• Zatôichi tekka tabi / Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)

    Zatoichi's Cane Sword is the fifteenth entry in the franchise about the clever gambler, blind masseur and skilled swordsman with a lowly yakuza background and I still can't get enough of this series with its authentic atmosphere bringing rural Japan of the mid-nineteenth century to life, with its unique lead character with a strong moral compass masterfully played by a credible Katsu Shintaro and the cool story lines involving conspiracies, greed, love, murder and redemption. As in many other films, Zatoichi comes across a dying boss who can only tell him his name. The blind masseur goes to the next town and stays in an old inn where he comes across the dead man's children. While the son is reluctant to take over his father's business, the daughter is determined to convince him and save their family's reputation. However, another boss named Iwagoro, supported by corrupt government official Inspector Kuwayama, wants to take over the dead man's business by any means necessary. Zatoichi tries to remain neutral in the conflict but when the dead man's son is brutally killed and the dead man's daughter lured away from the inn, Zatoichi decides to set things right. However, there is one big problem. The local blacksmith informs Zatoichi that his cane sword is about to break and that the blind masseur might only have one strike left before it snaps.

    As usual, there are many positive elements about this film. First of all, the characters are very nicely developed in this film. The drunk blacksmith that rediscovers his art, the determined daughter who never gives up, the reluctant son who wants to avoid conflicts, the pervert government official and the wicked boss are all intriguing characters. The fact that Zatoichi has to fight without his usual cane sword at times adds some tension to the film. The movie has a few interesting twists that keep the viewers interested until the very end. The final fight sequence at night and in the snow when both Zatoichi and his opponents use numerous tricks to fight each other is particularly well-choreographed. In addition to this, the movie includes a few brief yet refreshing humorous scenes such as Zatoichi performing a chant and dance to make fun of the evil boss and Zatoichi playing a game of dice with an overtly self-confident loudmouth who challenges him to a duel.

    However, the film also has a few flaws. The story is extremely similar to other movies and lacking some fresh originality. On the other side, the story is also more complex and at times a little bit hard to follow with its numerous characters, side stories and minor twists. It would have been better if the movie had been a few minutes longer to tell this complex story in greater detail.

    Still, Zatoichi's Cane Sword is an above average entry in the franchise. The tense atmosphere in the inn where several key scenes take place is a very intriguing guiding line. The characters have depth and you either root for them or despise them quickly. The complex story is a little bit more challenging than usual which has positive and negative consequences. Collectors and fans of the franchise might appreciate this movie more than some of the weaker previous films but it's not strong enough in my book to be among the franchise's best entries. Those who aren't familiar with Zatoichi yet shouldn't start here and discover the series in chronological order.

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  • Zatôichi umi o wataru / Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966)

    Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is the fourteenth episode in the franchise about the skilled gambler, blind masseur and fast swordsman. It's a good average episode with some positive and a few negative points. In the beginning of the film, Zatoichi is on a pilgrimage to visit the eighty-eight shrines on Shikoku. He is on a spiritual journey because he has grown tired of killing people. He makes a prayer to not need to use his sword on his pilgrimage but it seems the deities aren't on his side. Very early on his pilgrimage he gets attacked by an unknown assailant traveling with a horse and Zatoichi is forced to kill him in self-defense. He follows the horse to the home of his attacker and meets his sister. She initially hurts Zatoichi after she realizes what had happened but then tells him that her brother was sent by a local boss who exploits the modest farmers of the village. Zatoichi soon realizes that the cruel boss saw an opponent in the assailant and sent him to attack Zatoichi to get him killed on purpose. As Zatoichi and the dead man's sister grow very fond of each other, they decide to trick the ruthless boss and avenge the assailant's unnecessary death.

    There are several positive elements about this film. The landscapes, the score and the fact that many men are riding horses in this film almost make this movie look like a classic western. Instead of guns, there are obviously intense sword fights but the evil boss also uses bow and arrow to kill Zatoichi which is very interesting. Another positive element is the relationship between the assailant's sister and the blind samurai. In the beginning, she hates him and is scared of him but she soon starts respecting his motives and grows so fond of him that a friendship and even a fragile romance blooms between them. Another thing to point out is the selfish behavior of the farmers in the village. They decide to let Zatoichi fight for their cause but won't support him openly. They think if Zatoichi won they could live better lives and if he lost they wouldn't get associated with him and punished for their support. Their cowardice leads to a tragic death and services as a moral lesson in this movie.

    Aside all these positive elements, the movie suffers from overlong dialogues which is quite unusual for this franchise since Zatoichi is usually a modest man who hasn't much to say. I think this movie has too many conversations and not enough fighting scenes even though the final fifteen minutes are truly rewarding in that regard. Another problem is the fact that the movie is basically only carried by Zatoichi and the dead assailant's sister. The side characters are quite pale and can't impress. The story is chambara by the numbers and quite similar to other films in the franchise.

    In the end, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is a good average entry in the franchise about the blind yakuza. Collectors and fans of the franchise will appreciate the film even though it fails to stand out. Those who aren't familiar with the franchise could like this film because it's closer to Western cinema and recalls more western elements than most movies in the franchise.

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  • Zatôichi no uta ga kikoeru / Zatoichi's Vengeance (1966)

    The blandly mistitled Zatoichi's Vengeance is a typical movie of the franchise about the skilled gambler, blind masseur and pitiless swordsman. Zatoichi witnesses how a man got attacked on the road side and speaks to the dying man who tells him his name and asks him to bring a small bag of money to someone called Taichi. Upon arriving in a nearby town, Zatoichi stumbles upon a young boy with that name and realizes he is the dead man's son. He hands the money over to the child and his grandmother but doesn't want to tell them the boy's father is dead. Zatoichi wants to leave town quickly but he is invited by the family of the dead man to stay and attend the roaring drums festival. While in town, Zatoichi witnesses how merchants get brutally extorted by a boss who has started controlling the calm town six months ago. Zatoichi gets caught in the conflict and decides to root for the helpless merchants while the boss hires the same man who killed Taichi's father to challenge Zatoichi to a deadly duel.

    The story described above might sound familiar if you have watched the Zatoichi films released before this one. This is also the film's most obvious flaw because the story is quite predictable and doesn't add anything new to the franchise. Another element I disliked is the fact that some background stories of interesting characters aren't fully explored. We never get to know why Taichi's father really had to die and the reason why the caring prostitute in the town's brand-new brothel ended up like this isn't fully explained either. One element a lot of people praise but that I didn't appreciate was the presence of a blind priest Zatoichi comes across. The old man is quite arrogant and selfish. He asks Zatoichi to buy him food, talks to him while lying down to sleep and doesn't stop lecturing him but can't give any useful advice either. One moment, he tells Zatoichi to not draw his sword in front of Taichi who idolizes the blind samurai and then he approves Zatoichi's decision to defend the exploited merchants. I happened to find the character of the blind priest very annoying, dishonest and pretentious.

    Still, there are enough positive elements about the movie to make it at least an average entry in the epic franchise. First of all, the set of characters is overall quite interesting. Zatoichi is brought to think about his destructive lifestyle, Taichi is torn between admiring and despising the blind samurai, the prostitute is torn between helping her colleagues and helping herself and even the samurai that challenges Zatoichi has to fight his inner demons because he needs to take enormous risks to make money in order to free the person he still loves. The film's atmosphere is also quite intense. It's interesting to see a calm town with honest citizens getting terrorized and infiltrated by criminals, gamblers and prostitutes. Thirdly, the fight sequences are quite great, especially the fight scenes on the bridge where Zatoichi's opponents try to distract the blind samurai with their roaring drums.

    In the end, you will like Zatoichi's Vengeance if you like the franchise. It's an entertaining film even though it doesn't bring anything new to the franchise. If you aren't familiar with the franchise yet, you should rather start watching it in chronological order.

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  • Zatôichi Jigoku tabi / Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

    Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is the twelfth entry in the franchise and one of the best movies about the blind masseur, skilled gambler and skillful swordsman. The story of this film is unusually clever, complex and twisted. Zatoichi meets a smart chess player while traveling on a ship and the two end up respecting one another so much that they start traveling together. When Zatoichi is attacked by some folks whom he tricked during a dice game on the ship, a young girl traveling with a beautiful woman gets injured, so Zatoichi organizes some medicine and travels with the two as he grows fond of the joyful child. Zatoichi also encounters a sick man and his sister who is disguised as a man to avoid trouble on the road who travel with a helpful retainer who gets brutally murdered during a prayer. Soon enough, these three seemingly different story lines end up being connected in most surprising ways as Zatoichi needs to figure out who is friend and who is foe.

    What I really liked about this film is the complex story with its numerous clever twists. The characters also have great depth. Even Zatoichi seems more emotional than usual as he opens up about the love of his life and his low self-esteem while being caring, helpful and respectful to those who need his help. The perfectly portrayed chess expert is hard to figure out because of his harsh convictions versus his impressive intelligence. The young woman Zatoichi travels with falls in love with the blind samurai and is at times desperate and at other times joyful about their complicated relationship. Her child is quirky but polite and its heart-warming to see how the girl and Zatoichi grow fond of one another. The sick man, his mysterious sister and his helpful retainer are also quite intriguing characters. This movie is more than just a classic chambara film and also a drama for all the complex relationships going on and a thriller because of the cruel murder of the retainer. The movie's atmosphere gets more and more mysterious throughout the nicely paced film. The landscapes are memorable, gorgeous and authentic, especially the port and ship in the beginning of the film and the modest inn with the hot springs that plays a central role in this film. The fight scenes are more vivid than in the preceding film. Most sword fights occur at the beginning and in the final five minutes but they are nicely choreographed. My favorite fight scene was when Zatoichi got ambushed in the middle of the night in the muddy meadows while carrying the expensive medicine for the sick child.

    There really isn't much to criticize regarding one of the franchise's very best films. Obviously, there are some recurring elements in the movie such as numerous gambling scenes, traditional sword fights and Zatoichi traveling through rural landscapes but these predictable elements give each film about the blind masseur their very own identity.

    If you like sword fighting movies or care for Japanese culture, history and nature, you will particularly like Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. You an learns more about Japan in one hour and a half here than you could by watching anime for a whole year. Since this is one of the most profound entries in the franchise, this movie would be recommendable to get to know a true piece of Japanese art.

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  • Zatôichi sakate giri / Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

    After releasing one of the very best entries in the franchise with the sinister Zatoichi's Revenge, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man is one of the weakest films about the blind masseur. It tells how Zatoichi gets arrested for illegal gambling and meets a prisoner who is about to get sentenced to death for crimes he claims he didn't commit. He asks Zatoichi to help him by meeting his boss as well as his sworn brother who could clear his name. Zatoichi is first reluctant to help but once he does, he realizes that the prisoner got set up by his two friends and tries to set things right.

    Despite being one of the weakest entries in the franchise, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man still has a few positive elements to point out. The pace of the film is rather quick as the story unfolds coherently and the set of characters is introduced step by step. This film certainly isn't boring. An interesting element is the idea to include an impostor who claims to be Zatoichi to get alcohol, money and women which adds some situation comedy to the film. The landscapes are particularly interesting in this film as Zatoichi travels to the ocean for the first time in his life and as the final duel takes places in an abandoned fishing village in the dunes which looks gorgeous.

    There are a couple of elements that weigh that movie down. First of all, the sword fights are particularly wooden, especially since Zatoichi doesn't have to face a respectable opponent this time around. The idea of his opponents to use trenches and fishing nets to trick the lowly yakuza in the final fight sequence is the only remotely interesting element about the fight scenes in this film. The impostor who claims to be Zatoichi seems intriguing at first but quickly becomes very annoying as his only purpose seems to be to bring some comic relief in form of silly slapstick scenes. Aside of Zatoichi, most characters remain either shallow or are unnerving, like the woman who claims to know him and follows him around to give him useless tips. A final element that bothered me was the fact that the fate of numerous characters and side stories isn't even explained at the end of the movie. Maybe the makers of the movie believed some of the characters to be so generic that the viewers wouldn't even care about their fates which is strange but turns out to be accurate in my book.

    In the end, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man is an entertaining and fast-paced entry in the franchise but ultimately overtly humorous and just not memorable. Collectors and fans of the franchise might appreciate the film for its atmosphere, locations and the sympathetic lead character but those who aren't too familiar with the blind samurai definitely shouldn't start their journey with this movie.

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