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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #19 Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

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)

Summary:

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!

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #18 Zatoichi and The Fugitives (1968)

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