Writer/Director: Kiyokata Saruwaka, Takehiro Nakajima, & Koji Matsumoto/ Satsuo Yamamoto
Summary: Get ready, because “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is a film that breaks free from the formula of past Zatoichi films to offer one of the most complex and subversive entries in the series. This time around when Zatoichi enters yet another small town, he encounters a swordless ronin who dispatches a group of attackers with ease- and without killing anyone. Ichi also hears the rice paddy farmers singing tunes that border on hymnal, reciting the ronin’s teachings to reject the vices of life and instead lead just and simple lives. When he finally finds a gambling establishment, he partakes, but soon realizes that the losers are systematically kidnapped and submitted to debt oriented slavery. When Zatoichi discovers that a rival establishment in the next town over is paying these unfortunate patrons debts and freeing them, he’s astonished at the Yakuza boss’s altruism. When the blind swordsman is pinned for the death of two henchmen, he agrees to take the boss’ tainted money on the road and return in a year, confidant in his benevolence. Months later, word gets back to Ichi that everything in those two towns aren’t as good as he had hoped for, and heads back early when evidence to the truth begins to snowball. The benevolent boss had not been as kind as Zatoichi has initially assumed. In truth, he had guided Zatoichi into killing his rival and laid the groundwork for a particularly brutal money grabbing scheme. Eventually, Zatoichi teams up with the ronin and the townspeople to stop the madness, and enact real change- through some damn entertaining swordplay.
My favorite part: This film in particular had a “punchy” energy to it. I loved the grit and messy nature of this one, and it isn’t just the sense that this film had something to prove- it definitely did, as leading star Shintaro Katsu’s film production company, Katsu Productions, chose to make this film their first. Throw away your old assumptions within the series, because this film doesn’t want them. Here we have the usual ronin figure, but he harbors no sword, is no villain for Zatoichi himself, and he counsels the locals to lead lives free from the trappings of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.
Why it’s great: “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is an excellent entry in the film series because of the way it shook up the formula that had dictated most of the films up until this point. There’s still the corruption of authority figures, Zatoichi catching cheating gambling establishments, and some blood splatter- but this entry in the series marks the beginning of a fascinating and highly entertaining evolution for Zatoichi.
Final Score: 2 Yakuza Bosses