Zatoichi - Films 11 - 15

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965) – 7.5
Director: Mori Kazuo

An early morning fog is rising from the streets as light begins to break through the night in a small town. In the fog you can see a murky figure approaching slowly, warily - the clickety-clack of his cane on the cobblestone, the only sound to be heard. He is coming to deliver justice and save a man from being executed. In the shadows some forty men are waiting with traps and no mercy to stop him from doing so. The first movement, the first sword is drawn and the killing begins.

This is the 11th film in the Zatoichi series and a very enjoyable one. It always amazes me how with basically the same plot outline these films can differ themselves within that structure, each with a story that matters. The film begins with Zatoichi being punished by the authorities for illegal gambling - 50 strikes of the cane. While in his prison cell his next door neighbor had pleaded with him to go ask two people who could save him from the gallows in two different towns much further down the road. As Zatoichi begins his journey he says to himself, why do I always help people - it always leads to trouble. Yes, it does. In the end as always, Zatoichi doesn't stay around to count the dead but simply moves on to his next adventure.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965) – 6.0
Director: Misumi Kenji

This is the 12th in the Zatoichi series of films - directed by Kenji Misume who has a very nice resume of samurai films to his credit going back all the way to the mid-1950's with a Tange Sazen film. He already had directed two Zatoichi films - the first and the eighth in the series as well as two from the Sleepy Eyes of Death series. Later he was to direct more Zatoichi films as well as three from The Lone Wolf films and one from the Hanzo the Razor films. That is a lot of sword fighting scenes - so it is a bit surprising how little action there is in this film. It almost feels like an afterthought.

There are a few threads in the film that all finally connect in a field of death. While the opening credits are rolling Zatoichi is surrounded by a group of men and attacked. He fights them off and continues on his travels on a boat where he meets a Samurai down on his luck who loves to play chess and a woman and her girl child. As usual he gets into trouble gambling using a con to win. This gets him into further trouble. People don't appreciate being conned by a blind man.

Other elements pop in to the story - the girl gets sick and Zatoichi has to save her, her mother falls in love with Zatoichi to which he tells her "I am dirt. Anyone who gets close to me gets muddy". Or usually dead. A brother and sister also enter the story looking for vengeance against the man who killed their father. They don't know what he looks like but he plays chess. Hmmm. A little slow for my taste and only a few short fights, but the films in this series change it up from film to film - some with large action set pieces and others that are more intimate with more drama. This was one of those.

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966) – 6.0
Director: Tanaka Tokuzo

It has been a while since I watched my last Zatoichi film, but it is nice to be back in familiar territory in this, the 13th film in the series. Nothing actually ever much changes in these films - a different village, a different gang, a different woman - but the same killing field in which justice is dealt at the end of a cane sword. The only surprise here was that some of the bad guys were left alive at the end of the film. Not most, but a few.

Not much time is wasted as Zatoichi comes across a group of seeming scavengers going through the pockets of a dying man. Zatoichi naturally kills them all and the dying man asks him to take his bag of money to Taichi and dies. Zatoichi has no idea who Taichi is or where he lives but as movies will have it he goes to where someone told him was a quiet town with no gambling - and there he comes across Taichi, a young boy who soon has a Shane-like adoration for Zatoichi. But of course there is a gang who have recently invaded the town and are forcing everyone to pay up.

This is where Zatoichi always comes in - they mock the blind man, tease him - and learn their lesson and look to kill him. He wants to keep his sword seethed and stop killing, but that isn't easy when you see people you care about being hurt. He also meets a prostitute with a kindly disposition who invites him to stay for the night. For free she adds. She is played by Mayumi Ogawa who has been in lots of films - the most recent being Shin Godzilla in 2016. And there is also the Samurai who wants to buy her out and can only get enough money one way. By killing Zatoichi. He is played by Shigeru Amachi who had been in a bunch of Nakagawa Nobuo films. It is directed by Tanaka Tokuzo who had previously directed New Tale of Zatoichi and Zatoichi the Fugitive. This one is pretty standard boilerplate but Zatoichi always fills a scratch I have.

Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966) – 8.0
Director: Ikehiro Kazuo

It is good to watch these Zatoichi films with some distance in between. At a high level they all have basically the same plot but what makes them each special are the little details within each, the emotional resonance that they capture. This the fourteenth in the series is one of the best so far with more than a touch of High Noon to it with Zatoichi facing the bad guys who ride horses on a dusty street in a no nothing town as the towns people cower within their homes and a woman running from one home to another trying to shame them to come out and fight. I almost expected Tex Ritter to sing a theme song in Japanese. The final 15 minutes of this is brilliant, maybe the best 15 minutes of any Zatoichi film I have seen up to this point.

Zatoichi is as usual minding his own business walking across a bridge. He is planning to visit 88 shrines asking God why he has had to kill so many people and swears to kill no more. We know that pledge won't last long. A man challenges him and Zatoichi has no choice but to kill him. He follows the horse to the dead man's home and is immediately attacked by the sister, Kichi (Michiyo Yasuda - who interestingly appeared in the 2003 the Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi with Takeshi Kitano) - who wounds Zatoichi but then relents and fixes his wounds. Her brother had been ordered by the top Boss to kill Zatoichi to pay off a debt knowing the man would be killed.

The tender but innocent relationship that grows between Kichi and Zatoichi is very well done - she clearly is falling in love but Zatoichi knows that he cannot stay - he is Yakuza with blood on his hands and he cannot soil her. Of course, the Boss comes looking for Zatoichi with a few more men than Gary Cooper had to face down - perhaps 30 and Zatoichi is forced to fight for his life. Quite wonderful.

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967) – 8.0
Director: Yasuda Kimiyoshi

This is the fifteenth Zatoichi film in the series and it hasn't lost a step. In fact, with the previous film and this one the series seems to have been rejuvenated - these last two are close to the best I have seen yet. Beautifully shot and paced by director Yasuda Kimiyoshi who made many Chanbara films in the 1960s' including a few other Zatoichi films, some Sleepy Eyes of Death and others. The big finale, which all the Zatoichi films have when he cleans up the town and sends a lot of ruffians to their resting place, is again brilliant - even better than in the previous film - lasting about 20 minutes and going through a few scenarios - but the shot of Zatoichi turning the corner at night with an umbrella in hand, a light snow slowly dusting the street and men waiting everywhere for him in the shadows is breathtakingly heroic - The O.K. Corral meets Lady Snowblood captured in one glorious moment.

The film builds up to this convulsion very slowly adding layer after layer of character and plot to make it all the more effective. There is actually very little action until the end but that end is worth the price of admission and more. By the fifteenth film the audience had seen Zatoichi cut down his enemies by the truckload in film after film and it was important to set it up so that it was meaningful. This one does that so well. Zatoichi wanders into another small town near the New Year on a cart that is bringing an entertainment troupe to it - on the cart a young lady breaks into song and it was lovely - turns out she is Suizenji Kiyoko, who was on her way to becoming one of the top Enka singers in Japan. I have to see if I can find any of her music.

In town Zatoichi gets himself immediately into trouble by winning at dice as he always does and then having to kill two of Iwagoro's (Endo Tatsuo who has a dog face that always gets him cast as a no-good-nik) men who think taking the money back will be like taking candy from a baby or a blind man. But an old man - ex-swords maker - tells Zatoichi that his sword has one more kill in it and then it will snap at an invisible crack in it. That cane sword has seen a lot of blood in its life, like an old friend to Zatoichi - always there for him and now it has one kill left in it.

Zatoichi finds work as a masseur at an inn and becomes fond of the people who own it and work there - he even performs this weird duck song and dance - especially Shizu (Fujimura Shiho) who goes out of her way to be kind to Zatoichi. When Iwagoro and his men begin to move in on the inn - bringing in prostitutes, turning it into a gambling casino and finally kidnap Shizu for a high ranking official to bed - you see that expression come onto Zatoichi's face - he had earlier said he wasn't willing to kill for strangers - a little weary about what he knows he will now have to do. She is no longer a stranger. Kill everybody. With a sword that has one kill left. It is terrific and like all these films provides great period detail from costumes to houses and just the extras walking by.