Writer/Director: Ryozo Kasahara (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (4th film)
Cinematographer: Chikashi Makiura (He worked on a number of Zatoichi films and all of the films that Kenji Misumi directed in the Lone Wolf and Cub series as well. I felt the need to point his name out in this review as the film is a knockout visually, and that deserves credit)
Summary: Once again Zatoichi is the guardian of a small child- but this time it’s a six year old that can walk and talk back to him. If you enjoyed “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!”, then I’d imagine you’ll likely love this entry in the Zatoichi canon. It’s basically an upgraded version of Kenji Misumi’s earlier work, though “Fight!” had a more carefree Zatoichi in his demeanor and how he reacted to people and the world around him. Now, nine films later, Zatoichi’s a bit more apt to be somewhat curmudgeonly. Granted, he’s been through a lot in that time and seen the range of humanity from true, noble, and kind to hypocritical, greedy, and self serving. Zatoichi’s journey begins when he arrives at a crowded inn and stays with a sickly mother and her young child. When the mother unceremoniously dies in Zatoichi’s arms, it’s up to him to deliver the child to the father he never knew. On his journey to the father’s hometown, Zatoichi and Ryota encounter a mysterious ronin-like figure on several occasions, one that reveals nothing about himself or his mission, but delights in getting details from Zatoichi several times. Neither knew that they would end up fighting to the death over Ryota’s father, Shokichi’s (Takao Ito), life. Once Zatoichi finds evidence of Shokichi’s location, he’s surprised to find that Shokichi isn’t simply neglecting his child (he didn’t even know he had fathered a child), or trying to further his own selfish goals. Because Shokichi has artistic talent, he’s been forced to pay off his gambling debts by painting illegal erotica- which carries a heavy fine in this period of Japan’s history.
Notably, this film showcases real skill when it comes to the art of filmmaking. The film production crafted beautiful cinematography, gorgeous compositions, bold colors, and an excellent combination of wide landscape shots and intense close-ups. There’s also the surprise sprinkling of two musical sequences in which melodramatic vocals play over a couple of traveling montages. Kenji Misumi really pulled some beautiful performances out of his actors this time, notably, in smaller moments that allow time for the characters to process, react, and even show their true feelings about the situation at hand a few times which feels revelatory for this series. This turned out to be my favorite Zatoichi film, so far, and I’m happy to be proven wrong in the near future.
My favorite part: Besides the gorgeous cinematography by Chikashi Makiura and excellent direction from Kenji Misumi, my favorite part of this film was the villain. From the opening scene of the film until the end battle, he’s wisely spread around the plot with his true intentions only known far into the story. After Zatoichi slays several combatants in the opening scene, Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe) witnesses the blind swordsman’s skill and heartily compliments him. Zatoichi happens to bump into him on several occasions well before they cross blades, where they respect each other’s skill and are cordial enough with each other. Akazuka may seem like the usual ronin figures that accompany a lot of these films, but he’s got stone cold conviction and he’s a far more dangerous combatant than most of Zatoichi’s enemies. I had heard that this film had one of the best Samurai fight scenes of all time, and I have to say that I was impressed. It was visceral, beautifully shot against falling snow, and it was the first real time I had any real concern for Zatoichi in a fight. The way story and deep character moments are inserted into the fight, I mean, you can’t get much better than that.
Why it’s great: This film is the epitome of why the blind swordsman concept works. “Zatoichi Challenged”, out of the films in the series that I have seen this far, is the best example of the character and the film series as a whole. Everything about this film is perfect for it’s aim. If you don’t enjoy this film, you probably won’t find much else in the series that works for you.
Final Score: 1 AMAZING Samurai Fight
*For fun, check out this re:View by Red Letter Media in which they analyze this Rutger Hauer starring movie that was supposedly a loose adaption of “Zatoichi Challenged”: