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

Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

aka Du bei dao wang

2016 #101
Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

3 out of 5

One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

aka Du bei dao

2016 #58
Chang Cheh | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

After martial arts student Fang Cheng is killed protecting his master, the latter takes in Cheng’s infant son, Fang Kang, as his student. Years later, Fang Kang is bullied by his aristocratic classmates and treated as a servant by the master’s daughter, Pei, though he’s a better student than any of them. Eventually goaded into leaving, his fellows corner him, challenge him, accidentally lop off his sword arm, and leave him for dead. Kids, eh? Fortunately, Kang is found by orphan Xiao Man, who nurses him back to health. With the help of an old textbook, he learns to fight left-handed, which is handy because there’s a conspiracy underway to kill all of his master’s former pupils…

One-Armed Swordsman is a relatively early and defining entry in the martial arts genre — it inspired countless “one-armed” imitators, not to mention numerous sequels and remakes starring the titular hero (he even crossed over into the Zatoichi series, which obviously I’ll get to one day). Being so early and formative, it apparently plays as quite rote and clichéd to anyone very familiar with the genre, though of course it was establishing those clichés rather than succumbing to them. As a relative kung fu neophyte, however, such elements are much less troubling. Sure, there are plot points that are recognisable from other movies, but that’s genre — any genre — for you.

Besides, as is the case with most works that inspired many imitators, there’s a reason they provoked copycats, and that’s because they’re darned good in themselves. One-Armed Swordsman is not a fight-a-minute actioner like some of its genre stablemates, but it doesn’t need to be. When action does explode onto the screen, it’s fantastically done, with a fair few smaller tussles along the way before it reaches an almighty climax. Nothing innovative in that kind of structure, of course, but the bouts are all well choreographed and performed, and the villain’s “sword lock” weapon is a neat touch.

However, for me the film also worked very well as a drama, and even sometimes as a romantic drama. Fang Kang is an interesting protagonist. His lifestyle is torn from him, and rather than simplistically train to regain it or give up entirely, he battles with that decision. He returns to that way of life only to defend himself and his rescuer, and then out of a sense of loyalty to the master who raised him, but he’s also prepared to abandon the martial life to be a farmer… when the job is done, naturally. Jimmy Wang Yu, in a star-making turn, sells this character arc as well as anyone in a kung fu picture ever has. He’s also (somewhat) torn between two women, the kindly and supportive Xiao Man, and brat-with-a-heart Pei. While no one could truthfully call this a romantic picture, the love-triangle aspect also functions surprisingly well.

Another joy is the dialogue — though that may be accidental, because who can say how much of it was in the original script and how much in the particular set of subtitles I watched. And naturally I can only speak of the copy I watched, which was riddled with spelling and grammar errors, so I can’t guarantee you’ll find the same enjoyment from a more (shall we say) legal edition. Nonetheless, I submitted a handful of my favourite moments to IMDb’s quote section, so you too can revel in the offhand way everyone keeps referring to the minor infraction of cutting someone’s bloomin’ arm off.

In my previous reviews of Shaw Brothers movies (like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) I’ve mentioned their positions on “greatest kung fu movies”-type lists (and that’ll come up again next week when I review Five Deadly Venoms). One-Armed Swordsman doesn’t seem to feature on those as often, nor chart as highly when it does. I disagree with that. Perhaps those lists are based on the abundance of action in these films, by which metric this probably has too much drama — though, as I said, it’s not devoid of fisticuffs and swordplay. Combine that with a solid story, engaging characters, and a brisk pace (even with its near-two-hour running time), and you have one of my favourite Shaw Brothers movies I’ve yet seen.

4 out of 5

The One-Armed Swordsman returns in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, part of Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season tonight at 1:40am.