Writer/Director: Kiyokata Saruwaka, Takehiro Nakajima, & Koji Matsumoto/ Satsuo Yamamoto
Summary: Get ready, because “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is a film that breaks free from the formula of past Zatoichi films to offer one of the most complex and subversive entries in the series. This time around when Zatoichi enters yet another small town, he encounters a swordless ronin who dispatches a group of attackers with ease- and without killing anyone. Ichi also hears the rice paddy farmers singing tunes that border on hymnal, reciting the ronin’s teachings to reject the vices of life and instead lead just and simple lives. When he finally finds a gambling establishment, he partakes, but soon realizes that the losers are systematically kidnapped and submitted to debt oriented slavery. When Zatoichi discovers that a rival establishment in the next town over is paying these unfortunate patrons debts and freeing them, he’s astonished at the Yakuza boss’s altruism. When the blind swordsman is pinned for the death of two henchmen, he agrees to take the boss’ tainted money on the road and return in a year, confidant in his benevolence. Months later, word gets back to Ichi that everything in those two towns aren’t as good as he had hoped for, and heads back early when evidence to the truth begins to snowball. The benevolent boss had not been as kind as Zatoichi has initially assumed. In truth, he had guided Zatoichi into killing his rival and laid the groundwork for a particularly brutal money grabbing scheme. Eventually, Zatoichi teams up with the ronin and the townspeople to stop the madness, and enact real change- through some damn entertaining swordplay.
My favorite part: This film in particular had a “punchy” energy to it. I loved the grit and messy nature of this one, and it isn’t just the sense that this film had something to prove- it definitely did, as leading star Shintaro Katsu’s film production company, Katsu Productions, chose to make this film their first. Throw away your old assumptions within the series, because this film doesn’t want them. Here we have the usual ronin figure, but he harbors no sword, is no villain for Zatoichi himself, and he counsels the locals to lead lives free from the trappings of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.
Why it’s great: “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is an excellent entry in the film series because of the way it shook up the formula that had dictated most of the films up until this point. There’s still the corruption of authority figures, Zatoichi catching cheating gambling establishments, and some blood splatter- but this entry in the series marks the beginning of a fascinating and highly entertaining evolution for Zatoichi.
Summary: Around the usual gangsters and corruption ruining the locals lives, “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” peels back another layer of Zatoichi’s day to day life, his cane sword. After some scenes familiar to the series, Zatoichi partaking in the ever popular dice gambling, cutting down any resentful gamblers that would come after him for winning too much, and after such an incident the blind swordsman astonishes a fellow patron of a noodle stand. After Zatoichi slashes at two attackers and accidentally cuts the noodle stand in half, the old man sitting next to Ichi pleads with him to come back to his shop. There the old man, Senzo (Eijiro Tono) asks to see Zatoichi’s blade, for he’s a blacksmith and he’d like to see if his eye for swords is still intact. His suspicions confirmed, Senzo claims that the sword was made by his mentor, and, after close inspection, he points to a hairline fracture near the handle warning the blind swordsman that the blade has maybe one last fight in it before it breaks. At this news, Zatoichi takes stock of his life, and decides to leave the sword with Senzo as a memento of his master’s work. Senzo gives Zatoichi a fresh walking cane and a referral to a local inn where Ichi can work and live as a masseur. While there, Ichi hears of the upcoming visit by the provincial inspector, and once arrived, he hears more of the dynamic between upper government and the Boss Iwagoro (Tatsuo Endo). Senzo is mentioned by one of the underlings in the inspector’s crew as working on the sword once again, so Zatoichi pays him a visit. Senzo reveals that he’s the father of Oshizu (Shiho Fujimura), the woman at the center of all the drama taking place at the inn where Zatoichi works. Shamed from his descent from master blacksmith to drunken gambler, Senzo had given his daughter to the local boss at the time so that she could lead a better life. When things get dicey with Iwagoro and his underling Monji, instead of giving up the sword he had worked on for ten years, Senzo defended his blade, but lost his life to the scuffle. After Senzo dies in Zatoichi’s arms, he vows vengeance and retrieves his cane sword, knowing he only has one kill left. As the machinations of the gangs, ronin, and government officials all move towards total domination, Zatoichi eventually faces off against Iwagoro, invigorated by the theft of Senzo’s master work. Though when blades clash it isn’t Zatoichi’s cane sword that breaks, but Iwagoro’s stolen sword. It’s then that Zatoichi realizes that Senzo had switched the blades and put his greatest sword in his cane sword and Ichi’s old blade in the hilt that he knew would be stolen.
My favorite part: With this being the fifteenth film in the series, I was glad to see the filmmakers dive into the details behind another infamous aspect of the blind swordsman. There have been a few movies after Zatoichi’s killed dozens upon dozens of enemy Yakuza when even I have thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that his cane sword’s held up for so long.” so it’s kinda nice to see thought given to that.
Why it’s great: I consider “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” to be the end of the first half of the films, not just due to it’s place near the numerical center of the film series, but because the films that follow it have a noticeably different shift in style and direction. Whereas the first fifteen films have a certain flow and sense of familiarity from film to film, the ones following seem unbound by the same formula to a certain degree. While the overall structure is similar, the series seems far more likely to take big swings after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”. The next film in the Zatoichi saga is also the first endeavor by Shintaro Katsu’s own film production company, “Katsu Productions” where the actor produced many of the following Zatoichi films, and maintained almost complete artistic freedom.
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.
Summary: “Zatoichi’s Vengeance” opens with him stumbling onto a murder scene when he stops a group of men robbing a man dying on the road. When they object to his morality check, they attack, and are swiftly defeated. The blind swordsman kneels to the dying man who gives his name when Zatoichi asks, Tamekichi (Gen Kimura), but more importantly he pleads with his dying breathe to give a pouch of money to Taichi. These are the only clues Zatoichi has at the outset of this journey. Though after a quick stop for lunch the next day he finds a weighted die in the bag with the money, concluding that Tamekichi must have been caught cheating at a gaming house- which is why he was being pursued in the dead of night. After awhile he encounters a blind priest (Jun Hamamura) that hasn’t eaten in some time, and they share a meal together as the stranger drops some wisdom on Zatoichi before heading off to Ichinomiya, at which point Zatoichi decides to check out the local festival as well. There he quickly encounters a raucous small child chasing a group of fellow children that responds to his grandmother calling out, “Taichi! Look at the dirt on that Kimono! Get inside this minute!” Zatoichi then meets with the grandmother and tells them a white lie about Tamekichi rather than offload the heartbreaking truth. He also learns that the town’s no longer the idyllic dream that it had been. Gonzo, the corrupt local official has stormed into the area recently and implemented incredibly harsh financial extortion to all of the merchants in Ichinomiya. Only three of the shop owners have survived the onslaught so far, many having to pay 100 ryo or more to buy back their shops.
From there, Zatoichi does his usual thing, but as always this film has a slight variant to it’s tale. Yes there’s the usual fight against injustices and standing up for the every day people, but this time his tactics come with a cautionary warning from his fellow blind traveler. After witnessing Zatoichi perform amazing feats of swordplay against some hecklers from the crowd at the thunder drums performance (more on that later), the blind priest counsels Zatoichi that by displaying such masterful swordplay in front of Taichi, he may have corrupted the boy and sent him on a path towards violence. He tries to reason with Gonzo’s men, but it only results in him being humiliated by them in front of Taichi and his innkeeper family. Zatoichi eventually storms in when the men return to force payment and he cuts down a dozen or so of them in the street, to which the blind priest chastises him, “Alas, now you have killed, and in front of Taichi too.” The blind swordsman retorts with “What else could I do?” as the priest replies with more vague wisdom, “One hour’s cold will spoil seven years of warming.” There’s also a B story running throughout the film surrounding Ocho (Mayumi Ogawa), the leader of a brothel recently built in the wake of advancing corruption. She’s the former wife of the Samurai Kurobe (Shigeru Amachi), the man hired to kill Tamekichi at the beginning of the film. He tries to win her heart back, but after being abandoned three years ago she’s become disillusioned and numb to the world, and she rejects him outright. Even through rejection, Kurobe meets with Ocho’s boss and seeks to pay off her debt so that she may seek happiness and swears to have the fifty ryo for her release within two days. Thus in the third act we have a villain with great motivation for a fight. He immediately goes to Gonzo’s establishment and demands fifty ryo for any job they require. After a quick rejection Kurobe displays his prowess with a blade and is hired on the spot. Once he hears who his target is, Kurobe had witnessed Zatoichi’s skills when he attacked Gonzo’s men in the street, he raises the required payment because “Fifty ryo is too little for killing him“. Gonzo’s men actually have a good idea for their attack on Zatoichi, to use the town’s thunder drums to disorient him with overwhelming noise. They fight him at night on a bridge, and the silhouette sequence is pretty cool visually, after he overtakes them Kurobe strides up complimenting him on his skill. Kurobe then informs Zatoichi that he must kill him for fifty ryo and that there is no other way, Zatoichi warns him that he may die as a result, but after Ocho’s rejection, Kurobe seems a bit disillusioned with life anyway and he only has the finality of a worthy opponent. After their duel, Zatoichi goes straight to Gonzo’s place and demands the seven merchants’ money back, and the fifty ryo that Kurobe was promised, and three more ryo to repay Tamekichi’s mother for the few lunches he paid for out of the money. With the money returned, Zatoichi tries to tell Taichi’s grandmother about Tamekichi’s true fate- but she stops him, saying that she knew the truth the moment he came to them. Ocho has her debt repaid but is too hungover and depressed to notice, Taichi peers longingly into the distance, and Zatoichi wanders off once more.
My favorite part: The Biwa playing blind priest was a nice touch. Zatoichi’s never really been challenged by a character more moral than him in such a way before. In their last encounter, the priest plays his Biwa and sings to mark their departure. During the song, the Biwa priest breaks a string and likens this to Zatoichi’s moral predicament. “You cannot play Biwa if you just depend on the strings. And if you depend only on your hidden sword, you will not live long“
Why it’s great: This film is unique and has lasting impressions for Zatoichi as it has the clarity to question it’s own morality, and the series as a whole. Does it need to be so violent to meet its ends? Judging by the evolution that the series undergoes after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”, that answer is yes. After this film, the series wanders with this notion of questioning morality for a while longer. The foundation of the next film ponders the question even further with Zatoichi seeking the purifying cleanse of his violent past with a spiritual pilgrimage.
Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.
Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (Tarô Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.
My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.
Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.
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.
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
Summary: After being asked to deliver a letter from a man that’s curiously discrete while on the road, Zatoichi accepts and heads to the nearby town of Kasama to find Osen at the Musashi inn. He’s not too bothered by the inconvenience as he was planning on being there for the New Year’s Celebration anyways. He only wants to bring in the new year atop Mount Myogi in solemn worship with the rising sun, but as with most of these films, it cannot be that easy for the blind swordsman. Later we find out that the man’s name is Shinsuke, and that he’s Osen’s brother. He’d been jailed for murder, but it was an assassination ordered by the local Yakuza Boss, Jinbei, and approved by the new Magistrate. As Zatoichi investigates this situation another story strand begins as he protects Miss Saki from being harassed by Jinbei’s men at the inn. Zatoichi presses Saki as to why they’d be after her and she reveals that her father is Seiemon the headman of a nearby village, and he had traveled to Edo to plead with the overarching government to be more lenient with their taxation. Which had already been established with the many vendors congregating in Kasama for the New Year’s celebration (but more on that later). These two storylines are the main narrative thrust of the film, between Osen and Shinsuke against Jinbei and the Magistrate, and Miss Saki and her father Seiemon against Jinbei and the Magistrate. Eventually, we discover that those two stories are far more intertwined than previously thought, for the man that Shinsuke was hired to kill.. was Seiemon. The Magistrate and Jinbei may be the typical authoritative figures abusing their power within the Zatoichi series, but their cunning and elaborate planning made them far more formidable villains, for they got essentially what they wanted for most of the film- killing both Seiemon and Shinsuke when he returned from his daring prison escape.
There’s also a comedic duo that’s part of the local village’s New Year celebration where vendors come to sell goods, put on performances, and generally take part in the festivities. This year the Magistrate has enforced a new system for vendors which requires them to set up shop in particular places and for these freshly required spaces the local government will charge them forty percent of their sales- effectively ruining the small vendors chances at a profit. The comedy pair allow for some cheesy slapstick and fun wordplay as they work a few bits into almost every scene they’re involved in. It’s not grating enough to be irritating, but their shtick doesn’t always land, at least for me. Zatoichi also befriends two child performers specializing in acrobatics. There’s also a third storyline that’s more personal to Zatoichi in which he befriends an aging drunk who has a similar story to Zatoichi’s about losing his son in this town years ago, just as Zatoichi had lost his father in a similar New Year’s Dawn celebration. For a brief period Zatoichi believes there could be some merit to Giju’s story and it helps to peel back small layers of Zatoichi’s past as he tries to remember specifics about his childhood. However Giju ends up being a slave to the bottle and sells out Miss Saki to Jinbei and the Magistrate and from there Zatoichi tracks down Miss Saki and takes on an army of hired hands and does what he does best.
My favorite part: I’ve always enjoyed the feats of near supernatural swordplay that Zatoichi frequently displays to instill fear and intimidation, usually to forgo violence by proving his skill to those who previously thought little of him. This time around when Zatoichi catches Jinbei’s underlings cheating in a dice roll, he goes to meet the boss himself to discuss the matter, however Jinbei is caught in a game of Go with the Magistrate himself. After they brush off Zatoichi for the game, he intervenes after they accidentally reveal a few bits of information about their corruption, and their samurai muscle Gounosuke strides in to see Zatoichi for himself. Gounosuke’s the typical gruff, risky, and brooding ronin challenger the series is familiar with, and he immediately makes a move for Zatoichi’s life resulting in the brash ronin lobbing a bit of Ichi’s cane sword off before he excuses himself and leaves. As soon as the Magistrate and Jinbei return to the game, the board splits in half. Classic Zatoichi.
Why it’s great: This entry in the series has a few things going for it that work well, but ultimately it is one of the lesser Zatoichi films out of the whole at this point. A lot of the material is repeated ideas or themes that the other films have utilized, but with a bit of a twist here and there. For example, initially the first ronin type character to show up seems lackadaisical and a bit portly for the usual challenger role that Zatoichi would end up fighting in the third act. Of course, the real ronin challenger makes his presence known in a flash of an introduction later, ah.. a real fighter approaches. This wasn’t a “bad” film by any measure, just one that struggled to live up to the status that the previous films have established. It’s still a good time if you’ve gotten this far in the series, because at the end of the day, a blind swordsman still fights corruption with accuracy and conviction.
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.
Summary: This time Zatoichi is attacked right off the bat by a young Yakuza looking to earn the ten ryo bounty on the blind swordsman’s head. Of course Ichi bests the young attacker, and as he lay dying he reveals that the reward was for his mother who runs a business in the nearby town. In town Ichi enters a sumo wrestling match to the surprise of the crowd and defeats several sighted fighters. As the event was organized by the local Yakuza gang, they vow to earn their respect and honor back- by killing Zatoichi! This time, the two major story arcs crossed paths and intermingled far more than before. Once finding the dead Yakuza’s mother, Maki, Ichi confesses to having killed her son and she forgives him seeing him as honorable for seeking her out to tell her this. He also gives Maki his winnings from the Sumo match and told her it was from her son. Back at the local inn Zatoichi encounters even more drama. The innkeeper’s adopted daughter, Nobu, is in love with one of the junior members of that same local Yakuza gang. Her father, however, disapproves and the junior accountant ends up being manipulated by a superior Yakuza who decries that if Zatoichi is not killed, the junior accountant will be stripped of his rank and kicked out of the gang. Ichi also encounters Otane at the inn, his first love from the last few films, who’s now married to a brutish ronin named Tanakura. In order to squash the advances by the Yakuza and possibly help alleviate Nobu’s predicament, Zatoichi goes straight to the heart of the Yakuza during a meeting of their local leadership. During this encounter Tanakura, (mysteriously also at the Yakuza meeting) attempts to establish dominance over Zatoichi with a feat of swordplay- but the blind swordsman quickly retaliates with his own display of skill that shocks everyone in the room. Tanakura immediately claims defeat and personally establishes Zatoichi as his rival due to his injured pride. After this the junior accountant rushes to Zatoichi to plead for help, suggesting that both Otane and Nobu have been taken hostage at the inn. Once there, Ichi finds the two women unharmed- but before he can make sense of the situation the inn is surrounded by Yakuza- a trap! Otane hears Tanakura outside and tells Zatoichi she will plead for them to reconsider. Once outside Otane mistakenly draws Tanakura’s sword in the heat of the moment and he immediately cuts her down for this transgression. Nobu sees this from inside the inn, horrified by the violence, and tells Zatoichi- which sends him into his most emotionally fueled bloodlust that the series has seen at this point. He cuts down dozens of yakuza in a fury and eventually finds himself one on one with Tanakura. What follows is an excellent and visceral fight to the death in which Zatoichi bests Tanakura. As he bleeds into the dirt, the dying ronin tells Ichi that the ambush was Otane’s idea, and that she wasn’t exactly the saint he thought she was. Thus leading to one of the most dramatic and painful exits the blind swordsman has tallied up this far, preferring to wander off than stay and wallow in his pain.
My favorite part: The fact that the Otane character’s arc has continued in some semblance for every film until this point was a nice touch. Though, admittedly her storyline ends tragically. In the last film Otane was mentioned as the fiance of a local carpenter, but instead ended up marrying Tanakura- the hot headed ronin. *Also* I think it’s important to mention how “punched up” the cinematography and direction is in this film- it feels markedly different and more modern than the past films despite the previous film having the same director and being released in the same year.
Why it’s great: The fight scene between Tanakura and Zatoichi is one of the best fight scenes in the series so far. Zatoichi’s sword breaks during the fight and he kills the fiery ronin with a dagger hidden in the sword’s hilt. This is also indicative of the fact that the series is increasingly smoother and more streamlined than before. There’s no real introduction of Zatoichi, the film assumes you’ve seen the others, and I enjoyed the immediacy of that.