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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #22 Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Writer/Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda & Takayuki Yamada (2nd film)/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (5th film)

Summary: “Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman” was truly a delight! Not only is it my favorite film from Kimiyoshi Yasuda within the Zatoichi film series, it’s also one of my favorite Zatoichi films in general. This one harbored a far more lighthearted tone than the most recent films, hearkening back to the first half of the film series, while maintaining the exaggerated violence from the more recent evolution that’s taken place since “Zatoichi The Outlaw”. This film is another crossover similar to Zatoichi’s encounter with Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo. I’d only recently heard of Jimmy Wang’s Hong Kong action oriented character “The One-Armed Boxer”, which is a ridiculously entertaining and over-the-top Kung Fu style film (I’ll link the trailer the below, it’s worth a watch!). Which, in doing some light research just now, is not the same character as the “One-Armed Swordsman” despite both characters being portrayed by the same actor and both only having one arm. Huh. In any case, when the One-Armed Swordsman travels to Japan, he encounters a family of fellow Chinese nationals now living in Japan. The mother, father, and child, offer to guide him to his destination- a temple devoted to the study of martial arts. While on the road, the family and One-Armed Swordsman encounter a procession of Samurai transporting a tribute to the shogun. As the father explains to the One-Armed Swordsman, the law requires that any and all travelers kneel at the side of the road to let them pass. As they do so, the child’s kite flies from his hands and under the foot of the first Samurai. The kid runs for his kite and the Samurai raises his sword to slay the offender- but the mother and father run to save their son, but end up being slain instead of the boy. The One-Armed Swordsman jumps into the fray killing several Samurai before escaping, though he loses the boy in the chaos. Several bystanders witness the carnage that followed as the Samurai killed every innocent bystander kneeling by the road, farmers, peasants, everyone. Of course, they then blamed the slaughter on the One-Armed Swordsman, a Chinese citizen that speaks very little Japanese, the perfect target for such corruption. Initially, even through the language barrier the two swordsmen formed a fast friendship with the young boy roughly translating for them. Later, when scheming Yakuza bosses and misinformed side characters persuade Wang Kang into believing that it was Zatoichi that sold them out to the Yakuza, the two are set against each other. Unfortunately for the One-Armed Swordsman, he didn’t figure out that Zatoichi was a good man until it was too late.

My favorite part: Jimmy Wang’s One-Armed Swordsman was a real treat within the Zatoichi series. He’s the only combatant that Zatoichi’s ever faced that can move the way he did in battle. Wang Kang, as he’s referred to formally, performs some high level acrobatics- jumping from his enemies shoulders like Legolas, and he’s also incredibly powerful with his punches and karate chops- slicing trees in half with his bare hand! His wuxia antics were enjoyable, and he was a heroic character that was manipulated into fighting Zatoichi by the end of the film. He was tricked and lied to by his closest Chinese friend in all of Japan, clearly he had not encountered the type of double-crossing that’s often utilized in the Zatoichi films. Since he was even portrayed as a Chinese character, and spoken in Mandarin mostly, there were some great conflict and confusion that came from the misunderstanding of intent between him and Zatoichi. In fact it’s the main source of conflict between the two major characters, with lots of misdirection and scheming by Yakuza bosses- which comes with the territory in Zatoichi’s world.

Why it’s great: The crossover effect between not just two cinematic icons, but of two different countries and languages, worked excellently! This one may have been more playful and not quite as heavy as recent Zatoichi films, but it earned it’s place with the inclusion of Wang Kang’s wuxia, martial arts, and moral character work. This film has the most snap-zooms out of any Zatoichi film this far, and since it was filmed in 1971, there’s a funk insurgence within the soundtrack that plays into the nature and tone of this film well. Reportedly, the Chinese edit had more wuxia content with scenes showing Wang Kang walking across the tops of trees, and also featured a different ending where instead of Zatoichi it was the One-Armed Swordsman who was victorious in their final fight, and he didn’t kill his opponent. This was a fascinating experiment in the Zatoichi film series, and I had a great time with it!

Final Score: One Arm

Trailer for “The One-Armed Boxer”:

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #21 Zatoichi Goes to The Fire Festival (1970)

Writer/Director: Shintaro Katsu & Takayuki Yamada/ Kenji Misumi (6th film)

Summary: This being the final film from Kenji Misumi in the Zatoichi series, and co-written by Shintaro Katsu, I had a lot of anticipation when the opening credits began. While this one may not be my favorite film from Misumi in the Zatoichi series, it still has a lot to offer. There’s some voiceover in the opening describing the situation that’s developed across many provinces, a lone Yakuza Boss has accrued an insane amount of power through brutal tactics and elaborate tax schemes through the many associated gambling houses in his network. Big Boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori) may be the smartest villain that Zatoichi’s faced thus far. He’s a skilled Orator, meticulous planner, and he just so happens to be blind as well. There’s a few interweaving storylines that interconnect throughout the runtime, and there’s a good deal of excellent action sequences with Zatoichi taking on crazy numbers of opponents. This one may not hit the heights of the series, but it is a very good Zatoichi film.

My favorite part: Following the inclusion of several other big name actors from Akira Kurosawa’s ranks over the last few films, Tatsuya Nakadai, (Famous for his roles in “Yojimbo”, “Sanjuro”, and “Sword of Doom” to name a few) plays the ronin challenger this time around. The film leaned into Nakadai’s skill in portraying pensive and lethal villains that harbor an almost ghost-like presence. He even gets a quick series of abstract shots during a sake bender that perfectly and precisely show us his motivation for following and promising to kill Zatoichi. His monologues, eerie presence, keen swordplay skill and impressive fighting styles all combine to make a truly memorable ronin challenger.

Why it’s great: The villains of the film were incredibly well organized. This was the best display of Yakuza gangs trying to deceive and kill Zatoichi. They tried to kill him in a bathhouse resulting in a goofy but wildly entertaining action sequence. Yamikubo had several plans in play trying to undermine Zatoichi’s skill by weaponizing love and hiring the largest number of henchmen yet! There’s also a fun sequence trapping him on a small platform, surrounded by water, with walkways that retract, while the villains had long bamboo spears swinging wildly before they lit the pool with a massive fire. The attempts made on Zatoichi’s life in this film definitely falls in the category of “Most creative”.

Final Score: Hundreds of Henchmen!