Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese
The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.
The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.
The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.
The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.
Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.