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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #23 Zatoichi At Large (1972)

Writer/Director: Kinya Naoi (2nd film)/ Kazuo Mori (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi at Large” begins with the blind swordsman helping a wounded woman deliver a baby. She gives him the name of the baby’s father and the village where he should be just before she dies, and at once Ichi has stepped into another familial drama that will consume most of the runtime. As Ichi heads to town he’s followed by another small boy that likes to throw rocks directly at his head. When he gets into town looking for the father, Ichi bumps into the more interesting storyline in the film (in my opinion). When a young man jokingly brings Ichi to his home for a few Mon (small currency), the young man’s father, Tobei the Deputy Constable (Hisaya Morishige) directs him to the only known relative of the newborn’s father, his sister who works at an inn. Later we discover that Tobei, now an old man, had once driven a deeply rooted Yakuza clan from their town in his heyday through humanistic methods driven by a need to help others. And when he witnesses Zatoichi handily shaming the new Yakuza threat in the form of Boss Tetsugoro (Rentaro Mikuni) and his band of ruthless underlings, the old Deputy’s eyes widen, and a smile begins to form on his face- impressed with the blind Masseur’s techniques. There’s a few moments where misinformation and hasty reactions threaten to turn everyone Ichi had helped against him, but through shear intimidation and cooler heads for some, he gains the upper hand and saves the town from Tetsugoro’s wrath! Oh! There’s also another ronin challenger in this film, though he’s unique in that he witnesses Ichi’s skill and is so impressed that he commits to fight Zatoichi in the future, no matter what. The ronin even saves Zatoichi from being bound by multiple ropes, just so he can get that fight- and he does get that fight in the final shot of the film with a quick but visceral kill. It’s a fairly standard Zatoichi film in it’s structure, but it’s executed well and has enough style and panache to merit it’s worth.

My favorite part: Honestly, my favorite parts of this film were some of the unique set-pieces and the imagery of a few scenes. The dancing monkeys in one of the villager’s rehearsals for Boss Tetsugoro to see if they qualify to perform at the local festival was silly and unique for the series. Though, admittedly my favorite visual came from the end fight sequence where Zatoichi is fighting Boss Tetsugoro’s men on a raised platform that’s been covered in lantern oil. Initially it’s a friction-less and chaotic scramble for stability while fighting, but the platform is eventually set aflame with only Zatoichi trapped amidst the fire. When he finally gets out of the blaze, he’s still on fire and smoldering with intensity as he walks towards Tetsugoro, striking demonic fear into his eyes. It was a fun visual that played well into his own previous myths about escaping from Hell just to strike down injustice.

Why it’s great: While this film wasn’t exactly a knockout within the series, it doubles down on everything that has worked in previous films, with a twist of style thrown in for good measure. “Zatoichi at Large” works because the filmmakers, production crews, and actors all know what’s proven to resonate with their audiences by now. Twenty-three films in, the bumps in the process have been mostly smoothed out by now. Though, I tend to prefer the Zatoichi films that take chances and swing big- they may not always land- but I respect them for trying something new rather than totally relying on the proven formula, even though I did rather enjoy this film.

Final Score: Two Performing Monkeys

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #11 Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (4th film)/Kazuo Mori (2nd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” opens with Zatoichi imprisoned for illegal gambling and getting fifty lashes for the offense. While in his cell, the only other prisoner, Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), pleads for Zatoichi to help as he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he claimed he did not commit. Zatoichi hears the man’s pleas, but once freed he ultimately decides not to pursue the request, he’s gotten into too much trouble in the past for involving himself in such situations. When he happens upon a small town he impresses a young man named Hyakutaro at a game house where he effortlessly wins the archery challenge gaining a large sum of winnings. Afterwards, the muscle from the gaming house tries to strong arm their money back, but Zatoichi slays them all, stunning Hyakutaro who only seemed interested in profits and the reliability of a good scam. Thus he convinces Zatoichi to let him travel with him for awhile. While on the road they run into a wounded man in trouble, and in need of a hasty solution to keep his restaurant nearby open for business. Hyakutaro offers to help by delivering the wounded man’s documents while Zatoichi helps him travel there at a slower rate. By the time Zatoichi arrives with the wounded man, it’s dark and the waiting party tells Zatoichi that they already “paid that guy called Zatoichi a large enough sum for the both of you“. Obviously, Hyakutaro had run off, pretending to be Zatoichi, and absorbing the spoils of life at the expense of those in need- and darting once he’s needed! This obviously rubs Zatoichi the wrong way, and once he finds out where he is, Zatoichi makes sure the charade is ended, though Hyakutaro continues to follow the blind swordsman to his displeasure. In-between all of this Zatoichi had inadvertently come to the town that the doomed prisoner Shimazo told him of and due to an alternate scam run by the local Boss, he earned a meeting with the local official that confirmed what Shimazo had said. There’s a lot of over-explaining that can go on at times with these plots, but the root of the issue is that Shimazo was too popular as the right hand man of Yakuza Boss, and that Boss feared a mutiny led by Shimazo, so he worked with another town’s boss to set up Shimazo for the death penalty to secure his power.

My favorite part: The idea that there would eventually be a false Zatoichi running around claiming to be the living legend himself is a fun concept. The performance from Kanbi Fujiyama as Hyakutaro (the usurper) was cheeky, he played the lovable scoundrel part well and his arrogance paired with complete ineptitude was a joy set against Zatoichi’s stern, but humble, morality. I also really appreciated the impact of discovering that Hyakutaro was Shimazo’s son.

Why it’s great: While the pacing, plot, and performances were all on point and fairly enjoyable throughout the film, there wasn’t anything particularly excellent that stood out to me. The end fight sequence set in a foggy seaside town was visually interesting with visceral kills and lots of tension, but aside from that the composition, framing, and cinematography overall was good, but a bit workman-like for the series at this point. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Zatoichi had ever been to the ocean as well, and having a child explain the enormity of the ocean to him was a nice moment for the character.

Final Score: 1 Doomed Man and his son