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


25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #7 Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (5th film) & Shozaburo Asai (2nd film)/ Kazuo Ikehiro (2nd film)

Summary: In the beginning of this film Zatoichi is shot and injured by a young Yakuza gangster looking to make a name for himself. Luckily Zatoichi was hauled to safety and healed by a mysterious woman. Waking at a later date he asks his newfound caretaker what happened, and learns that the mysterious woman that saved his life was only a passerby on her way home for her village’s festival of fireworks. He decides to head there to thank her, and upon arrival he’s convinced to stay for the fireworks festival- even if only to hear them. Zatoichi quickly finds himself in-between two Yakuza gangs once more, he’s already pledged his support to the more benevolent Yakuza boss, as it was his daughter that saved his life. The opposing boss wants to take control of the heavily trafficked river between the two villages so he can gouge all who cross it. Things get exponentially more complicated when the young Yakuza that shot Zatoichi in the opening returns home and is revealed to be the son of the boss that Ichi’s been helping. Zatoichi tries to prevent more violence, but the opposing Yakuza boss both kidnaps his rival’s son and sends men to kill Zatoichi to get him out of the picture. Which leads into a really fun sequence where Zatoichi’s surrounded while attempting to bathe in the river, he slowly descends underwater and kills all of the men before coming up for air. Eventually the benevolent Yakuza boss is manipulated by his ambitious rival to send Zatoichi away before the fireworks, though he returns to the town’s border to hear the fireworks when he overhears some hired samurai camped out nearby and learns of the true nature of the relationship between the Yakuza bosses. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I really enjoyed it, however the second half was by far the more interesting portion for me as the filmmakers got real creative with their portrayal of Zatoichi.

My favorite part: Near the end of the film, when Zatoichi discovers the truth as to why he was asked to leave town, another familiar sequence begins- but with a twist this time. During the fireworks, Zatoichi hunts down and kills the corrupt Yakuza boss and his underlings in complete darkness. The way he’s framed, how the camera follows him, and how his victim’s react in abject horror, all combine to showcase the blind swordsman exactly like how a slasher horror movie would show and frame their villain or monster. It’s one of the most visually unique sequences I’ve seen thus far in the series!

Why it’s great: After the generally neutral/happy ending we received in the last film, it’s back to the humanist core of the character of Zatoichi. Meaning that morality drives the character with an inherent disillusionment at the state of humanity usually settling in at the film’s end. It’s that state of mind during most of the series’ endings that really stand out to me personally, it’s a unique quality that you don’t hardly see in other popular genres of film.

Final Score: 1 river crossing


25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #6 Zatoichi and The Chest of Gold (1964)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai & Akikazu Ota/Kazuo Ikehiro

Summary: Maybe it’s the more streamlined sense of urgency, or the fact that this entry in the series utilizes Kazuo Miyagawa’s (The cinematographer from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’) talents to great effect, but I really dug this entry in the blind swordsman’s saga. Excellent imagery aside, this film follows Ichi as he travels to pay his respects at the grave of a man he accidentally killed during the Yakuza gang war from the first film. The village nearby was in a celebratory mood, having finally paid off their local taxes, they invite Ichi as he’s passing by to partake in the festivities. Things quickly turn sour though when a small group of Samurai rob the villagers’ transport of taxes and Ichi gets the blame for it. After he’s coincidentally spotted sitting atop the chest of gold and seen killing samurai by one of the villagers, Ichi gets mauled by the mob of townsfolk, now in a hysteria fueled by economic anxiety. He convinces the townsfolk that he’ll get their money back, and heads off to the mountains to see a local hero, Chuji, who oversees the safety of the citizens while hiding out from the provincial constabulary. After discovering that two of his men were part of the group that attacked the transport, Chuji becomes disillusioned with his way of life and decides to disband. Before leaving he asks Zatoichi to bring one of the troupe’s young nephews back to the village with him- with a dire warning to take an alternate route from his troupe’s departure as the local government’s men are likely scouring the main roads for them. Things only escalate from this point until Zatoichi follows the scent of corruption to the head of the provincial government’s office where the village headman pleads with the authority to give them more time to make up the loss of their taxes. Instead they accuse the villagers of trying to get out of their payment and as punishment they charge the townsfolk double (2,000 Ryo!) for their offense. Which only inflames Zatoichi further when he discovers that the provincial government was behind the initial crime of stealing the villagers taxes in the first place! As you might expect, Zatoichi’s flashing sword was quite busy that day.

My favorite part: Tomisaburo Wakayama (Brother of the lead Shintaro Katsu, later made famous by the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films) returns to the series to play another ronin challenger. While his antagonistic role might not have the emotional punch that his role in the 2nd film did, his role here as Jushiro is a lot of fun. Using a bullwhip as his identifying technique isn’t just unique for the series- it also sets up one of the more hair-raising final battles at the end of the film!

Why it’s great: In my opinion, what made this entry in the Zatoichi series so effective was the brash attitude and blatant corruption of the government as the main antagonists. The audacity of their oppression against a village of people just trying to survive was so transparent that it made their eventual deaths feel incredibly justified. Things aren’t always so black and white in this series, so having the villains clearly causing all of the havoc and chaos made Zatoichi’s actions ring true without question.

Final Score: 1,000 Ryo