Writer/Director: Kinya Naoi/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (4th film)
Summary: The Zatoichi films may all share a sense of tragedy among their various plots and journeys, but “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a particularly dark entry in the series. As it usually goes, Zatoichi happens upon a small rural town, this one with a dedicated and honest doctor working amongst the silk farmers in the form of Takashi Shimura as Dr. Junan. As you may have expected by this point, yes, there’s corruption by the local authorities here too, but with the added layer of indentured slavery in the local silk mills to pad the villain’s resume. The driving force behind the structure of servitude is Boss Matsugoro (Hosei Komatsu), who’s ongoing racket at the mill gets exponentially worse when he’s forced to incorporate the fugitives into the mix. These villains were great throughout the film, initially Zatoichi bumps into them at the inn he’s staying at, the owners request his masseur services for a rowdy bunch and it turns ugly quickly. These villains aren’t even Yakuza, just a bunch of heathens who were almost slaughtered early on. Luckily enough for them, Ogano (Kyosuke Machida) stepped in and urged Zatoichi to leave. His comrades defiantly brush aside his warning that they’d be dead if he hadn’t arrived just then- for he had witnessed Ichi’s skill earlier on the road. This happens a couple more times before Zatoichi is given full justification to unsheathe his sword. Both Zatoichi and the fugitives leave the inn that night, but while Zatoichi is invited to stay with Dr. Junan, the fugitives pressure Boss Matsugoro to let them hide out until the provincial inspector passes through. Knowing that he’s got quite the illegal setup going, they use this information to persuade Matsugoro to let them stay until the coast is clear. While a few of the fugitives have personal scores to settle with Zatoichi, he had killed two blood brothers at the beginning of the film when they harassed him on the road, Ogano keeps them from getting themselves killed more than once. One of the fugitives is skilled with throwing knives and he offers some of the more unique clashes with Ichi because of this- thankfully for him, the one time Ogano wasn’t around Zatoichi was feeling a bit grateful and only embarrassed him greatly. Eventually, after Zatoichi has freed a young girl from the mill and shamed Boss Matsugoro in front of his men, Ogano reveals his importance to the story. He had picked this small town in particular, not only to hide from the inspector’s eye, but also to come home and see his sister Oshizu (Kayao Mikimoto) and his father, the good doctor Junan. This scene was easily one of the most powerful in the whole movie and it brought any notions of a ‘larger than life’ narrative and shrunk it down to something eminently relatable, the familial drama. Outside of the country doctor’s household, tensions begin to mount. Matsugoro, feeling the need to reinstate his power due to his bruised ego, steps up his brutality on the townsfolk and cracks down on a local cocoon market. When the village headman defends the rights of his people and vocally challenges the boss by saying he’ll go above Matsugoro’s jurisdiction and take this issue straight to the magistrate, the embattled Matsugoro calls in his favor from the fugitives to kill the headman. The fugitives don’t just kill the headman, but the entirety of his household in a bloody massacre. Things continue to escalate until Zatoichi’s put into a desperate situation when all six of the fugitives attack him at once with a variety of weapons, he barely escapes back to the doctor’s house, but there’s one fugitive who knows where a wounded warrior would go in desperation. In one of the more climactic endings, at least since the second film in my opinion, Zatoichi fights Ogano to the death just outside the doctor’s home. With his cane sword sheathed and Dr. Junan looking on in shock and horror, Zatoichi wanders off, bloodied and battered.
My favorite part: This film is a particularly dark one. It’s got Zatoichi at his most desperate (so far), when he’s shot by one of the Fugitives! He even digs out the bullet with the tip of his blade like so many American action stars would do roughly fifteen years after this. This film has to be the bloodiest one of the bunch that I’ve seen, we even get a limb sliced off an unfortunate villain. The villains here are so dastardly that the film wastes no tears for their fate, enslaving a small town in their silk mills and refusing to let the besieged rest when they’re ill- yes, the fugitives and local government definitely got what was coming to them. There’s also the added dramatic weight of Zatoichi describing how he forgot what colors were like to him, initially a sacred memory to pull from, but eventually they too faded into darkness. Drawing out further, crushing, pain for the blind swordsman is what this series thrives on.
Why it’s great: “Zatoichi and The Fugitives” is a great expansion on the evolution that began with “Zatoichi the Outlaw”. This entry in the series wisely narrows the focus on a small country doctor and his family, while avoiding unnecessarily complicated side stories. This allows for the story reveals to hold more narrative power, and the danger that Zatoichi must stand against in the face of injustice to be that much more resonant. The presence of Takashi Shimura, known for his many roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa, does wonders for the film’s emotional weight, the “Ikiru” actor knows how to play emotionally and psychologically battered men to great effect. Seeing the man convey deep sorrow with class and subtlety adds a great deal to Shintaro Katsu’s oeuvre of Zatoichi films.
Final Score: 1 surprise snake