Writer/Director: Seiji Hoshikawa (2nd film), Tetsuro Yoshida, & Masaatsu Matusmura/Kenji Misumi (2nd film)
Summary: This may be one of the more memorable entries in the series for me at this point based almost solely on the film’s core concept. How would a skilled killer handle caring for a small child- especially when he’s being pursued by the most determined adversaries he’s faced so far? Far from star Shintaro Katsu’s brother’s work in the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ series that would come to be in the next decade, Katsu’s pairing of killer and baby is more sly, tongue in cheek, and far less brutally violent in its depiction. The setup here is that a well paid group of assassins are after Zatoichi throughout the film, initially he’s hidden from them within a group of blind men making a pilgrimage. After awhile he’s approached by a pair of palanquin (a wheelless, covered, box carried by two or more people designed for transport) bearers and they offer him a ride through the countryside. His pursuers see him enter the palanquin and they sneak off for an ambush. A short way down the road the bearers stop to investigate a body lying in the road, which just so happens to be a woman with a baby who had just collapsed from exhaustion. Concerned, Zatoichi insists that she take the palanquin and within moments they’re off. However, they don’t get far before the assassins tracking Zatoichi attack the palanquin and accidentally kill the mother. Once Zatoichi finds out he, the bearers, and the local village headmen who arrived shortly afterwards all go to the nearby town to discuss what to do. The mother’s travel documents reveal that she was heading home to her husband who ran a silkworm farm in a village far from there. Zatoichi offers to bring the child there himself as he feels responsible for the death.
Just outside of town the assassins make their first real attempt at killing Ichi. He swiftly kills the first attacker and the rest begin retreating as he makes the connection and accuses them of killing the mother, he offers to fight them all once he has delivered the child to it’s father, but they deny his offer stating “The Monju clan does not give up once it has accepted payment“. Throughout the journey the Monju clan attacks Zatoichi one by one, recruiting other gangs they meet on the road in an attempt to swarm and overwhelm him. There’s a few women Zatoichi meets on the road, one he pays for a night and asks her to watch over the kid so he can get some sleep, another initially uses him as cover after (rightly) being accused of stealing, to which Zatoichi plays along and in turn asks her to travel with him and help with the child. Eventually they reach the father’s village, and he denies ever having a child or a previous wife as he’s due to be married to the daughter of the local Yakuza boss. The leader of the Monju clan is all that remains by this point and, as Zatoichi ponders what to do with the child, the assassin leader recruits the father stating that he know Zatoichi’s weakness and persuades the silkworm farmer to try and ‘make a name for himself’. At the local temple, a kindred Monk offers to raise the child, and right when Zatoichi had begun to consider what his life would be like if he raised the child himself, the Monju leader and the father arrive for a fight. Zatoichi bests them, even though he’s burned several times with their torches. When Zatoichi has the upper hand he again asks the father if the child is his, he finally breaks and admits that it is his and that he had sent away the mother not as collateral, but to simply be rid of her. He swears to raise his child to be better than him, but as Zatoichi turns away, he lunges and Zatoichi kills him in defense. Thus, Zatoichi realizes he cannot accept fatherhood if he’s always sought after in this way, and he gives the child to the monks, slinking off down the road as the blind men’s pilgrimage passes him once more.
My favorite part: Honestly, after having watched all six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films and knowing that both stars Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama are brothers in real life, AND that director of this film, Kenji Misumi, also directed four of the six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies- to be fair, the connections are too wild to ignore. I particularly loved this quirky entry in the blind swordsman’s saga as an ‘alpha‘ run for the future concept. I mean, how many times have you seen a gambling scene where a baby is thrown through the air before some supernaturally quick swordplay is performed to prove a point without harming the baby?
Why it’s great: This film in the series may ultimately still end in the bittersweet sadness that characterizes most of the finales, but it’s chock-full of the series best humor thus far. From accidentally having the baby pee in the faces of sumo wrestlers to killing men while changing the baby’s diaper- ‘Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!’ is a cheeky good time with a simple, fun, concept.
Final Score: 1 Zatoichi & 1 Baby