Writer/Director: Ryozo Kasahara/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (3rd film)
Summary: Around the usual gangsters and corruption ruining the locals lives, “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” peels back another layer of Zatoichi’s day to day life, his cane sword. After some scenes familiar to the series, Zatoichi partaking in the ever popular dice gambling, cutting down any resentful gamblers that would come after him for winning too much, and after such an incident the blind swordsman astonishes a fellow patron of a noodle stand. After Zatoichi slashes at two attackers and accidentally cuts the noodle stand in half, the old man sitting next to Ichi pleads with him to come back to his shop. There the old man, Senzo (Eijiro Tono) asks to see Zatoichi’s blade, for he’s a blacksmith and he’d like to see if his eye for swords is still intact. His suspicions confirmed, Senzo claims that the sword was made by his mentor, and, after close inspection, he points to a hairline fracture near the handle warning the blind swordsman that the blade has maybe one last fight in it before it breaks. At this news, Zatoichi takes stock of his life, and decides to leave the sword with Senzo as a memento of his master’s work. Senzo gives Zatoichi a fresh walking cane and a referral to a local inn where Ichi can work and live as a masseur. While there, Ichi hears of the upcoming visit by the provincial inspector, and once arrived, he hears more of the dynamic between upper government and the Boss Iwagoro (Tatsuo Endo). Senzo is mentioned by one of the underlings in the inspector’s crew as working on the sword once again, so Zatoichi pays him a visit. Senzo reveals that he’s the father of Oshizu (Shiho Fujimura), the woman at the center of all the drama taking place at the inn where Zatoichi works. Shamed from his descent from master blacksmith to drunken gambler, Senzo had given his daughter to the local boss at the time so that she could lead a better life. When things get dicey with Iwagoro and his underling Monji, instead of giving up the sword he had worked on for ten years, Senzo defended his blade, but lost his life to the scuffle. After Senzo dies in Zatoichi’s arms, he vows vengeance and retrieves his cane sword, knowing he only has one kill left. As the machinations of the gangs, ronin, and government officials all move towards total domination, Zatoichi eventually faces off against Iwagoro, invigorated by the theft of Senzo’s master work. Though when blades clash it isn’t Zatoichi’s cane sword that breaks, but Iwagoro’s stolen sword. It’s then that Zatoichi realizes that Senzo had switched the blades and put his greatest sword in his cane sword and Ichi’s old blade in the hilt that he knew would be stolen.
My favorite part: With this being the fifteenth film in the series, I was glad to see the filmmakers dive into the details behind another infamous aspect of the blind swordsman. There have been a few movies after Zatoichi’s killed dozens upon dozens of enemy Yakuza when even I have thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that his cane sword’s held up for so long.” so it’s kinda nice to see thought given to that.
Why it’s great: I consider “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” to be the end of the first half of the films, not just due to it’s place near the numerical center of the film series, but because the films that follow it have a noticeably different shift in style and direction. Whereas the first fifteen films have a certain flow and sense of familiarity from film to film, the ones following seem unbound by the same formula to a certain degree. While the overall structure is similar, the series seems far more likely to take big swings after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”. The next film in the Zatoichi saga is also the first endeavor by Shintaro Katsu’s own film production company, “Katsu Productions” where the actor produced many of the following Zatoichi films, and maintained almost complete artistic freedom.
Final Score: 10 years