Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)
The second of two Zatoichi Team-up movies (the first being Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo). The One-Armed Swordsman movies were apparently very popular in Japan. In them, Chinese superstar Jimmy Wang Yu (well, superstar until Bruce Lee arrived on the scene) plays a man who loses his arm through treachery, but masters a form of swordplay using a shortened sword to eventually rescue the spiteful woman who maimed him. There are only two of these flicks featuring Wang Yu; by the time this entry in the Zatoichi series was made, he had split from Shaw Brothers and was replaced in The New One-Armed Swordsman by David Chiang. (There’s at least one more attempt in a 1976 Taiwanese movie, One Armed Swordsman vs Nine Killers, but it’s not really the same guy).
We can’t even really be sure this is the same One-Armed Swordsman, anyway, except for the fact that it’s Wang Yu, he still dresses in black and has the same broken sword… here his name is Wang Kong, and there are no references to the rich backstory of the Chang Cheh-directed movies. Wang Kong has been invited to live in a Japanese temple by an old friend who is a monk there; speaking no Japanese, Wang is glad to fall in with a traveling family of Chinese entertainers who enjoy living in their adopted country.
This group encounters a parade of samurai delivering abalone to the Shogun – the father tells Wang that everybody must clear the road, under pain of death. They do so, but their young boy runs into the road after a kite, and the samurai move to kill him. Mother and father intercede, are cut down, and Wang, naturally enough, cuts a bunch of them down with his shortsword before escaping into the woods. The boy also gets away as the samurai, to cover up that so many of them were killed by one man with a busted sword, slaughters everyone else on the road, blaming their deaths on a berserk Chinaman.
With Zatoichi’s usual luck, he finds the orphaned boy and eventually the fugitive Wang. The two men cannot speak each other’s language, and the boy is of little help. Wang’s distrust of Ichi reaches a peak when Ichi goes searching for food and information, and the yakuza hired by the samurai family kill the kindly Japanese hiding Wang and the boy. The surviving daughter, Wang and the boy make it to the Japanese temple, believing Ichi betrayed them for the reward. The truth is, Wang’s “friend” at the temple is the true villain, conspiring with all involved for money and power. This all leads to two grand battles: Wang against the samurai, Ichi against the yakuza. Then the two men meet, and Ichi, unable to speak with Wang, cannot convince him of his innocence, resulting in the final battle.
There are two remarkable things about this movie: the most obvious is that the samurai are confounded by what Wang Yu would call in Master of the Flying Guillotine “Good Jumping!” His (incredibly unrealistic, but who cares) kung fu leaps allow him to escape them on a regular basis. The second is (SPOILER ALERT) Ichi has to kill Wang Kong in self-defense, which is especially remarkable given Wang Yu’s reputation as a fairly disagreeable egotist. There are rumors of an alternate cut, of course, but it turns out that even this version didn’t get a home video release in Japan until fairly recently.
At the moment of his death, Wang realizes Ichi was okay, after all, and Ichi bemoans their inability to communicate. Overall, a pretty heavy message for an action flick.
Zatoichi at Large (1972)
With his usual terrible timing, Ichi happens upon a woman on the road who has been attacked and robbed – on top of that, she is giving birth. After delivering the baby and the barest amount of information, she dies, leaving the masseur once more burdened with a baby and one hell of an obligation. He is also being followed by a child who will spend most of the movie chucking rocks at his head.
Ichi will find the woman’s family, and, sure as shooting, the village is being taken over by a thuggish yakuza boss, who was to be the recipient of the money the woman was carrying, payment for a debt. The local constable is seemingly ineffective, and in fact seems to resent the times Ichi stands up for the villagers against the villain. The rock-throwing kid will cause Ichi to be captured by the bad guys, but Ichi will be rescued by that other staple of the series, a ronin who desires a duel with a worthy opponent. We know it’s all going to end up with another battle royal, and Ichi will still get away, propelled to his next adventure on a tide of the blood of the wicked.
Things that set this adventure apart: the bizarre variety of traveling entertainers groaning under the new Boss’ taxes (I particularly enjoyed the monkey samurai drama), and the constable’s rebellious son. Rebellious teenagers were pretty big in Japanese cinema at the time, and this isn’t the last time we’ll see them in the series. This is actually the most solid Zatoichi movie in a while,and we should enjoy that warm feeling, as next up is…
Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Ichi meets an old woman when both are crossing a rickety bridge. The old woman is playing a samishen as she walks, and tells Ichi she is going to meet her daughter, a prostitute in a nearby village. The bridge gives way underneath her, and Ichi, unable to save her, of course has to seek out the daughter and try to rescue her from her life in a bordello. The major twist here is that the daughter, the popular girl in the house, enjoys her life there and doesn’t really want to be rescued, but when Ichi shows up with a stack of gold coins obtained at the local crooked yakuza gambling house, she allows herself to be swept away. She quickly gets bored when she finds out Ichi doesn’t want to have sex with her. The fact that Ichi spends so much effort trying to reform her means he misses out on the people who would usually come under his protection: a boy who is beaten to death by yakuza when he throws rocks at them while they’re grinding the faces of the poor, and the boy’s sister, who, rather than take the freed prostitute’s place in the bordello, gathers up the boy’s body and walks into the ocean to drown.
The prostitute eventually conspires with her lover to entrap Ichi so the local Boss can kill him for an even bigger Boss with a grudge against the masseur. Thinking she’s been taken hostage – and by this point, this is close to the truth, as the Boss shows his true viler-than-usual colors – Ichi surrenders himself, has both his hands stabbed through by harpoons, then is released again to await his fate at dawn, supposedly helpless. But this is Ichi we’re talking about, and he literally ties his sword to his bleeding hand so can still spend the rest of the movie cutting the yakuza to ribbons.
This is star Katsu’s second directorial gig, and his first in the series. That this should result in the bleakest entry in the series is a bit of a surprise. There are some self-consciously arty shots, and a lot of the shots seem to be close-ups through a telephoto lens. This is quite definitely a film of the early 70s, from the gritty nihilism to the cinematography to the downbeat ending. Downbeat endings are not uncommon in the Zatoichi movies, but rarely are they backed up by such an unrelenting story. Not a movie for a light-hearted evening.
Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)
Ichi once more feels the need to visit his old hometown.This is about the fourth time he’s decided to do this, and it seems like it’s a different hometown every time, but what the heck. This time he hopes to visit the woman who wet-nursed him as a child, only to find she died a few years back. Ichi also runs afoul of a childhood friend who has returned to the village for different reasons: farmers have been victimized by the local commissioner for years, pouring their tribute rice into a rigged measuring box, insuring perpetual tax debt. The prodigal pays the back taxes, but the villagers then find this gives him the right to stripmine the local quarry, whose stone they had been selling to make it through the lean years.
I told you that rebellious teenagers were the rage in Japanese cinema – this time there’s a full gang of four juvenile delinquents, three of whom – the guys – almost succeed in killing Ichi for the bounty placed on him (but they’re young idiots, and they do it by leading him into a bottomless bog, which means they’d have no proof, and therefore no bounty. They get scared and run away, anyway, leaving him to be rescued by the girl in the group).
Ichi will give his childhood friend three chances to leave town, which naturally gives the wretch three chances to kill Ichi, who will, as usual, get fed up and wind up taking down the villainous Commissioner and his minions, the old pal, and anyone else stupid enough to get in the way. The juvies redeem themselves, sort of, and Ichi walks out on yet another woman who loves him and who he loves. And that’s the end of the series.
Except it’s not – Zatoichi would make the jump to television and have a successful run there for several years, an ironic development considering the (by this time) bankrupt and shuttered Daiei Studios saw the series as a tool to combat the encroachment of TV on their box office returns. Katsu would bring the character to the big screen one more time, in 1989 – but that is beyond the scope of this Criterion box set.
The character is enduring and fascinating, to be sure. Takashi Kitano would do a revamp of the character in 2003, there would be an attempt at a feminine reboot in 2008, and the influence on Western cinema is unmistakable, with movies from Blind Fury to The Book of Eli. 25 movies in little more than a decade is a sure indicator that something is there, something the public hungered for and rewarded… at least for a while. As a resource for examining this phenomenon, and the times in which it arose, the Criterion box is extremely valuable, and captures a slice of Japanese cinema history pretty darn thoroughly.