Naked Men Fighting, by Alexander Miller
Orson Welles’ Othello, Kenji Misumi’s Zatoichi at The Festival of Fire, and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; where’s the relation in these three different movies? Despite being the products of maverick directors, they all feature major scenes featuring elaborately staged fight sequences that take place in bathhouses where (nearly) nude males are trying to kill each other. Maybe the shared DNA of Othello, Eastern Promises, and the 21st Zatoichi film are just a coincidental trio that features bathhouse fights? That might be the case but it’s too hard to ignore just how specific these scenes are, and the artistic merits that tie them together are suitably curious and merit some attention.
The creative ricocheting that occurs with films on an international level is one of the many reasons why I love movies so much, as it’s fun to see where inspiration and homage can take us. In this case, we’re going from a 40s-era Shakespeare adaptation to the 21st entry in a long-running chambara series from the seventies, informally concluding with an unexpected turn from David Cronenberg, who found new ways to apply his body horror sensibilities and explored new ways to manipulate flesh with his visceral gangster film Eastern Promises.
Nobody made movies like Orson Welles and this maverick director, actor, writer and producer was particularly talented in stretching a dollar in order to achieve his vision on screen. As we know, Welles was handed the keys to the kingdom of movie making with Citizen Kane and had to struggle for everything else in his career. Among his many difficult productions, Othello is known for perhaps being the most problematic. Ever the clever trickster, Welles took a money shortage and turned it into one of his most unforgettable sequences; the murder of Rodrigo is now hailed as one of the director’s most acclaimed moments. All it took was a converted fish market, a gaggle of cast members sporting towels and some of the director’s trademark visual chops and the result, what Welles has called a “divine accident,” is one of Othello’s high points. For all the artistry invested into the death of Rodrigo, it stems from something as simple as a mere lack of money. The anarchic creative temperament of Welles was becoming more and more visible in the period while he was making Othello. It feels like the exiled maverick was growing more comfortable in his European period. Without intervention, this daring ploy would not only be unforgettable but influential.
Don’t be fooled, Zatoichi at the Festival of Fire is a ripping good time and its director, Kenji Misumi, is an overlooked master filmmaker who put enough energy into Festival of Fire that it counts as one of the premier entries in a long-running series. And it contains what must be a Welles-inspired fight scene that plays out in a bathhouse where our titular masseur is doing what he does best, hacking away at dudes with his superior sword skills.
What makes this part of the film so compelling is that, unlike Othello, this late Zatoichi feature is in color and Misumi takes full advantage of it with his expressive use of blood flow and the swordplay choreography. The scene also poses a challenge for our protagonist (in the tradition of screen heroes) having the ante upped. How will Zatoichi fight without his sword or clothing? Well (spoilers), he does just fine and, in concert with the tone of a series where humor and action harmonize wonderfully, Shintaro Katsu embodies the buttery-but-lethal energy that makes the Zatoichi character so indelible.
While Welles’ challenge was a lack of money, it feels as if Misumi created a similar fight as a means to challenge himself with a cunning display of craft by eschewing overt nudity, slyly incorporating blood packs (how do you conceal a squib on a naked person?) and, of course, creating some dynamic visuals. Though there hasn’t been much written on Misumi’s film, plenty of people have seen the connective tissue between Welles and Cronenberg. What could be an inspired homage, the infamous showdown in Eastern Promises is a jarring set piece. While it’s a visceral and brilliantly executed fight scene, its intensity is emphasized thanks to the disciplined aesthetic that has defined Cronenberg’s recent efforts. Of course, its reputation is largely due to the fact that Viggo Mortensen is fending off assassins buck naked (which seems to be his thing now). Reducing his physical status to its barest form is an informed and emphatic creative decision, making the scene both primal and graphic. Of course, Cronenberg was practically the cinematic progenitor of body horror. He seems to have channeled his imaginative penchant for violence into the realm of the tangential rather than phantasmagorical. He can still make you squirm but in a different way. If we were to categorize these scenes and their genesis, it feels like Misumi approached his Zatoichi sequence with presence of style in mind and Cronenberg’s treatment was more expressionistic but what they both have in common is that they seem to be paying tribute to Welles. The irony here is that Orson simply ran out of money.
In tethering Welles’ Othello, Zatoichi at the Fire Festival and Eastern Promises, it seems as if the male figure is utilitarian in its association with acts of violence. It’s not the kind of screen art we’d associate with Claire Denis, Andy Warhol or Peter Greenaway, who utilize the male body with a more deliberately artistic bent. But these films represent an elevation in genre and execution, surpassing genre restrictions, conventions and budget.