Writer/Director: Hajime Takaiwa/Tokuzo Tanaka (3rd film)
Summary: “Zatoichi’s Vengeance” opens with him stumbling onto a murder scene when he stops a group of men robbing a man dying on the road. When they object to his morality check, they attack, and are swiftly defeated. The blind swordsman kneels to the dying man who gives his name when Zatoichi asks, Tamekichi (Gen Kimura), but more importantly he pleads with his dying breathe to give a pouch of money to Taichi. These are the only clues Zatoichi has at the outset of this journey. Though after a quick stop for lunch the next day he finds a weighted die in the bag with the money, concluding that Tamekichi must have been caught cheating at a gaming house- which is why he was being pursued in the dead of night. After awhile he encounters a blind priest (Jun Hamamura) that hasn’t eaten in some time, and they share a meal together as the stranger drops some wisdom on Zatoichi before heading off to Ichinomiya, at which point Zatoichi decides to check out the local festival as well. There he quickly encounters a raucous small child chasing a group of fellow children that responds to his grandmother calling out, “Taichi! Look at the dirt on that Kimono! Get inside this minute!” Zatoichi then meets with the grandmother and tells them a white lie about Tamekichi rather than offload the heartbreaking truth. He also learns that the town’s no longer the idyllic dream that it had been. Gonzo, the corrupt local official has stormed into the area recently and implemented incredibly harsh financial extortion to all of the merchants in Ichinomiya. Only three of the shop owners have survived the onslaught so far, many having to pay 100 ryo or more to buy back their shops.
From there, Zatoichi does his usual thing, but as always this film has a slight variant to it’s tale. Yes there’s the usual fight against injustices and standing up for the every day people, but this time his tactics come with a cautionary warning from his fellow blind traveler. After witnessing Zatoichi perform amazing feats of swordplay against some hecklers from the crowd at the thunder drums performance (more on that later), the blind priest counsels Zatoichi that by displaying such masterful swordplay in front of Taichi, he may have corrupted the boy and sent him on a path towards violence. He tries to reason with Gonzo’s men, but it only results in him being humiliated by them in front of Taichi and his innkeeper family. Zatoichi eventually storms in when the men return to force payment and he cuts down a dozen or so of them in the street, to which the blind priest chastises him, “Alas, now you have killed, and in front of Taichi too.” The blind swordsman retorts with “What else could I do?” as the priest replies with more vague wisdom, “One hour’s cold will spoil seven years of warming.” There’s also a B story running throughout the film surrounding Ocho (Mayumi Ogawa), the leader of a brothel recently built in the wake of advancing corruption. She’s the former wife of the Samurai Kurobe (Shigeru Amachi), the man hired to kill Tamekichi at the beginning of the film. He tries to win her heart back, but after being abandoned three years ago she’s become disillusioned and numb to the world, and she rejects him outright. Even through rejection, Kurobe meets with Ocho’s boss and seeks to pay off her debt so that she may seek happiness and swears to have the fifty ryo for her release within two days. Thus in the third act we have a villain with great motivation for a fight. He immediately goes to Gonzo’s establishment and demands fifty ryo for any job they require. After a quick rejection Kurobe displays his prowess with a blade and is hired on the spot. Once he hears who his target is, Kurobe had witnessed Zatoichi’s skills when he attacked Gonzo’s men in the street, he raises the required payment because “Fifty ryo is too little for killing him“. Gonzo’s men actually have a good idea for their attack on Zatoichi, to use the town’s thunder drums to disorient him with overwhelming noise. They fight him at night on a bridge, and the silhouette sequence is pretty cool visually, after he overtakes them Kurobe strides up complimenting him on his skill. Kurobe then informs Zatoichi that he must kill him for fifty ryo and that there is no other way, Zatoichi warns him that he may die as a result, but after Ocho’s rejection, Kurobe seems a bit disillusioned with life anyway and he only has the finality of a worthy opponent. After their duel, Zatoichi goes straight to Gonzo’s place and demands the seven merchants’ money back, and the fifty ryo that Kurobe was promised, and three more ryo to repay Tamekichi’s mother for the few lunches he paid for out of the money. With the money returned, Zatoichi tries to tell Taichi’s grandmother about Tamekichi’s true fate- but she stops him, saying that she knew the truth the moment he came to them. Ocho has her debt repaid but is too hungover and depressed to notice, Taichi peers longingly into the distance, and Zatoichi wanders off once more.
My favorite part: The Biwa playing blind priest was a nice touch. Zatoichi’s never really been challenged by a character more moral than him in such a way before. In their last encounter, the priest plays his Biwa and sings to mark their departure. During the song, the Biwa priest breaks a string and likens this to Zatoichi’s moral predicament. “You cannot play Biwa if you just depend on the strings. And if you depend only on your hidden sword, you will not live long“
Why it’s great: This film is unique and has lasting impressions for Zatoichi as it has the clarity to question it’s own morality, and the series as a whole. Does it need to be so violent to meet its ends? Judging by the evolution that the series undergoes after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”, that answer is yes. After this film, the series wanders with this notion of questioning morality for a while longer. The foundation of the next film ponders the question even further with Zatoichi seeking the purifying cleanse of his violent past with a spiritual pilgrimage.
Final Score: 50 Ryo