“Zatoichi” Series – A.J. Hakari

1962 saw the release of Dr. No, which first unleashed upon the realm of cinema a character that needs no introduction, the one and only James Bond. The role has become iconic here in the West, a franchise that has spanned over 40 years, six actors, and 21 movies (with a 22nd on the way). But the same year that Bond’s first adventure hit screens, so did that of another hero: Zatoichi, a blind anma (a traveling masseur) who, unbeknownst to most, is a first-rate swordsman with uncanny fighting skills.. Played by Japanese cinema legend Shintaro Katsu, the character of Zatoichi (or just “Ichi”) did in just 27 years what the Bond films have yet to catch up to. Not only does this series clock in with 26 total entries, Katsu himself played Zatoichi each and every time, his name and face becoming forever synonymous with one of Japan’s greatest cinematic legacies.

 

#1 – The Tale of Zatoichi – Stopping by a village to visit an acquaintance, Zatoichi finds his services sought to be used in a war between two rival gambling houses, setting the stage for a battle against another skilled swordsman dying of consumption. Despite this being the first in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi doesn’t feel the slighest bit like an origin story — something that works both for and against the film. Just as the bulk of the sequels are stand-alone adventures more than follow-ups carrying on a story thread or two, this is how The Tale of Zatoichi feels: like just another Zatoichi flick. While this is a nice approach for those looking to break into the series, since they can jump in at any time and never get too confused, those hoping that Zatoichi’s first outing would be a little more epic or impressionable will be disappointed. There’s also a subplot involving the goings-on of a gangster underling and his sister that doesn’t really add much subtance to the story but certainly pads out the running time. But when all’s said and done, The Tale of Zatoichi gets the series off to an admirable start, with its use of sparse but effective fight scenes and one of Katsu’s best, most wily performances as the titular samurai (even opening his eyes during a particularly emotional scene). More dramatic than subsequent entries, The Tale of Zatoichi nevertheless does well in introducing some of the franchise’s trademark elements, giving them a chance to really shine the first time out of the gate before growing as stale as a bottle of cheap sake. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#2 – The Tale of Zatoichi Continues – After Zatoichi massages a traveling lord who turns out to be a little crazy-go-nuts, the lord’s samurai set out to kill the blind swordsman to stop the truth from getting out, all while a one-armed figure from Zatoichi’s past enters the picture. The title of the movie is The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, and by golly, that’s what the flick does. But although Zatoichi’s trek here ties into the previous film’s events (visiting the grave of a challenger from the preceding picture), pretty much all other attempts to do so seem like half-hearted afterthoughts. There’s a brief re-introduction of The Tale of Zatoichi’s romantic subplot that goes nowhere fast, and the reappearance of a chief villain from said flick leads to not only an incredibly abrupt ending but also a little confusion as the lines between who’s after Zatoichi and who’s after the mysterious, one-armed thief blurs in the film’s climax. But while it’s not as developed as its predecessor, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues still provides fans of the series with the elements they’ve come to know and love from the franchise in an engaging enough package. The swordfights are a little more intense and emotionally-charged than normal, especially during Zatoichi’s duel with the equally-skilled one-armed swordsman (driven by a twist that I didn’t see coming, even on my second viewing of the movie). It also goes without saying that Katsu handles himself just fine here, although I did wonder where Zatoichi picked up another cane sword (considering what happened to his blade at the end of the previous film). Although a little shaky in the story department, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues does a solid job of carrying the series on its way to better adventures while coming across as a swift-moving and engaging tale all its own. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#3 – New Tale of Zatoichi – While being pursued by the brother of a boss he killed, Zatoichi takes shelter with his former sensei, who’s helping orchestrate the kidnapping of one of his students — and whose sister comes to fall in love with ol’ Ichi himself. After shoehorning in a romantic subplot to no avail in the previous two movies, New Tale of Zatoichi includes one that actually works (or, at least, one that comes across a little more convincingly) in its story. New Tale of Zatoichi is more than just an unimaginative sequel name; it ends up describing the plot itself, in which Zatoichi finds himself willing to lay down his sword and lead an honest life. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it goes without saying that Ichi ends up straying from his goals (if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have 23 more movies to go in this blasted series). But despite a predictable streak and an occasionally lagging pace, New Tale of Zatoichi is a solid chapter in the anma’s saga that comes across with even more of an emphasis on drama over action. The romantic angle is nicely played, the transition from a black-and-white series to a colored one is smooth, and the dramatics serve to enhance the swordfighting scenes beyond being just examples of Zatoichi swiftly kicking ass and taking names. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#4 – The Fugitive – Zatoichi incurs the wrath of a Yakuza gang after beating some of them in a wrestling match, fending off these foes while trying to protect a young Yazuka heir who’s also come under attack. The Fugitive marks the first real speed bump in the Zatoichi series. While the film features some very solid acting and some great scenes of swordplay (the bit where Ichi one-ups a rival samurai is classic), it nearly falls apart in the end thanks to one very confusing and poorly-constructed plot. The Fugitive never really gets around to finding its bearings, sort of collecting subplots as it goes along and lets them pile up like a violent game of “Katamari Damacy.” There’s the Yakuza heir, the gang that’s after Zatoichi, an innkeeper who misses his old Yakuza life (though this aspect is mentioned quite a bit, nothing ever really comes of it), and a figure from Zatoichi’s past, all thrown into the same pot and resulting in a bittersweet stew when all’s said and done. On the upswing, the climactic sword battle comes across with some real emotional oomph, but on the downside, the finicky story makes it difficult to become involved when it’s dashing all over the place and never stops long enough to see where it’s going. Plus, the title makes pretty much no sense, as while there is a fugitive in the story, he’s in there for all of one fleeting scene before he’s never heard from or mentioned of again. The Fugitive isn’t a total bust, mostly due to a couple of damn good action scenes, but it’s a little jarring seeing such a “meh” flick after the series was on a roll until this point. Rating: ★★½☆

 

#5 – On the Road – Honoring a dying man’s wish, Zatoichi escorts an heiress (Shiho Fujimura) to her father while defending her from various kidnappers and samurai who want to hold her for ransom. Looking back on when I first watched On the Road, I had thought at the time that it was the best of the series. After a second viewing, I’m starting to wonder if I was a few mon short of a ryo. Like The Fugitive, On the Road doesn’t falter when it comes to delivering some first-rate swordplay (with Ichi slicing a lit candle in half within the movie’s first two minutes), nor does it disappoint in letting Katsu give one of his meatier performances. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Katsu is pulling a Man on Fire here, honor-bound to protect the lovely maiden under his charge at all costs. But storywise, On the Road has one of the more exhaustingly boring plots of the series. It’s your typical Yakuza warfare premise, with Zatoichi eventually being lured by two warring gangs who also both have an eye to make some money off of the heiress. With the girl being handed off back and forth amongst captors, you end up wishing Zatoichi would just slash everyone already so the movie could end. Even with a running time at less than 90 minutes, On the Road stretches an already thin plot pretty much to the breaking point, but Katsu and the always enjoyable swordfighting scenes make the flick relatively painless to sit through. Rating: ★★½☆

 

#6 – Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold – After being accused of stealing a village’s thousand-ryo tax payment, Zatoichi takes it upon himself to clear his name and weed out the real culprits. Of all the films in the series, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold stands as probably an ideal starting point for those casual movie buffs wishing to become acquainted with the wily anma’s exploits. It takes all of the series’ more familiar elements and packages them in a format perfectly fit for those who want to see Ichi slice up some Yakuza thugs instead of wax introspective about his existence, while still maintaining a couple of nice artistic touches (a great example of which is Ichi’s opening credits battle against a series of assailants). This film has one of the more straightforward stories of the series as well, essentially a “wrong man” adventure in the Hitchcock vein crossed with a Kurosawa samurai saga. The action is as riveting as ever, especially in Ichi’s climactic fight against the movie’s whip-wielding chief baddie (played by Jo Kenzaburo, a.k.a. Tomisaburo Wakayama, a.k.a. Shintaro Katsu’s brother). A repetitive script (great drinking game: take a swig every time Ichi references his blindness) and a couple minor plot detours aside, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is one of the most fun entries into this epic franchise, be you a seasoned Zatoichi fan or a hopeful first-timer. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#7 – Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword – After tracking down the woman who saved him from an assassin’s failed attack, Ichi ends up defending her family from gangsters who want to take over their river transporation business. If you thought that the previous Zatoichi film was a nice, relaxed introduction into the world of the eponymous swordsman, just wait until you see Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. This is one of the most flat-out fun chapters of the entire saga, ranking right up there with Samaritan Zatoichi in how all of those elements familiar to those who’ve followed the series from movie number one are brought together in a tight, exciting fashion that will please both them and franchise first-timers. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is a crock pot whose stew is simmering with something tasty to please all palates. The power struggle at the story’s core makes for some tautly-written drama, as do Zatoichi’s attempts to defend the family without stirring up even more trouble for them. There are some nice comedic touches, such as an early scene where our hero learns the hard way that a group of little kids aren’t the troublesome little demons he thinks they are. And, best of all, the action sequences are nicely-paced and come out looking incredible, from Ichi dispatching some foes whilst underwater to a great final battle in which he evens the playing field for his would-be assailants by slicing away the candles lighting a corridor. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is a deftly-executed combination of the series’ two primary sensibilities: delivering top-notch swordplay and providing a more emotionally-complex action hero than you might be used to. The denouement may suffer from Abrupt Ending Syndrome, but all in all, you’re not likely to find 82 minutes more exciting than what Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword delivers. Rating: ★★★½

 

#8 – Fight, Zatoichi, Fight – Guilt-ridden after a woman dies in an attack meant for him, Zatoichi takes it upon himself to deliver her infant son to his father, running into a feisty pickpocket and the usual slew of thugs who want him dead along the way. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a curmudgeonly guy stops being so gruff once a cute little baby is placed into his care. Yeah, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has a pretty tired plot, but its execution is still surprisingly emotional and involving. Taking into account the series’ already evident knack for not going overboard on the battle scenes, the fights here are all the more effective thanks to Zatoichi’s protective nature and growing affection for the little one in his charge. There’s an especially well-done scene in which our hero dispatches of some baddies while trying to change a diaper, displaying a deft combination of action, drama, and light comedy that’s not a stranger to the film’s siblings. Although its turn of events is a predictable one, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight brings all those familiar yet enjoyable elements of the series to the table while introducing a bit of tender drama to appeal to the mushy side of any samurai fan. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#9 – Adventures of Zatoichi – Arriving in a village just in time to celebrate the upcoming new year, Zatoichi also ends up fighting against corrupt officials shaking down merchants — not to mention stumbling upon an old beggar who might be his long-lost father. In short, Adventures of Zatoichi packs pretty much twice of everything into its brisk 85 minutes: two lovely maidens, two “missing dad” subplots, two little kids that follow Zatoichi around, and two swordsmen that have it in for your friendly neighborhood masseur. This entry into the series is incredibly busy in terms of story, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that either a couple less subplots or more time to cover everything in would’ve been nice. But when it sticks to the main plot at hand, Adventures of Zatoichi is quite the entertaining flick, using a few old tricks (namely Zatoichi proving his prowess at a gambling house) to as cool an effect as they’ve previously been used in the series. The kids aren’t even annoying, and one’s toy top even figures into a sweet demonstration of Zatoichi’s abilities. A little too hectic at times, but ’tis an involving movie nevertheless. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#10 – Zatoichi’s Revenge – After learning of an old teacher’s death, Zatoichi sets about trying to free his mentor’s daughter and a number of other women forced into working at a local brothel. Now, now, don’t go getting any ideas about the Zatoichi flicks kicking into Caged Heat mode. While this entry does dance a little bit on the sordid side, Zatoichi’s Revenge maintains the same noble vibe as its predecessors. A little style is even added into the mix here, as director Akira Inoue (helming his only Zatoichi outing) plays out a flashback scene in black-and-white and effectively uses minimal sound in one portion of it. The story contains a couple anticlimaxes (especially in a quick, go-nowhere subplot involving framing Zatoichi for a murder) and admittedly rehashes some of the series’ more tired tricks. But Zatoichi’s Revenge still remains good stuff, thanks to a compelling subplot surrounding a conflicted dice handler and, of course, Shintaro Katsu’s enduringly smooth badassery. Watch as he nonchalantly takes down an assassin as an unknowing girl guides our hero and sings to him, and you’ll know that even at movie number ten, the Zatoichi franchise is still going strong. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#11 – Zatoichi and the Doomed Man – Fate plays a big part in this sequel, in which Zatoichi finds himself having to save an innocent man from being executed while crossing paths with an impostor sullying his name. After a mighty fine winning streak starting with Chest of Gold, the Zatoichi series hits a teensy roadblock in the form of this eleventh chapter. Most of Zatoichi and the Doomed Man’s troubles lie with its plotting; there’s a difference between a story that artfully connects all of its pieces into one and a story that goes through instances of happenstance like Kleenex, and unfortunately, this flick walks a little too often on the latter side. Katsu’s still got it, especially in pulling off the smallest of touches (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when Zatoichi steps over a rock without missing a beat), and the action is finely-done, culminating in a climactic swordfight that proves to be a veritable gauntlet of troops and traps for Zatoichi to slash his way through. But as the story revolves around a “ticking clock” premise (clearing an innocent man’s name before he’s scheduled to die), Zatoichi and the Doomed Man doesn’t embrace much of a sense of urgency. So downplayed is this aspect that when the big conspiracy was explained, I had damn near forgotten it before the movie ended. In fact, Zatoichi spends a good portion of the film trying to get out of having to do help the guy out, only to be pulled kicking and screaming back into the fray by what adds up to be a few coincidences too many. At 77 minutes, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man certainly moves fast and still comes across as an entertaining watch, but it’s a little too lazy in the plot department to settle for being anything more than just “meh.” Rating: ★★½☆

 

#12 – Zatoichi and the Chess Expert – After making friends with a dedicated chess player (Mikio Narita) on a ferryboat, Zatoichi also ends up tending to an injured child and crosses paths with a brother/sister pair searching for their father’s killer. Zatoichi and the Chess Expert isn’t one of the worst chapters of the saga, but it is one of the more shakily-plotted entries. Despite the title indicating the contrary, Zatoichi actually spends pretty little time with Narita’s chess master; most of the story crisscrosses between various other subplots, some of which are effective (the vengeful siblings) and some of which eat up time like it was dipped in chocolate (the hurt girl and her guardian). The latter especially was a chore to sit through, as it thinly tied back into an already-established subplot while forcing Zatoichi into the umpteenth wan romance of the series. Apparently, in feudal Japan, low-ranking masseurs/master swordsmen really made the ladies swoon. On top of that, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert also introduced the intriguing angle of Zatoichi’s abilities starting to fail him, an aspect that worked in a couple of very good scenes but for some reason is left abandoned not long after the idea enters the picture. Still, this is an engaging entry on the whole, with the strongest elements being Narita’s subdued supporting turn as a chess master that doesn’t take kindly to losing and, as per usual, the rousing sword battles. Even that side story about the injured child results in a well-filmed scene in which Zatoichi tries to keep hold of some medicine while besieged by assassins. It’s not as consistent as one would like it to be, but Zatoichi and the Chess Expert serves up a solid watch, not to mention portraying Zatoichi as a little more of a shyster than usual. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#13 – Zatoichi’s Vengeance – Zatoichi does a little bit of conscience-searching after delivering some money to a slain gambler’s family, only to come up against a crime boss trying to take control of a village. For its first two acts, Zatoichi’s Vengeance comes across as unusually wise and introspective, for the first time in the series actually questioning its own main character’s way of life. Sure, filmmakers dabbled with the idea of Zatoichi not being all that eager to save someone in Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, but the prospect is better-handled and more fleshed-out here. Thanks to a couple of encounters with a blind priest, Zatoichi steps back and takes a long look at his trigger-happy, so to speak, way of living, which complicates matters when a young boy expects him to use his amazing swordfighting skills to save his family from the bad guys. It’s a shame that this great dramatic twist is sort of forgotten as the flick starts to wrap up, but at least the makers of Zatoichi’s Vengeance made it interesting while it lasted. Plus, all around, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is still a terrific addition to the series, thanks to its feeling of having been made more carefully than other Zatoichi movies and engaging swordplay (the highlight being Zatoichi’s non-lethal display of his prowess to the chief bad guy’s henchmen). Still, though it may not last as long as one would like, being shown the conflicted side of the blind master swordsman is what makes Zatoichi’s Vengeance the fulfilling experience it is in the end. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#14 – Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage – On a trek to visit 88 shrines to clear his mind, Zatoichi instead gets waylaid and coerced into defending a community of farmers from a ruthless, bow-wielding crime boss (Isao Yamagata). The first thing viewers will notice about Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, which is available only as a bootleg DVD (since, if Wikipedia’s correct, Miramax is still sitting on the rights), is that it’s noticably more violent than its predecessors. Whereas the other movies seemed mostly content with bloodless slashings, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage goes graphic, not afraid to throw in the occasional severed hand or spurting wound for good effect. But something else likely to catch the eyes of viewers is that this Zatoichi feature seems a bit more picturesque than its brothers, for the first few scenes placing our hero in beautifully-captured open environments instead of restricting the action to a handful of crowded alleyways or inns. This doesn’t last long, though, and neither does the path of self-searching that Ichi begins the film heading down; it’s barely two minutes after he starts waxing introspective before the poor guy is launched into a stale and recycled “save the villagers” plot. It also doesn’t help that the farmers who need saving are a bunch of unsympathetic shysters who willingly sit back and feign inaction in order to get Zatoichi to help them. But iffy plotting and some choppy editing aside, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is still an entertaining adventure on the whole, thanks in part to Zatoichi’s tender relationship with a woman whose brother he killed, a terrific climactic sword battle, and Yamagata’s fun performance as the flick’s boastful baddie. At times, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is almost like a western, complete with its own equivalent to the classic showdown on Main Street. It’s more than a few shades from being Japan’s answer to High Noon, but this’ll do the trick if your copy of Hang ‘Em High ain’t handy.Rating: ★★★☆

 

#15 – Zatoichi’s Cane Sword – Soon after arriving in a village being hassled by gangsters, Zatoichi learns from an old swordsmith that his trusty blade is literally one kill away from being destroyed. After a select few movies that just toyed with the idea of Zatoichi having to give up his swordfighting ways, along comes Zatoichi’s Cane Sword to actually follow through and consistently carry the concept over the course of the story. Ichi doesn’t just toss his sword away and pick it up to battle some marauding samurai two seconds later; it’s early on that he bequeaths his blade to the swordsmith, the vast majority of the film focusing on his attempts to lead a nonviolent life while certain elements beg him to do otherwise. It sounds a little boring, yes, but Zatoichi’s Cane Sword nevertheless fits right in with the rest of the series in how its focus isn’t so much on bloodshed but rather the drama taking place behind it. The extra attention this story in particular pays goes a long way, resulting in subtle but powerful scenes such as one where the camera is set on Zatoichi’s nervous face as he reluctantly lets the swordsmith look his blade over (a reasonable side effect after being attacked by assassins on a regular basis). Plus, the climactic sword battle is all the more invigorating because of the filmmakers’ decision to hold back on the action. Sure, the subplots are a little iffy and amount to little more than the usual Yazuka shenanigans Ichi gets himself into, but such minor distractions take a back seat to this dramatically sound and undeniably kickass chapter in Zatoichi’s saga. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#16 – Zatoichi the Outlaw – As per usual, Zatoichi’s travels bring him to a downtrodden village, where the local peasants find themselves being harrassed by gangsters who want them to spend less time planting crops and more time gambling away money in their casinos. It’s not unusual for the flicks in this series to go out of their way to show Zatoichi doing something cool, but in the case of Zatoichi the Outlaw, such an instance grinds the film to a screeching halt. For the first half, Zatoichi the Outlaw is your prototypical Ichi adventure, a standard “Zatoichi vs. evil gamblers” story with a couple of intriguing elements, especially a wandering ronin with a “make love, not war” philosophy that both piques Ichi’s interest and serves as his lifestyle’s polar opposite. But right before the second half kicks into gear, introducing a twist even Ichi could see coming, the film takes a jarringly abrupt and fairly lengthy detour that it doesn’t quite recover from. Sure, you get to see Zatoichi show off his skills by flawlessly deflecting gold coins being thrown by some rich dope, but these scenes are worked into the story in such an awkward way that you’d swear someone swapped what was supposed to be there with ten minutes from a completely different movie. It never really gets around to shaking off this dragging aura when it shifts back to focusing on the main plot. Plus, just as The Fugitive had the fleeting appearance of some random guy who could be considered a fugitive, Zatoichi’s “outlaw” status is never dwelled upon beyond the fact of him just saying he’s an outlaw from time to time (my guess is that it has to do with a subplot about a particular man Ichi slays in battle, but even the movie doesn’t seem sure). But although it’s a little shaky in its storytelling, Zatoichi the Outlaw carries on the dependability of the franchise’s lesser chapters still being not all that bad. Rating: ★★½☆

 

#17 – Zatoichi Challenged – Zatoichi honors a dying woman’s wish by escorting her son to his father in another village, encountering a mysterious ronin (Jushiro Konoe) and your standard-issue Yakuza flunkies along the way. One would imagine that 17 movies into a series, the stories told might start growing a little stale, and in the case of Zatoichi Challenged, you’d be correct. The story of a warrior taking someone or something from Point A to Point B out of obligation is no stranger to samurai cinema, and neither is it a foreign concept to the Zatoichi series, as it’s already been done at least twice before in this franchise. In fact, you could say that Zatoichi Challenged is a slightly re-tooled version of Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, only the tension that came with Ichi fighting off opponents while trying to protect a small infant at the same time has been replaced by a six-year-old whose antics make Damien Thorn look like a well-adjusted lad (the kid feeds Zatoichi a rock and laughs in his face, for Christ’s sake!). Annoying kid aside, Zatoichi Challenged is still a mixed bag as far as the blind masseur’s adventures go. The swordplay is crisp as always (culminating in a great final battle set during a peaceful snowfall), and Konoe does fine work as the obligatory enigmatic samurai whose path you just know will cross with Ichi’s eventually. On the other hand, the story is a little thin and pretty slow-going, getting hung up for a little too long on this theatrical troupe Ichi and his little companion run into on the way to the tyke’s father. Still, Zatoichi Challenged is nothing worth crying over spilled rice balls about, a little tiring on occasion but perfectly watchable in various respects. Rating: ★★½☆

 

#18 – Zatoichi and the Fugitives – Zatoichi tangles with a group of bandits holing up in a silk mill, whose owner, a corrupt lawman, has trapped local girls into indentured servitude. In contrast to some movies where Ichi will spend a good part of the time deciding whether or not he should help those in need, in Zatoichi and the Fugitives, he seems pretty set on being a goody-two-shoes from frame one. Maybe it’s because at 82 minutes, this adventure doesn’t have time to dawdle around on aimless subplots; there’s trouble afoot, dammit, and Ichi isn’t going to take it lying down. Zatoichi and the Fugitives moves at a fairly brisk pace, swiftly setting up all the familiar pieces of a Zatoichi plot (at least two fetching maidens, the samurai who’ll square off with Ichi in the last five minutes, etc.) and letting the game unfold in an entertaining fashion. The series’ increasingly graphic violence is present here as well, in the form of a cut-off limb and at least a couple of blood geysers that Busby Berkeley could choreograph dance numbers to. The climactic swordfight (usually the highlight of a Zatoichi flick, certainly the case here) is especially brutal, as a bloodied and wounded Zatoichi presses on in slashing his way towards rescuing some kidnapped locals. The plot may be a little too much on the thin and by-the-books side (I’m writing this a day after I saw the movie, yet I’m struggling to remember certain parts), but at least that means you’ll get an exciting Zatoichi tale that draws swords first and asks questions later without any unnecessary thematic detours along the way. Rating: ★★★☆

 

#19 – Samaritan Zatoichi – Tricked into slaying a man with unpaid gambling debts, Zatoichi tries to right this wrong by protecting the man’s sister (Yoshiko Mita) from would-be kidnappers. At this point in the series, a lot of the films tend to run together thanks to a lot of repeated themes and scenarios. But I’ll be damned if Samaritan Zatoichi doesn’t take those most familiar elements of the franchise and whip out the most exciting chapter of Zatoichi’s saga. I mean it when I say there’s a little bit of everything for everyone here. The comedy is light and scattered perfectly throughout the script (even in a solemn beginning scene, where Ichi ends up leading a gang of Yakuza underlings through a dark forest). The drama is effectively doled out, blessing not only Ichi with his own share of conflicts and character growth but also Mita’s character, who’s torn between letting Ichi protect her and killing him for what he did to her brother. The swordplay is as crisp and exciting as ever, the tiny smidgen of a love story eeking its way through the script is handled with just the right touch, and even the usual samurai set up to be Zatoichi’s primary foe gets his own unique spin; instead of an admirer of Ichi’s whose morals are on the fence, this guy is a cold-hearted bastard from the word go. There’s so much going on in Samaritan Zatoichi, and yet six-time series helmer Kenji Misumi wrangles everything in a fast-paced but easy-to-swallow package (with a few artistic touches, as well). Some little aspects are a little irksome (especially when Ichi cheats in a gambling house), but such quibbles are peanuts compared to the all-around great time Samaritan Zatoichi proves to be. Rating: ★★★½

 

#20 – Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo – Zatoichi soon learns that the once-quaint village he’s stepped into has become a hotbed of corruption, led by a gangster who’s using a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune) to eek the location of some stashed gold out of his silk merchant father. To give more casual moviegoers out there the idea of what a big deal it is having Shintaro Katsu and Toshiro Mifune star in a movie side by side, just imagine if Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise decided to something together. It’s not every day that you get to see two titans of Japanese cinema like this sharing not only the bill but also the title — which makes it all the more disappointing when Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo turns out to be kind of a bore. Rest assured, the Katsu/Mifune team-up isn’t some lame gimmick giving fans false hopes; these guys get a number of instances to play their acting styles and personalities off of one another, and the frequent clashing makes for some gripping cinema. Mifune even gets his own time to shine, playing a character that may not exactly be the same Sanjuro he played in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo but one that still shares many similar, allegiance-hopping tendencies. Unfortunately, this crackling pair isn’t quite enough to raise Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo out of the doldrums created by a pretty dull story that takes itself way too seriously. In short, it’s just a simple hunt for some gold, but the way director Kihachi Okamoto throws in a strained family subplot and casts some characters in such a greedy light, you get the feeling he was trying too hard to end up with The Treasure of the Japanese Madre. Plus, there’s some confusion early on when Ichi’s blade gets sliced in half in the first couple of minutes, yet his cane sword is fully intact for the final battle, without the slightest hint as to where or when he got his new weapon. But even though the story is a bummer and goes on much too long (almost two hours, an anomaly for the normally-brisk Zatoichi series), the fun performances by its two stars and some swordplay that’s as energizing as ever make Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo an entry into the franchise at least worth checking out, if not right away. Rating: ★★½☆

 

#21 – Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire – Ichi runs afoul of the “Dark Imperial Lord” (Masayuki Mori), a blind underworld big shot who sends both boatloads of henchmen and a lovely maiden (Reiko Ohara) to lure the masseur to his death. In terms of various characters and subplots, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire is about on par with the very first title in the series (also directed by Kenji Misumi, a Zatoichi veteran making his final franchise foray here). There are a couple detours and supporting characters too many, distracting from the main action but making funky use of their time (especially in the case of an extremely effeminate Yakuza wannabe who wants to cozy up to Ichi in the worst of ways). Don’t get me wrong, though, since the movie is still loads of fun. With Misumi at the helm, you know that Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire is going to come with a couple of artistic flourishes. Most of these involve the traditional ronin with a score to settle with Zatoichi, this time played by Tatsuya Nakadai as an angry husband so scorned and stoic, he saunters by and tells Ichi he’s going to kill him without missing a beat in one of the film’s laugh-out-loud funny moments (in a good way, of course). Just as memorable are Mori as a villain of James Bondian proportions, a naked sword battle in a bathhouse that probably showed a thing or two to Austin Powers, and an almost brutal climactic fight where Ichi lays the smackdown on the Yakuza in a big way. The title may not make much sense, considering fire plays a substantial part only when the flick’s about to wind down to a close, but that doesn’t make Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire any less of the rousing slice of chambara goodness it is.Rating: ★★★☆

 

#22 – Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman – On the run from would-be assailants, Zatoichi runs into Wang Kang (Jimmy Yang), a one-armed swordsman from China who’s been framed for a brutal massacre a group of samurai had committed. The plot may sound like the world’s worst buddy-cop movie premise, but believe me, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is anything but a festival of cheese. In fact, this may very well be the finest hour the Zatoichi series has ever seen, thanks to not only a consistent balance of humor and drama but also because of one of the most enthralling, deftly-executed plots of any of the movies. Ichi and Wang have not just their respective physical disabilities to overcome but a language barrier as well, one that results in both laughs (such as when Ichi mistakes the Chinese word for “thank you” as the Japanese word for “water”) and tragedy, the latter of which plays a big part in the plot after Wang suspects the blind masseur of being a traitor. Such conflicts serve as the driving force behind the story, proving to be a consistently effective way of keeping the characters on edge, tensions running high, and viewers on the edge of their seats. In turn, the tense storyline ends up enhancing the action, as not only does Ichi get to engage in his usual samurai-slicing exploits, Wang shows off his one-handed prowess at both swordfighting and martial arts (not to mention an almost superhuman jumping ability). The inevitable duel between the two warriors serves as the most nerve-wracking and suspenseful scene in the entirety of the Zatoichi series, let alone the movie. Aside from a slight distraction involving a supporting character we’ve never seen before having a substantial role in the story being thrust upon him out of nowhere, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is the crowning jewel of this cinematic samurai legacy, filled with crackling swordplay and more gripping twists than you can shake a katana at. Rating: ★★★½

 

#23 – Zatoichi at Large – After delivering a dead woman’s newborn son to the tyke’s aunt, Zatoichi makes fast enemies with Tetsugoro (Rentaro Mikuni), a Yakuza boss who’s bent on taking over a crime-free village. On the outset, Zatoichi at Large seems like it’s setting itself up to be one miserably dull flick. The premise feels like yet another re-hashing of Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (just slap a baby in the guy’s care and watch the fun), the song that bookends the film isn’t quite easy on the ears, and there’s a little kid pelting Ichi with rocks for the flick’s first half that’ll get on your nerves in a millisecond or two. But patience turns out to be a great virtue in the case of Zatoichi at Large, as the film ceases to be irritating and starts getting involving once the story has a chance to settle. Like Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, misunderstandings play an important part in this adventure, in which Ichi finds himself racing to save the same people who have accused him of a horrible crime. This leads to a number of intriguingly sticky situations that keep the story brimming with tension and help the sparse action sequences come across as all the more exciting (Ichi barely unsheaths his cane sword until the climactic, blood-soaked battle against Tetsugoro’s men). The ending is even more incredibly abrupt than that of The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, but in terms of offering up a heaping, well-balanced helping of swordplay and dramatic conflicts, Zatoichi at Large is as tasty a dish as almost any of its other brothers.Rating: ★★★☆

 

#24 – Zatoichi in Desperation – Zatoichi tries to make amends with a prostitute whose mother’s death he feels responsible for, only to incur the wrath of a group of gangsters he tries to swindle to pay for her freedom. After having produced a decent portion of the Zatoichi films and co-written The Festival of Fire, Shintaro Katsu steps behind the camera to direct his own chapter of Zatoichi’s saga for the very first time. And having played such an iconic character for so long, you’d think it would be a cinch for Katsu to deliver one of Ichi’s most riveting, well-rounded adventures ever, right? Yeah, you’d think that, but the sad case is that Zatoichi in Desperation is one of the most listless and disappointing films of the franchise. This was only one of three pictures Katsu ever directed (one of them being the last of the “old school” Zatoichi movies), and with a stylistic approach that consists of a lot of fast editing and shots that linger in the vicinity of an actor rather than upon them, he proves that he’s at his best when he’s wielding a cane sword and not a camera. Not only that, but the story is an incredible bore, rehashing old tricks for the umpteenth freakin’ time (yes, we get it, Ichi knows how to con people at a dice game), as is the tone it’s captured in. I appreciate the effort made to move Zatoichi away from looking like a superhero and more like a flawed human being like everyone else, whose good intentions may not always result in a happy ending. But the script is so weighed down with a sad atmosphere and depressing subplots (including one about a servant girl and her brother that has absolutely no purpose whatsoever), you’d think Katsu would’ve threatened to shoot anyone caught having fun right on the spot. Even the action is spotty, as while Ichi’s swordsmanship is as swift and brutal as ever (especially when he fights with an additional disability in the climactic showdown), it’s right in tune with the flick’s overall downer spirit. Zatoichi in Desperation works best as a curiosity for those wondering what a Zatoichi movie would be like if it were directed by the man himself, but those hoping for cinematic greatness out of this project have a better chance of winning with Ichi’s dice trick in Vegas.Rating: ★★☆☆

 

#25 – Zatoichi’s Conspiracy – Zatoichi decides to revisit his hometown after an absence of over 20 years, where he ends up crossing paths with a childhood friend who’s now scheming to con the village out of a prosperous quarry that’s part of its heritage. Just as Zatoichi in Desperation was a disappointment after the promise of Shintaro Katsu himself serving as director, Zatoichi’s Conspiracy is a letdown due to crashing so soon after getting off to a promising start. The idea of Ichi going back to the place of his childhood, something hardly any of the films ever touched upon, is an intriguing concept, especially when it turns out a good friend of his from back in the day is positioned as the story’s chief antagonist. But I should have known Zatoichi’s Conspiracy would be in trouble from the very beginning, as it completely ignores what happened to Ichi at the previous movie’s climax, carrying the series’ apparent tradition of flipping continuity the bird with each successive film. The story is just a big fat bore, with the most suspenseful scene involving — wait for it — the proper measurement of rice! Yeah, you could tell that at 25 movies in, the filmmakers were just looking for an excuse to send Zatoichi out on another cinematic outing (and remember, in the 16 years between this film and the next one, there was a 100-episode “Zatoichi” TV series) and, in this case, came up with a pretty thin premise. The final swordfight is passable, with plenty of severed limbs to go around, but it almost seems too little, too late considering the dull turn of events leading up to it (not to mention the aimless subplot involving a gang of five ruffians whose sole purpose in life is to mess with passers-by). As much of an admirer of the series as I am, even I have to admit that despite setting the stage for one of the most thematically-challenging installments of the franchise, Zatoichi’s Conspiracy doesn’t even come close to pulling off a clean execution.Rating: ★★☆☆

 

#26 – Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman – As he carries on with his wandering ways, Zatoichi encounters a female Yakuza boss, a corrupt government official, and an artistic samurai inevitably hired to take our heroic masseur down. It was only fitting that 16 years after the previous Zatoichi movie was released, an aging Shintaro Katsu would return to not just star in but co-write and direct the last adventure following the character that made him a Japanese cinema superstar. But alas, this only serves to make Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman even more of a crushing disappointment. You would have thought that the filmmakers would have gone all-out to give ol’ Ichi one hell of a send-off, which certainly seems evident by the particularly bloody sword battles (decapitations, stabbing, sliced-off limbs, etc.). Instead, the flick plays out more like a “clip show” of the series, recycling scenes such as Ichi doing some hustling at a gambling house as a lazy means of paying homage to the character. The story is an incredibly incoherent mess, with half of the characters indiscernable from one another, subplots that are introduced on the fly and left to rot, and a main plotline that’s virtually nonexistent. There seems to be something going on with a Yakuza gang abandoning swords for guns, which could have tied in nicely with Ichi in the midst of middle age, but at the end, you don’t have the faintest idea of who’s slicing up who or for what reasons. Those hoping for a poignant close to Zatoichi’s saga will be sorely let down by The Blind Swordsman, which is not only a rehash of other movies in the series, it’s a rehash of the worst ones at that. Rating: ★★☆☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

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