: Vintage.
Murakami, Haruki (1993) Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), New York: Vintage.
Strecher, Matthew (1998) “Beyond ‘Pure’ Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki”, The Journal of Asian Studies 57(2): 354-378.
Wernström, Göran (1996) Medvetet/omedvetet och filmberättande : en studie i Akira Kurosawas film Sju samurajer, Lund: Lund University.