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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #24 Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (7th film)/ Shintaro Katsu

Summary: With Shintaro Katsu himself directing this Zatoich film, I was curious to see if his work would stand out from the rest of the series. I’ll cut straight to the case here- it’s massively unique for it’s tone and specific camera choices. I’m pretty sure this is the most inventive camera work within the whole series, here the camera glides, pans, and generally moves more than any other Zatoichi film. Anyways, in the beginning of this film Zatoichi is crossing a bridge when he meets a shamisen player, who mentions that she’s headed to see her daughter in a nearby town. Unfortunately, right when they depart Ichi decides to offer her some money, as he appreciates musicians, but she falls through a gap in the bridge and to her death. So, with only the name of the town she was headed to, and the shamisen she had been playing, Zatoichi heads there to inform her daughter of the news. Eventually Ichi finds the young woman, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), who works as the prized prostitute of the local brothel. While there, Ichi overhears a young man, Ushimatsu (Katsuo Nakamura), breaking in to see Nishikigi, who wishes to buy her freedom from the brothel. Zatoichi inserts himself in the situation, namely by hitting up the local gambling house and taking the establishment for everything it had. He frees Nishikigi, but both she and Ushimatsu aren’t content with freedom alone. Ushimatsu claims his honor slighted due to Zatoichi’s involvement, and Nishikigi’s eyes twinkle at the thought of the one-hundred ryo bounty on Ichi’s head. Eventually the bosses from this seaside town, and Lioka (the village from the first movie where Ichi played a part in the war), and the Magistrate himself all descend on the town to crush Zatoichi and the local fishermen from rising up. These criminals were smart though and used Nishikigi as bait against her will to entrap Zatoichi- and they almost kill her to get Ichi’s cane sword out of his hands. Surprisingly, he’s forced into placing his hands on the table in front of the Yakuza, and they immediately stab both of his hands with harpoons! Thus putting Zatoichi in the most desperate and dire situation he’s ever been faced with before the third act fight. Confident with their scheme, the bosses, the magistrate, and dozens of henchmen mob Zatoichi’s known location. Luckily, the blind swordsman is nothing if not creative, and he strides out of hiding with his blade tied between both of his bloodied palms- as he begins to slay them all in one of the bloodiest battles of the series. It’s a great way to end this dark chapter in the Zatoichi series.

My favorite part: The best parts of “Zatoichi’s Desperation” were the extremes that the criminal Yakuza went to in order to grab power and crush anything or anyone standing in their way. This film is easily the darkest and bleakest entry in the Zatoichi series. Right from the opening, a man who had committed suicide by hanging is discovered by family and friends- this has nothing to do with the plot or the story except to establish the dark tone that this film will be immersed in. Boss Mangoro (Asao Koike) even kills Kaede’s (Kyoko Yoshizawa) younger brother (a mere child) for throwing rocks at him whilst he chastised the local fisherman. When Kaede is told of her brother’s death, she goes to the beach where he was killed and takes his body, and walks into the ocean to die with him. Damn, that’s Dark… It’s a downright evil group of gangsters and government officials trying to destroy the local fishing community by implementing their own expensive infrastructure that forces locals to take part in their monopoly.

Why it’s great: This film, in my opinion, is great because of its risk taking. There’s more of a descent into depravity in this one, with lots of shots lingering on sexual intimacy, death, and menacing laughter in the gambling houses when all the patrons believe they’re tricking a blind man out of his money. This film can get uncomfortable at times, it’s not afraid to show a brutal Yakuza beat a child to death, or to showcase that just because someone is in a bad situation, freeing them doesn’t always mean they were a good person to begin with. I really appreciated putting Zatoichi’s back against the wall with this one, pushing the character to his limits and forcing him to handle horrific scenarios was an interesting choice.

Final Score: Dozens of burnt fishing nets and boats

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: # 10 Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (6th film)/ Akira Inoue

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Revenge” may have the darkest plot points of the series, definitely of the first half of films, though I haven’t quite finished the series yet. This one’s fairly compelling, though it’s another example of more of the same ingredients from past films- but with a few new variations. It’s another case of corrupt government officials working with criminals to satiate their lust for money and power. As the film opens Zatoichi realizes that he’s near the village where he underwent his masseur training and decides to pay his sensei, Master Hikonoichi, a visit. Upon arrival he discovers that his old sensei had just recently been killed while traveling on the road nearby. Even worse yet, Hikonoichi’s daughter Sayo had been forced into prostitution! When searching for Sayo in order to free her, it’s revealed to Zatoichi that almost all of the daughters of the town have been forced into sexual slavery as well. The three main villains of this film are Tatsugoro, the local businessman that worked up financial crimes that preyed upon the lenders, his boss the corrupt Intendant Isoda overseeing the whole process, and Koheita Kadokura, the ronin samurai in town working as a blade for hire. Eventually through the usual information gathering process of rooting out corruption in gambling houses and intimidation through feats of swordplay skill, Zatoichi finds out who the culprits are and seeks them out. Pretty standard stuff for the series at this point.

My favorite part: Honestly, the ongoing fight sequences that litter the second half of the film are very entertaining. They’re well shot, captivatingly choreographed, and thrilling to watch. It also helps that all of the unfortunate fodder for Zatoichi’s blade are despicable people working to enforce the massive prostitution ring in the town. Good stuff!

Why it’s great: One of the great story beats of this film centers on Zatoichi’s friendship with the local dice dealer Denroku. The skilled dice dealer never wanted to cheat players, he admits to Zatoichi that he’s under the thumb of Tatsugoro and Isoda’s oppression, and Zatoichi forgives him. Later when the villains are starting to get uneasy about Zatoichi’s snooping around, they order Denroku to steal the blind swordsman’s cane sword or submit his own daughter, Tsuru, to one of the local brothels. When Tsuru overhears this, she steals the blade herself and hands it to her father, who finds his impression on her to commit such acts that he gets incredibly drunk and wanders the town in a funk. After awhile he stumbles into a noodle stand and openly bemoans his situation. To his surprise the proprietor of the noodle shop isn’t a normal noodle chef- but Zatoichi himself. Ichi encourages Denroku to give up the criminal life and to lead a better life for Tsuru’s sake, at which point the dice dealer acknowledges his mistakes, and hands the cane sword back to its owner.

Final Score: 1 Cane Sword versus dozens of henchmen

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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