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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #12 Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Writer/Director: Daisuke Ito/Kenji Misumi (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.

Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (TarĂ´ Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.

My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.

Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.

Final Score: 5 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #11 Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (4th film)/Kazuo Mori (2nd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” opens with Zatoichi imprisoned for illegal gambling and getting fifty lashes for the offense. While in his cell, the only other prisoner, Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), pleads for Zatoichi to help as he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he claimed he did not commit. Zatoichi hears the man’s pleas, but once freed he ultimately decides not to pursue the request, he’s gotten into too much trouble in the past for involving himself in such situations. When he happens upon a small town he impresses a young man named Hyakutaro at a game house where he effortlessly wins the archery challenge gaining a large sum of winnings. Afterwards, the muscle from the gaming house tries to strong arm their money back, but Zatoichi slays them all, stunning Hyakutaro who only seemed interested in profits and the reliability of a good scam. Thus he convinces Zatoichi to let him travel with him for awhile. While on the road they run into a wounded man in trouble, and in need of a hasty solution to keep his restaurant nearby open for business. Hyakutaro offers to help by delivering the wounded man’s documents while Zatoichi helps him travel there at a slower rate. By the time Zatoichi arrives with the wounded man, it’s dark and the waiting party tells Zatoichi that they already “paid that guy called Zatoichi a large enough sum for the both of you“. Obviously, Hyakutaro had run off, pretending to be Zatoichi, and absorbing the spoils of life at the expense of those in need- and darting once he’s needed! This obviously rubs Zatoichi the wrong way, and once he finds out where he is, Zatoichi makes sure the charade is ended, though Hyakutaro continues to follow the blind swordsman to his displeasure. In-between all of this Zatoichi had inadvertently come to the town that the doomed prisoner Shimazo told him of and due to an alternate scam run by the local Boss, he earned a meeting with the local official that confirmed what Shimazo had said. There’s a lot of over-explaining that can go on at times with these plots, but the root of the issue is that Shimazo was too popular as the right hand man of Yakuza Boss, and that Boss feared a mutiny led by Shimazo, so he worked with another town’s boss to set up Shimazo for the death penalty to secure his power.

My favorite part: The idea that there would eventually be a false Zatoichi running around claiming to be the living legend himself is a fun concept. The performance from Kanbi Fujiyama as Hyakutaro (the usurper) was cheeky, he played the lovable scoundrel part well and his arrogance paired with complete ineptitude was a joy set against Zatoichi’s stern, but humble, morality. I also really appreciated the impact of discovering that Hyakutaro was Shimazo’s son.

Why it’s great: While the pacing, plot, and performances were all on point and fairly enjoyable throughout the film, there wasn’t anything particularly excellent that stood out to me. The end fight sequence set in a foggy seaside town was visually interesting with visceral kills and lots of tension, but aside from that the composition, framing, and cinematography overall was good, but a bit workman-like for the series at this point. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Zatoichi had ever been to the ocean as well, and having a child explain the enormity of the ocean to him was a nice moment for the character.

Final Score: 1 Doomed Man and his son

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: # 10 Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (6th film)/ Akira Inoue

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Revenge” may have the darkest plot points of the series, definitely of the first half of films, though I haven’t quite finished the series yet. This one’s fairly compelling, though it’s another example of more of the same ingredients from past films- but with a few new variations. It’s another case of corrupt government officials working with criminals to satiate their lust for money and power. As the film opens Zatoichi realizes that he’s near the village where he underwent his masseur training and decides to pay his sensei, Master Hikonoichi, a visit. Upon arrival he discovers that his old sensei had just recently been killed while traveling on the road nearby. Even worse yet, Hikonoichi’s daughter Sayo had been forced into prostitution! When searching for Sayo in order to free her, it’s revealed to Zatoichi that almost all of the daughters of the town have been forced into sexual slavery as well. The three main villains of this film are Tatsugoro, the local businessman that worked up financial crimes that preyed upon the lenders, his boss the corrupt Intendant Isoda overseeing the whole process, and Koheita Kadokura, the ronin samurai in town working as a blade for hire. Eventually through the usual information gathering process of rooting out corruption in gambling houses and intimidation through feats of swordplay skill, Zatoichi finds out who the culprits are and seeks them out. Pretty standard stuff for the series at this point.

My favorite part: Honestly, the ongoing fight sequences that litter the second half of the film are very entertaining. They’re well shot, captivatingly choreographed, and thrilling to watch. It also helps that all of the unfortunate fodder for Zatoichi’s blade are despicable people working to enforce the massive prostitution ring in the town. Good stuff!

Why it’s great: One of the great story beats of this film centers on Zatoichi’s friendship with the local dice dealer Denroku. The skilled dice dealer never wanted to cheat players, he admits to Zatoichi that he’s under the thumb of Tatsugoro and Isoda’s oppression, and Zatoichi forgives him. Later when the villains are starting to get uneasy about Zatoichi’s snooping around, they order Denroku to steal the blind swordsman’s cane sword or submit his own daughter, Tsuru, to one of the local brothels. When Tsuru overhears this, she steals the blade herself and hands it to her father, who finds his impression on her to commit such acts that he gets incredibly drunk and wanders the town in a funk. After awhile he stumbles into a noodle stand and openly bemoans his situation. To his surprise the proprietor of the noodle shop isn’t a normal noodle chef- but Zatoichi himself. Ichi encourages Denroku to give up the criminal life and to lead a better life for Tsuru’s sake, at which point the dice dealer acknowledges his mistakes, and hands the cane sword back to its owner.

Final Score: 1 Cane Sword versus dozens of henchmen

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #9 Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (3rd film)/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (2nd film)

Summary: After being asked to deliver a letter from a man that’s curiously discrete while on the road, Zatoichi accepts and heads to the nearby town of Kasama to find Osen at the Musashi inn. He’s not too bothered by the inconvenience as he was planning on being there for the New Year’s Celebration anyways. He only wants to bring in the new year atop Mount Myogi in solemn worship with the rising sun, but as with most of these films, it cannot be that easy for the blind swordsman. Later we find out that the man’s name is Shinsuke, and that he’s Osen’s brother. He’d been jailed for murder, but it was an assassination ordered by the local Yakuza Boss, Jinbei, and approved by the new Magistrate. As Zatoichi investigates this situation another story strand begins as he protects Miss Saki from being harassed by Jinbei’s men at the inn. Zatoichi presses Saki as to why they’d be after her and she reveals that her father is Seiemon the headman of a nearby village, and he had traveled to Edo to plead with the overarching government to be more lenient with their taxation. Which had already been established with the many vendors congregating in Kasama for the New Year’s celebration (but more on that later). These two storylines are the main narrative thrust of the film, between Osen and Shinsuke against Jinbei and the Magistrate, and Miss Saki and her father Seiemon against Jinbei and the Magistrate. Eventually, we discover that those two stories are far more intertwined than previously thought, for the man that Shinsuke was hired to kill.. was Seiemon. The Magistrate and Jinbei may be the typical authoritative figures abusing their power within the Zatoichi series, but their cunning and elaborate planning made them far more formidable villains, for they got essentially what they wanted for most of the film- killing both Seiemon and Shinsuke when he returned from his daring prison escape.

There’s also a comedic duo that’s part of the local village’s New Year celebration where vendors come to sell goods, put on performances, and generally take part in the festivities. This year the Magistrate has enforced a new system for vendors which requires them to set up shop in particular places and for these freshly required spaces the local government will charge them forty percent of their sales- effectively ruining the small vendors chances at a profit. The comedy pair allow for some cheesy slapstick and fun wordplay as they work a few bits into almost every scene they’re involved in. It’s not grating enough to be irritating, but their shtick doesn’t always land, at least for me. Zatoichi also befriends two child performers specializing in acrobatics. There’s also a third storyline that’s more personal to Zatoichi in which he befriends an aging drunk who has a similar story to Zatoichi’s about losing his son in this town years ago, just as Zatoichi had lost his father in a similar New Year’s Dawn celebration. For a brief period Zatoichi believes there could be some merit to Giju’s story and it helps to peel back small layers of Zatoichi’s past as he tries to remember specifics about his childhood. However Giju ends up being a slave to the bottle and sells out Miss Saki to Jinbei and the Magistrate and from there Zatoichi tracks down Miss Saki and takes on an army of hired hands and does what he does best.

My favorite part: I’ve always enjoyed the feats of near supernatural swordplay that Zatoichi frequently displays to instill fear and intimidation, usually to forgo violence by proving his skill to those who previously thought little of him. This time around when Zatoichi catches Jinbei’s underlings cheating in a dice roll, he goes to meet the boss himself to discuss the matter, however Jinbei is caught in a game of Go with the Magistrate himself. After they brush off Zatoichi for the game, he intervenes after they accidentally reveal a few bits of information about their corruption, and their samurai muscle Gounosuke strides in to see Zatoichi for himself. Gounosuke’s the typical gruff, risky, and brooding ronin challenger the series is familiar with, and he immediately makes a move for Zatoichi’s life resulting in the brash ronin lobbing a bit of Ichi’s cane sword off before he excuses himself and leaves. As soon as the Magistrate and Jinbei return to the game, the board splits in half. Classic Zatoichi.

Why it’s great: This entry in the series has a few things going for it that work well, but ultimately it is one of the lesser Zatoichi films out of the whole at this point. A lot of the material is repeated ideas or themes that the other films have utilized, but with a bit of a twist here and there. For example, initially the first ronin type character to show up seems lackadaisical and a bit portly for the usual challenger role that Zatoichi would end up fighting in the third act. Of course, the real ronin challenger makes his presence known in a flash of an introduction later, ah.. a real fighter approaches. This wasn’t a “bad” film by any measure, just one that struggled to live up to the status that the previous films have established. It’s still a good time if you’ve gotten this far in the series, because at the end of the day, a blind swordsman still fights corruption with accuracy and conviction.

Final Score: 1 eyeless daruma

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #8 Fight, Zatoichi, Fight! (1964)

Writer/Director: Seiji Hoshikawa (2nd film), Tetsuro Yoshida, & Masaatsu Matusmura/Kenji Misumi (2nd film)

Summary: This may be one of the more memorable entries in the series for me at this point based almost solely on the film’s core concept. How would a skilled killer handle caring for a small child- especially when he’s being pursued by the most determined adversaries he’s faced so far? Far from star Shintaro Katsu’s brother’s work in the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ series that would come to be in the next decade, Katsu’s pairing of killer and baby is more sly, tongue in cheek, and far less brutally violent in its depiction. The setup here is that a well paid group of assassins are after Zatoichi throughout the film, initially he’s hidden from them within a group of blind men making a pilgrimage. After awhile he’s approached by a pair of palanquin (a wheelless, covered, box carried by two or more people designed for transport) bearers and they offer him a ride through the countryside. His pursuers see him enter the palanquin and they sneak off for an ambush. A short way down the road the bearers stop to investigate a body lying in the road, which just so happens to be a woman with a baby who had just collapsed from exhaustion. Concerned, Zatoichi insists that she take the palanquin and within moments they’re off. However, they don’t get far before the assassins tracking Zatoichi attack the palanquin and accidentally kill the mother. Once Zatoichi finds out he, the bearers, and the local village headmen who arrived shortly afterwards all go to the nearby town to discuss what to do. The mother’s travel documents reveal that she was heading home to her husband who ran a silkworm farm in a village far from there. Zatoichi offers to bring the child there himself as he feels responsible for the death.

Just outside of town the assassins make their first real attempt at killing Ichi. He swiftly kills the first attacker and the rest begin retreating as he makes the connection and accuses them of killing the mother, he offers to fight them all once he has delivered the child to it’s father, but they deny his offer stating “The Monju clan does not give up once it has accepted payment“. Throughout the journey the Monju clan attacks Zatoichi one by one, recruiting other gangs they meet on the road in an attempt to swarm and overwhelm him. There’s a few women Zatoichi meets on the road, one he pays for a night and asks her to watch over the kid so he can get some sleep, another initially uses him as cover after (rightly) being accused of stealing, to which Zatoichi plays along and in turn asks her to travel with him and help with the child. Eventually they reach the father’s village, and he denies ever having a child or a previous wife as he’s due to be married to the daughter of the local Yakuza boss. The leader of the Monju clan is all that remains by this point and, as Zatoichi ponders what to do with the child, the assassin leader recruits the father stating that he know Zatoichi’s weakness and persuades the silkworm farmer to try and ‘make a name for himself’. At the local temple, a kindred Monk offers to raise the child, and right when Zatoichi had begun to consider what his life would be like if he raised the child himself, the Monju leader and the father arrive for a fight. Zatoichi bests them, even though he’s burned several times with their torches. When Zatoichi has the upper hand he again asks the father if the child is his, he finally breaks and admits that it is his and that he had sent away the mother not as collateral, but to simply be rid of her. He swears to raise his child to be better than him, but as Zatoichi turns away, he lunges and Zatoichi kills him in defense. Thus, Zatoichi realizes he cannot accept fatherhood if he’s always sought after in this way, and he gives the child to the monks, slinking off down the road as the blind men’s pilgrimage passes him once more.

My favorite part: Honestly, after having watched all six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films and knowing that both stars Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama are brothers in real life, AND that director of this film, Kenji Misumi, also directed four of the six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies- to be fair, the connections are too wild to ignore. I particularly loved this quirky entry in the blind swordsman’s saga as an ‘alpha‘ run for the future concept. I mean, how many times have you seen a gambling scene where a baby is thrown through the air before some supernaturally quick swordplay is performed to prove a point without harming the baby?

Why it’s great: This film in the series may ultimately still end in the bittersweet sadness that characterizes most of the finales, but it’s chock-full of the series best humor thus far. From accidentally having the baby pee in the faces of sumo wrestlers to killing men while changing the baby’s diaper- ‘Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!’ is a cheeky good time with a simple, fun, concept.

Final Score: 1 Zatoichi & 1 Baby

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #7 Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (5th film) & Shozaburo Asai (2nd film)/ Kazuo Ikehiro (2nd film)

Summary: In the beginning of this film Zatoichi is shot and injured by a young Yakuza gangster looking to make a name for himself. Luckily Zatoichi was hauled to safety and healed by a mysterious woman. Waking at a later date he asks his newfound caretaker what happened, and learns that the mysterious woman that saved his life was only a passerby on her way home for her village’s festival of fireworks. He decides to head there to thank her, and upon arrival he’s convinced to stay for the fireworks festival- even if only to hear them. Zatoichi quickly finds himself in-between two Yakuza gangs once more, he’s already pledged his support to the more benevolent Yakuza boss, as it was his daughter that saved his life. The opposing boss wants to take control of the heavily trafficked river between the two villages so he can gouge all who cross it. Things get exponentially more complicated when the young Yakuza that shot Zatoichi in the opening returns home and is revealed to be the son of the boss that Ichi’s been helping. Zatoichi tries to prevent more violence, but the opposing Yakuza boss both kidnaps his rival’s son and sends men to kill Zatoichi to get him out of the picture. Which leads into a really fun sequence where Zatoichi’s surrounded while attempting to bathe in the river, he slowly descends underwater and kills all of the men before coming up for air. Eventually the benevolent Yakuza boss is manipulated by his ambitious rival to send Zatoichi away before the fireworks, though he returns to the town’s border to hear the fireworks when he overhears some hired samurai camped out nearby and learns of the true nature of the relationship between the Yakuza bosses. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I really enjoyed it, however the second half was by far the more interesting portion for me as the filmmakers got real creative with their portrayal of Zatoichi.

My favorite part: Near the end of the film, when Zatoichi discovers the truth as to why he was asked to leave town, another familiar sequence begins- but with a twist this time. During the fireworks, Zatoichi hunts down and kills the corrupt Yakuza boss and his underlings in complete darkness. The way he’s framed, how the camera follows him, and how his victim’s react in abject horror, all combine to showcase the blind swordsman exactly like how a slasher horror movie would show and frame their villain or monster. It’s one of the most visually unique sequences I’ve seen thus far in the series!

Why it’s great: After the generally neutral/happy ending we received in the last film, it’s back to the humanist core of the character of Zatoichi. Meaning that morality drives the character with an inherent disillusionment at the state of humanity usually settling in at the film’s end. It’s that state of mind during most of the series’ endings that really stand out to me personally, it’s a unique quality that you don’t hardly see in other popular genres of film.

Final Score: 1 river crossing

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #6 Zatoichi and The Chest of Gold (1964)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai & Akikazu Ota/Kazuo Ikehiro

Summary: Maybe it’s the more streamlined sense of urgency, or the fact that this entry in the series utilizes Kazuo Miyagawa’s (The cinematographer from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’) talents to great effect, but I really dug this entry in the blind swordsman’s saga. Excellent imagery aside, this film follows Ichi as he travels to pay his respects at the grave of a man he accidentally killed during the Yakuza gang war from the first film. The village nearby was in a celebratory mood, having finally paid off their local taxes, they invite Ichi as he’s passing by to partake in the festivities. Things quickly turn sour though when a small group of Samurai rob the villagers’ transport of taxes and Ichi gets the blame for it. After he’s coincidentally spotted sitting atop the chest of gold and seen killing samurai by one of the villagers, Ichi gets mauled by the mob of townsfolk, now in a hysteria fueled by economic anxiety. He convinces the townsfolk that he’ll get their money back, and heads off to the mountains to see a local hero, Chuji, who oversees the safety of the citizens while hiding out from the provincial constabulary. After discovering that two of his men were part of the group that attacked the transport, Chuji becomes disillusioned with his way of life and decides to disband. Before leaving he asks Zatoichi to bring one of the troupe’s young nephews back to the village with him- with a dire warning to take an alternate route from his troupe’s departure as the local government’s men are likely scouring the main roads for them. Things only escalate from this point until Zatoichi follows the scent of corruption to the head of the provincial government’s office where the village headman pleads with the authority to give them more time to make up the loss of their taxes. Instead they accuse the villagers of trying to get out of their payment and as punishment they charge the townsfolk double (2,000 Ryo!) for their offense. Which only inflames Zatoichi further when he discovers that the provincial government was behind the initial crime of stealing the villagers taxes in the first place! As you might expect, Zatoichi’s flashing sword was quite busy that day.

My favorite part: Tomisaburo Wakayama (Brother of the lead Shintaro Katsu, later made famous by the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films) returns to the series to play another ronin challenger. While his antagonistic role might not have the emotional punch that his role in the 2nd film did, his role here as Jushiro is a lot of fun. Using a bullwhip as his identifying technique isn’t just unique for the series- it also sets up one of the more hair-raising final battles at the end of the film!

Why it’s great: In my opinion, what made this entry in the Zatoichi series so effective was the brash attitude and blatant corruption of the government as the main antagonists. The audacity of their oppression against a village of people just trying to survive was so transparent that it made their eventual deaths feel incredibly justified. Things aren’t always so black and white in this series, so having the villains clearly causing all of the havoc and chaos made Zatoichi’s actions ring true without question.

Final Score: 1,000 Ryo