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