Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)
It’s inevitable in the course of 25 movies that I would hit one that I found less than impressive, and with The Doomed Man I hit that particular wall. The movie begins with Ichi being caned for “illegal gambling”. In a flashback to his jail cell the previous evening, we see the man in the next cell telling Ichi that the officials do this every so often just to make an example. This man, however, is Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), a yakuza second-in-command who was running a simple errand for his Boss, but who was arrested the second he hit town, accused of crimes – including murder – he did not commit. He begs Ichi to tell his Boss what has transpired, so his name can be cleared and his life spared.
Ichi, however, has a moment of clarity on the road and realizes that every time he does something like this, he winds up in trouble. After winning big in an archery contest, Ichi finds himself in the company of a “mendicant monk” (read: con man) played by comic actor Kanbi Fujiyama, and events seem to guide him to the same village Shimazo begged him to visit. Not the least of which is that the monk has a new con: pretending he is Zatoichi, getting exorbitant fees from desperate minor yakuza bosses, running up a bar tab, and splitting town.
This is the most straightforward Zatoichi plot yet, and for some reason that makes me feel cheated. Half the fun of previous entries was watching the convoluted relationships eventually come together as Ichi assembled information; here, it’s pretty much given that the two Bosses involved are at fault for Shimazo’s plight and one interrogation later, Ichi has the letter that will save his life. Under these circumstances, the subplot with the monk seems like mere filler, although it has one of the better set pieces, when a group of killers seeking Zatoichi descend on the fake one.
It’s also not a Zatoichi movie without that massive final fight, and Doomed Man makes up for any shortcomings with a ton of murderers trying to stop Ichi from delivering his letter on the fog-enshrouded docks of a fishing village. That and some beautiful scenic photography raise this movie above the average, and it is really only because of the extraordinary quality of the movies preceding it that I would condemn a movie for merely being average.
Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)
At this point Ichi is trying very hard to kill only as a last resort, illustrated by the opening sequence where he is attacked by five yakuza and he only wounds them, content to let them retreat. Of course, that also means they’ll still be pursuing him through the picture, but so be it. Ichi then makes the acquaintance of a wandering ronin obsessed by dai shoji, often called “Japanese chess”. Ichi likes the game, too, and the ronin, Jumonji (Mikio Narita) is impressed by the blind man’s ability to play without seeing the board. The two wind up traveling together, and Jumonji begins playing the game blindfolded, to even the match.
Ichi is also running the same scam he used at the very beginning of Tale of Zatoichi to bilk large sums of money from dishonest dice gamblers. This puts another yakuza gang on his heels, and during one donnybrook, a passing girl is injured. Ichi, who feels the call of giri (duty) more keenly than other supposedly honest men, takes it upon himself to raise the money for the expensive medicine the girl will require to recover from the ensuing infection and fever. This leads to one of the best, most suspenseful sequences yet, as Ichi fends off an attack from the yakuza in a reedy swamp, releases he has lost the precious box of medicine in the reeds during the fight, and searches the area with increasing, literally blind, desperation.
Kenji Misumi has become my favorite director in the series, with this, the very first movie, and the Zatoichi-with-a-baby flick Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Misumi doesn’t skimp on the swordplay, but also takes his time with the plot and the development of relationships, and this yields some stellar moments. He always finds a way to let Katsu show some genuine, deep emotions, and his Zatoichi movies – this one especially – display a moral complexity that leaves the viewer chewing over possibilities long after the first pass.
Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)
Once again Ichi finds himself in possession of a package to be delivered, and once again he determines not to do it, and once again, fate pushes him in the proper direction to not only fulfill the duty thrust upon him, but to make another delivery of king-sized whoopass on those most deserving it.
This time Ichi receives a purse from a dying man killed for cheating at dice; the ronin hired to butcher him (Shigeru Amachi) also winds up at the village where the dead man’s son lives, a village only recently taken over by a cruel yakuza boss. This, of course, is the gang that you know Ichi will inevitably turn into Bad Guy Soup, but things are complicated by a blind monk (Jun Hamamura) Ichi encounters on the road, who constantly lays a guilt trip on the masseur about his violent ways, and how those ways are corrupting the admiring son. This results in Ichi allowing himself to receive a humiliating beating from the thugs, to rob the boy of his new idol – and that will lead to the vengeance of the title.
There are some nice variations on the usual Zatoichi themes here. Ichi has been dealing with his conscience on matters of violence before this point, and is only too keenly aware of the impact of his actions on the boy, to the point where he begins carrying a normal cane instead of his cane sword. The problem is, assholes keep being assholes, which something even the monk admits when Ichi, after his beating, comes upon the yakuza attempting to kidnap a woman to extort even more money from the merchants, and he exacts the first down payment on his vengeance. The monk is trying to make some sort of point about a Zen-like duality in his responses, but let’s face it: he’s just screwing with Ichi’s head.
This is Amachi’s second appearance in the series, playing a character diametrically opposed to the noble, tubercular samurai of the first movie. His character here, Kurobe, is a samurai who has definitely lost his way, and his personal path to ruin has also destroyed the life of his lover, who is now a prostitute in a local bordello. Kurobe must kill Ichi so the Boss will pay off her debt to the brothel and they can begin their lives together anew; but it is not a conclusion that she even wants anymore, nor is it likely, given Ichi’s skill.
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)
As ever, I am indebted to Criterion’s supplementary material, and especially Chris D., for pointing out to me things that are not quite so obvious on a first pass. Pilgrimage has a different feel from previous Zatoichi movies, and this was originally by design; director Kazuo Ikehiro and star Katsu brought in Kaneto Shindo, the director of Onibaba (and, in a couple of years, Kuroneko) to pen a tale of Ichi traveling to the 88 temples of the region to pray for the spirits of those he has killed. He also prays that he will not be called upon to kill again.
Ichi is praying to wrong gods, or, more to the point, the heads of Daiei Studios worshipped different gods entirely; the Zatoichi movies were its only consistent money-makers, and the story was quickly rewritten to provide a more typical experience. A lone bandit ambushes Ichi shortly after his prayer, and Ichi reluctantly follows the dead man’s remarkably intelligent horse to the man’s home – where he will, against all odds, fall in love again, this time with the sister of the man he cut down.
The Boss who sent the doomed man to kill Ichi is determined to take over the entire area, including the sister and her house. The wily villagers – or “weasels” as the sister refers to them, prefer to just sit back and let the infamous Zatoichi take care of their bandit problem. This leads to a High Noon-style showdown, with the badly outnumbered Ichi taking on the gang as the sister pounds on doors, uselessly begging the villagers to help.
Ikehiro isn’t using the same frenetic camerawork he employed in Chest of Gold or Flashing Sword; he uses, instead, a very fluid, moving camera that still sets this apart from the more passive point-of-view of other entries. One can bemoan the what-if, the introspective Zatoichi movie that was lost to a more commercial product; but Pilgrimage is still refreshing enough in its approach to make it stand out from its brethren.
Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1966)
Ichi finds his usual dying man on the road, then circumstances route him to that man’s village, where, as usual, a predatory brute of a Boss and his thugs have taken over from the benign dead guy on the road. What elevates this movie above the usual is that Ichi has a chance meeting with Senzo (Eijiro Tono), an alcoholic blacksmith who was once a renowned sword maker. Senzo recognizes Ichi’s cane sword as the work of his mentor, and his trained eye also detects a tiny crack in the blade. He estimates that the sword has one more good blow in it, then it will snap.
Ichi leaves the cane sword with Senzo, as a memento of his past master, and that is the crux of what makes this movie so good: Ichi will spend the better part of the story bladeless, surviving only by his quick wits and formidable reputation (the fact that he can still dole out a serious beating with a common staff versus bullies with swords is a definite plus).
Eventually, though, Ichi is going to have to return to Senzo to retrieve his cane sword, because the evil Boss and an equally corrupt Inspector General must be stopped, a maiden’s honor must be protected, and lots of bad guys are being mean to honest people. The resolution regarding the movie’s title character is somewhat telegraphed, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. This is an especially entertaining attempt to vary the Zatoichi formula, and fifteen movies into the series, that variation is very welcome, indeed.