film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #14 Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

Writer/Director: Kaneto Shindo/Kazuo Ikehiro (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage” begins aboard a ferry, with an over confidant thief losing a hand by Zatoichi’s blade (the first visible limb removal for the series I think, with a prop hand gripping a hanging lantern). Once offshore, the blind swordsman climbs the stairs of a temple and prays that he won’t have to kill any more people while attempting to visit and pray at each of the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku. After departing, he’s followed by a man on a horse and he eventually dismounts and meets face to face on a bridge asking if he’s Zatoichi and giving his name “I’m Eigoro from Serigazawa” before engaging in a battle that results in them both being knocked over the guardrail and into the river. As he drags Eigoro from the river he continues to talk to him, but realizes that the fall must have killed him once he doesn’t respond ashore. As Eigoro’s body drifts away in the river, his horse begins to follow Zatoichi as he leaves. At a crossroads some time later, the horse chooses a diverging path, and Zatoichi decides to follow the animal a while longer before saying goodbye to the beast once they enter the outskirts of a town. Though he follows the horse a bit further as it seemingly knows where its going and enters a house with stables inside. After a short burst of grief and confusion the woman that greets Zatoichi and the Horse (Taro) grabs a sword and slashes at Zatoichi’s arm- shocked by the surprise attack, though she does bandage his wound following the encounter. Okichi (Michiyo Okusu) then informs Zatoichi that she was Eigoro’s sister, and that while foolish, Eigoro had a good heart- which Zatoichi had also suspected.

When a farmer comes to hear what happened to Eigoro Zatoichi hears that this is all the fault of a neighboring Boss named Tohachi (Isao Yamagata) from the next valley over. Apparently his influence has corrupted many men, and he plans on expanding his control to all the farms and fields of Serigazawa. Just when Zatoichi plans to greet this power hungry bully, he comes to Eigoro’s house to let Okichi know that since Eigoro’s dead, his debt has been paid, and that Serigazawa is now under his protection (control). Tohachi claims that the village headman’s watermelon field will be the latest field to come under his protection, whether they like it or not. The meek headman tries to persuade Tohachi, but the only thing that does is further cement the bully’s intentions. Zatoichi does some more information gathering to see exactly what this Tohachi is all about, the archer barbarian might be reasoned with. However Zatoichi quickly discovers that this is nigh impossible and questions the farmers in the village to see if he can rouse them to defend themselves. Their pleas fall on deaf ears though, and when Tohachi and his men come, Zatoichi stands alone. As he fights Tohachi’s horde Okichi runs from house to house pleading with the farmers, trying to guilt them into fighting for their homes and livelihoods. Only the young Yasuzo, wracked by guilt and shame, runs out to fight by Zatoichi’s side, though he’s immediately hit in the heart by one of Tohachi’s arrows. Empowered by Yasuzo’s attempt to do the right thing, Zatoichi cuts down the remainders of Tohachi’s men until it’s just him and Zatoichi left. The Blind Swordsman rushes the archer barbarian, takes an arrow in his other arm, before defeating the would-be lord of Serigazawa. As he’s departing, Okichi says goodbye one last time before Zatoichi walks off.

My favorite part: “Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage” is one of the films in the series that stuck to a more streamlined plot, and those always seem to have a more well rounded story. It may be simpler in some ways to the more complex plots of past Zatoichi films, but when cut down to the core motivations of the character as a righter of wrongs, fighting against institutional injustices, and generally standing up for the little guy- the film retains a greater sense of powerful storytelling. The villain this time around was brash and bold, no scheming this time around, Tohachi tells you he’s going to rule over you before he tries to do so, and that made for an entertaining antagonist for the series.

Why it’s great: While this film isn’t necessarily a knockout within the series, it is memorable and it provides satisfying entertainment value. It’s shot with engaging cinematography, and it’s a more melancholy entry where Zatoichi takes his time in unsheathing his cane sword. He may have started this story out wanting not to kill while on his journey, but after witnessing the extreme tactics of Tohachi, eventually he relents and chooses to take the gang out. This film, not unlike “High Noon”, had a villain that was rotten to the core and enforced the protagonist into a pressured timeline, making for a simplistic- but fun film amongst the series’ best middling entries.

Final Score: 88 Temples of Shikoku