“The law is merciless.”
The trilogy of Hanzo Itami films are a truly unique blend of exploitation and gratuitous violence, absurd ruminations and overlong monologues – Hanzo the Razor is, indeed, like a chanbara cops-and-robbers action film (throughout the trilogy he is threatened by his superiors with hara-kiri as if it were his “gun and badge”). Hanzo is the quintessential antihero: a character so bound to accomplishing good that it becomes a bloodthirsty obsession bleeding gray. These films detail the exploits of this outrageous fictional character played by Shinato Katsu.
Hanzo Itami is a constable who is widely regarded as a radical. His methods are extreme but effective, his loyalty to the people unwavering and thorough. He often operates outside of the law (raping female suspects for instance but, in an absurd jab in the ribs, he gets away with it because the women always end up enjoying it and begging for more). Hanzo is incorruptible but resentful of authority. To the film’s benefit, the most interesting character is Hanzo himself. He is the typical Katsu character: irrepressibly moral to the point of being immoral. He is a truly unbeatable warrior, whose weapon of choice is a jutte with a chain attached to it. Early on, we witness him torturing himself so that he can experience what criminals’ experience. This scene is particularly uncomfortable, involving heavy stone blocks (which require the strength of two men to lift) being placed on Hanzo’s lap while wooden planks cut into his shins. It’s such scenes as this (and the film has quite a few more) which showcase the filmmaker’s ability to portray brutality and self-destruction with a self-awareness that is darkly comedic and yet jarringly existential.
This first film in the trilogy follows Hanzo as he uncovers a conspiracy involving a killer named Kanbei and high government officials. With the help of two criminals he keeps under his employ, he conducts his own investigation into the suspicious happenings in Edo Japan. There’s a very interesting scene near the end however, that deviates from this main plot. It concerns a dying father and his two young children. The daughter (who is older) approaches a noodle stand and orders some sake. She drains the cup, then drinks another. Hanzo observes all of this and follows the girl home. He discovers her trying to strangle her father and stops her. He tells her she would be crucified if she did (and, indeed, in that time period she would have been). His solution to the dilemma is not exactly surprising considering everything he’s done up to that point, but it provides an insight into a character who doesn’t view killing as an evil act but a solution to a problem and breaking the law as merely a shortcut to accomplishing a greater good.
The trilogy is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike (the creator of the Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf series’) and it is very much a comic book type of film with exaggerated violence and absurd self-awareness. The funk soundtrack is jarring and laughable but once again, appropriate to the subject matter. The dryness of the humour in the film enhances the farce just right, ridiculing and glorifying that old adage, “The end justifies the means.”