Writer/Director: Hisashi Sugiura & Kiyokata Saruwaka (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (5th film)
Cinematographer: Fujio Morita (I felt the need to include the Cinematographer again here because this film is gorgeous, there are some inventive shots, and the use of colors overlaid on certain shots to characterize Osode’s feelings and intentions was a fascinating choice)
Zatoichi is hired by local Yakuza boss Kumakichi (Akira Shimizu) to “be a witness” to his men as they try to retrieve money owed by a young gambler. When Kumakichi’s men fail to kill the debtor, Zatoichi offers his assistance. Ichi even gives the man an opportunity to get out of this alive, but he rejects it, and calls out from the darkness in measured panic that if he wants to kill him, he must come and get him. Guided by the old Yakuza code, Zatoichi accepts his offer and descends into darkness, only to have the debtor streak from the shadows and be cut down by Ichi in seconds. Moments later, the debtor’s sister arrives with the money he owed for his life and Zatoichi is again met with the consequences of his violence. When Osode (Yoshiko Mita) sees her brother’s body she throws the blood money at their feet crying out that “You have your money, now give me back my brother!“. Merely a moment later when the boss’s men collect the money and grab Osode anyways, Zatoichi steps in, sensing foul play, and protects her from the local government’s grasp for the majority of the film. Throughout the film, Osode’s relationship with Zatoichi becomes more complex than usual. She sways between admiring Ichi’s skill and an urge of overwhelming grief to get vengeance for her brother. Osode knowingly admits in one scene that if it weren’t Ichi, her brother would have met the cold steel of a sword sooner rather than later anyways. However, she also tries to kill him in one scene and in another as she’s watching the blind swordsman win a challenging carnival game she has nightmarish fantasy flashes of his same quick movements transferring to how she imagines that he killed her brother. It’s a series of fascinating character choices for Osode, and I appreciated the depth they brought to her and the story as a whole. There’s also the power dynamics between boss Kumakichi and inspector Sosuke Saruya (Kô Nishimura) which brought great tension to their scenes and excellent character moments from both actors. I didn’t expect Kumakichi to be as outwardly rebellious as he eventually becomes! There’s also Yasaburo Kashiwazaki (Makoto Sato) as the ronin challenger of this film, though far more of a sociopath than the usual character archetype seen in previous films. In fact, I’d say that his fight with Zatoichi at the end is one of the best duels in the series, though the fight at the end of “Zatoichi Challenged” still ranks as the best in my opinion at this point. This is also the first time we see Zatoichi truly represented as the gangster that he’s often referred to. He’s still concerned with the greater morality of life and death scenarios, but he seems less concerned with things he used to point out to other Yakuza- like cheating at gambling with weighted dice. Though he’s probably weighed the amount of times sighted people have tried to trick or hurt him over the years and figured some light cheating for a few Ryo wouldn’t hurt.
My favorite part: Zatoichi gets a partner swordsman in the form of Shinkichi (Tatsuya Fujioka) who helps the blind swordsman protect Osode from imminent danger. It was great to see Zatoichi partake in some camaraderie without that character dying, or deceiving Zatoichi, or anything bad at all really. Shinkichi’s scenes with Zatoichi were pitch perfect blending comedy, tension, and thrilling fight sequences altogether! It was a simple friendship that bookended the film and I was happy to have it, though I was worried for Shinkichi’s life nearly the entire time he was onscreen.
Why it’s great: This film is another excellent argument for Kenji Misumi’s incredible skill as a Samurai film director. I’m not sure if it’s just the choice of lenses, cameras, or the specific cinematographers that Misumi prefers to work with, but his films look amazing, blending intense close-ups with beautiful wides for fights and landscapes. This entry in the series continues the wonderful evolution, and in my opinion elevation, of not just the world of Zatoichi- but of the character himself. Time has waned and aged the blind swordsman several ways, he may be wiser to the trickery of everyday villains, but his mood seems to have been darkly affected as well. He’s a bit colder to people, his idiosyncratic laugh feels more knowing, and it feels earned after all this time. How could someone who’s experienced a life like Zatoichi’s, not become a bit numb to the trivial matters of life?
Final Score: 1 Dynamic Chase Scene on Horseback!