Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

2019 #99
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

Creating a new one-armed swordsman

An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

The real one-armed swordsman

Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

4 out of 5

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Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

aka Zatôichi hatashijô

2019 #20
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi and the Fugitives

Not to be confused with the earlier Zatoichi the Fugitive (no fear in the original Japanese, where that’s titled something like Zatoichi’s Criminal Journey and this is along the lines of Zatoichi, A Letter of Challenge), the series’ 18th instalment pits our favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman against a gang of six remorselessly violent fugitives. Along the way he shacks up with the venerable Dr. Junan and his caring daughter/assistant Oshizu (Kayo Mikimoto), and once again Ichi hopes he may’ve found a place to settle down, only for events to snatch the dream away.

That doctor is played by the great Takashi Shimura, star of Seven Samurai and Ikiru, amongst many, many other classics of Japanese cinema. He brings an effortless class to the role, which initially seems to be just an honourable and wise gentleman, but later has more to it. You see, in a thoroughly unsurprising twist, it turns out one of the fugitives — namely their leader, Genpachiro (Kyôsuke Machida) — is the doctor’s estranged son. When Genpachiro attempts to visit his father and sister, Oshizu is overjoyed to see his return, but the doctor refuses to even acknowledge his son’s presence.

As the gang’s leader and the one with the connection to Ichi’s new friends, naturally it’s Genpachiro who will prove to by Ichi’s nemesis in this film. Writing for The Digital Bits, Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan reckon he’s “one of Zatoichi’s single greatest enemies,” which is certainly a bold claim. They have something of a point, given his intelligence — an early encounter makes him aware of how skilled Ichi is with a sword, so he keeps stopping his hot-headed underlings from tackling Ichi head on — but I didn’t think he was as memorable an individual as several other foes have been.

Zatoichi and the doctor

The fugitives as a group do provide quite the challenge for Ichi, however, almost defeating him at one point. Naturally, our hero comes out on top in the end: spurred by righteous anger, his final-act slaughter is even more brutally efficient than normal. Having been shot and nearly killed in his first attempt at a climactic showdown, Ichi ain’t messing around the second time. Well, they have it coming. They’re a vicious lot, happily slaughtering innocents on practically anyone’s say-so, at one point even coming this close to murdering a baby. Indeed, this is quite a tonally dark instalment of the series. It’s certainly not the only one by this point — it may not even be the darkest, in fact — but it’s still not very cheery, with little of the humour we’re accustomed to from our hero. Even the final defeat of the villains is tinged with sadness. At one point he gets very introspective, as Oshizu asks him about his blindness: “At first I remembered all the colours — green, red, and so forth. I told myself I had to remember them and tried hard not to forget. But they gradually faded away. All that’s left now is darkness.”

Ichi could just as well be talking about his lifestyle, as once again he struggles with being a gangster. When a bunch of yakuza turn up at the doctor’s to pay their respects to Ichi (his reputation having preceded him once again), the truth of his position is exposed to his new potential-family, much to his shame. Again, it’s a point of conflict for the good doctor: he doesn’t like criminals, as we see with his attitude to his own son, but he’s also seen what a kind-hearted fellow Ichi really is. And if Ichi going on an emotional rollercoaster wasn’t bad enough, he’s put through the ringer physically too — I mean, he gets shot, then digs the bullet out by himself with his sword, lest you were in any doubt of his credentials as a badass. And if that doesn’t convinced you, multiple displays of his skill with a blade should.

Bloody Ichi

One of those demonstrations has led to cuts by the BBFC for the UK release. Yes, Criterion have finally bothered to get the films classified — I’ll write a bit more about that when it comes relevant again on a future film, but for now we’re concerned with the four seconds they’ve cut from Fugitives. At one point a snake drops on Ichi and he slices it in half, after which we see the bisected creature writhing on the ground. I guess they did it with a real snake, or real enough to the BBFC’s eyes, because that shot has been cut for animal cruelty. I know some people object on principle to the BBFC censoring anything, but I can’t say cutting that kind of thing bothers me much (though, as I have the US set, I’ve already seen it).

To quote Hunt and Doogan again, they reckon that “if this series were to be compacted into a trilogy, this would be at the tail-end of part two. In other words, this is Ichi’s Empire Strikes Back. No hyperbole”. Eh, I think there might be a bit of hyperbole there. It’s just coincidence that this instalment falls at the two-thirds point of the series (more or less), and I don’t even think it’s the darkest film there’s been — for what it lacks in humour, it has a lot of kindness in Ichi’s relationship with the doctor and his daughter, and some redemption for one of the gang members. Rather than comparing it to the consensus-greatest film of another series, I’m more inclined to Paghat the Ratgirl’s point of view: “After nineteen [sic] feature films, this story is entirely familiar. But great even so.” Zatoichi and the Fugitives is not one of my favourites in the series, but it is a good mid-tier one.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

aka Zatôichi tekka-tabi

2018 #241
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Cane Sword

The 15th Zatoichi movie is another that’s regarded as one of the very best: Letterboxd users rank it in the series’ top ten; IMDb voters have tied it for first place (with the first and 17th films); while The Digital Bits reckon it’s the best of them all, the only film in the series they gave an A+ rating. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s another fine instalment in this series that consistently delivers.

Ichi’s sword skills attract the attention of an old blacksmith, a former sword maker, who it turns out was the protégé of the man who forged Ichi’s blade. Upon examining it, the blacksmith informs Ichi of a sad fact: the sword has an invisible crack — it’s good for one more strike, but that strike will break it. Giving the weapon to the blacksmith as a memento, Ichi quits his roaming ways and finds work as the live-in masseur at a nearby inn. There he stumbles into familial intrigue involving a dead boss’ children, the schemes of a cheating gang from the next town over, and the machinations of a corrupt official.

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword comes with a great setup — Ichi giving up his sword and, with it, renouncing his wandering, battling lifestyle; trying to get by without falling back on his old combative skills — but, actually, I’m not sure how much our hero’s new status quo really changes things. I mean, you know Ichi’s going to end up with a sword in hand slashing down his foes eventually; and until we reach that point, the rest of the plot is pretty standard Zatoichi stuff. It’s solid, but not the most interesting the series has offered, despite some promising building blocks. For example, there’s a revelation about a supporting character’s parentage that feels like it could and should go somewhere interesting, but instead it just turns out they already knew. Later, Ichi tells Boss Iwagoro that he’s met many evil men, but Iwagoro is the worst. Well, that’s patently not true — we’ve seen much worse than him over the course of the series.

Zatoichi and his sword

I don’t want to sound too down on the film, though, because while it’s not in the absolute top tier of the series, it’s surely at the upper end. Even if the way events play out didn’t dig into their promise as much as I’d hoped, it still leads to numerous engaging or entertaining moments — the quietly emotional scene where Ichi decides to completely change his life, for example; or, by complete contrast, a fun and silly scene where Ichi abuses the respect/fear of a snivelling boss by pretending to be drunk and pouring sake all over the chap. There’s also a nightmare sequence, which makes this the second Zatoichi film in a row to feature a dream scene, fact fans. Whereas the last one was a bit… odd, this one is a memorable insight into Ichi’s fears. Finally, the inevitable climactic mass slaughter is set in falling snow, which gives it a nice bit of visual beauty to stand out, seeing as the rest of the film’s fight choreography is pretty standard stuff for the series — which of course means that, considered in isolation, it’s as impressive as ever.

Anyone who watches and enjoys the Zatoichi series is bound to end up with their own particular favourites, for whatever reason. Clearly Cane Sword particularly clicked for the writers at The Digital Bits; for me, it’s been other films — I’m reminded of Adventures of Zatoichi, which seems to score lowly with most people but was one of my favourites. Either way, Cane Sword is another very good entry in a series which is, fortunately, full of them.

4 out of 5

Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

aka Zatôichi sekisho-yaburi

2018 #108
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Adventures of Zatoichi

Another Zatoichi film (the ninth now), another super-generic title. Only in English, mind: best I can work out, the Japanese title translates as something like Zatoichi Breaks Through the Barrier or (considering what happens in the final act) possibly Zatoichi Guard Station Break-In. Even if you can’t translate it in a way that sounds reasonable in English, why not go for something like Zatoichi’s New Year? (That’s when the film’s set, and is referenced many times.) Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound super exciting, but at least it’s more distinctive than Adventures of Zatoichi, which could be literally any of the films.

Anyway, titling issues aside, the fourth and final Zatoichi film put out in 1964 (which I guess made the New Year thing even more appropriate on its original release) sees Ichi arrive in a village near Mount Myogi, where he intends to be for the first light of the new year. Lots of merchants have also gathered there for the festival, but the local yakuza are demanding an unreasonably high percentage of the takings as tax. Although this subplot facilitates some comic relief in the complaining of a pair of travelling performers, Ichi has other concerns on his mind: there are a couple of good-hearted young women who each need Ichi’s help defending them from the murderous stupidity of men. One, her brother has escaped prison and returned to town; the other, her father, a village elder, has gone missing and she’s looking for him. Both have something to do with the yakuza. In a slight twist on the usual formula, Ichi’s prodigious reputation means the gangsters are afraid of him (rather than assuming they can beat him), but he’s still got his work cut out getting to the bottom of a conspiracy between the gang’s boss and the local magistrate. That’s not to mention the intriguing connection Ichi finds with the village’s old drunkard…

Z boys

Everyone else seems to rate Adventures of Zatoichi somewhat poorly. It’s ranked 20th out of 25 by Letterboxd users, the lowest of the series so far, and below some of the post-series Zatoichi films. The Digital Bits go even further, placing it in their bottom three (they haven’t ranked the films, but I checked all their ratings and they only gave three Cs). Other reviews include comments like “a workmanlike but satisfying episode” (Paghat the Ratgirl), “the quality level dips a notch after the outstanding original eight” (D. Trull), and “one of the more ordinary run-of-the-mill Zatoichi films” (Jacob Olsen). Not outright condemnation then, but definite damning with faint praise.

Conversely, I thought it was rather brilliant. It has a nice, clear, well-connected narrative (something I haven’t always found in previous instalments). There’s a great cast of supporting characters, lots of small roles who all make their mark. It creates almost an ensemble around Ichi, which is a nice change of pace — it really feels like it’s set in a bustling village, rather than a half-empty town where Ichi only encounters three or four people. Tonally the film displays an effective mix of humour, action, drama, and emotion, making for an all-round entertainment. It may not have a unique setup to mark it out like Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, or the flashy direction of Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, but it’s an above-average example of “standard” Zatoichi. It even boasts another top-drawer climax, with a well-shot and precisely-performed one-on-one duel in gently falling first snow, followed by Ichi taking out a small army to get at the men responsible. Again, it’s not as exceptionally striking visually as some of the recent big finales, but it’s superbly done nonetheless.

Live by the sword, pretend to die by the sword

Also, the film contains one of my favourite moments of the series so far, which is both amusing and encapsulates the character of our hero. In it, Ichi slashes his way through four assailants, then pauses… a moment later, three of them drop dead. Seeing this, the fourth just… lies down beside them. Despite being blind, Ichi can tell the chap’s still alive; but rather than finish him off, Ichi simply motions for him to leave. It’s both funny and shows Ichi’s compassion: he kills because he has to, when people attack, not for the sake of it, or even for a grudge. Similar to this is his badass summation of what just happened near the end: “I only came here to worship the first light of the new year. I expected a quiet journey, with no need to draw the blade in this cane. You brought this all on yourselves.”

In fairness, the film is not without its problems. The early story about the merchants and the tax rate doesn’t really go anywhere. It establishes the magistrate and boss are bad folk, but then it disappears underneath the other storylines. Also, I didn’t get wholly invested in the conflict between Ichi and the gang’s yojimbo. These kinds of subplots always feel like a do-over of the first film to me, so maybe that’s why more time isn’t spent on it. It makes for a couple of impressive bursts of swordplay and one heart-to-heart chat, but no more than that.

Adventures of Zatoichi may not be the very best movie this series has to offer, but in revelling in its formula, and doing so much of it so well, it’s one of the films I’ve enjoyed the most. In fact, this would probably be a really good one to introduce people to the series: it’s got most of the key elements, all done really well. It doesn’t deserve to be as overlooked as it seems to be.

4 out of 5

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5