Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)
Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka

Zatoichi the Fugitive
Zatoichi kyojo-tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Masayo Banri (Tane), Jutaro Hojo (Tanakura), Junichiro Narita (Sakichi), Miwa Takada (Nobu), Katsuhiko Kobayashi (Kisuke), Toru Abe (Boss Yagiri), Koichi Mizuhara (Boss Unosuke), Yasuhiro Mizukami (Boss Tamamura), Sachiko Murase (Maki), Hiroshi Nawa (Chuji of Kunisada)

Daiei Studios, 86 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

After Ichi kills a low-level yakuza attempting to claim a bounty on his head, Ichi is compelled to report his deed to the slain man's mother and find out who has put a contract on him. This leads to Ichi's involvement in a backstabbing yakuza turf war centering on Sakichi, the reluctant young heir to a yakuza territory who is more interested in marrying a pretty innkeeper's daughter than being a crime lord. Sakichi's weakness makes him a target for Yagiri, the yakuza banker who put the bounty on Ichi.

Ichi's Lady Friends: The original Zatoichi leading lady Tane returns for her third and final appearance. The last time she announced plans to marry a carpenter, but now she shows up as the wife of a brutish ronin working as a mercenary for Yagiri. This reunion with Ichi is painful for Tane, as she tells him she has lost her virtue and drifted from one man to another, and she is thankful for Ichi's blindness so he can't see her shame. Ichi has to grapple with the ways in which Tane no longer measures up to his idealized memories of her.

Mystery Ronin: Tane's new husband Tanakura is a quintessential mystery ronin. Snarling and seething with Toshiro Mifune-style animal intensity, Tanakura harbors an immediate animosity for Ichi from the first time they pass on a flight of stairs at an inn. Maybe it is a transparent plot contrivance for Tane to hook up with a nasty, brooding ronin tailor-made for a Zatoichi closing showdown duel, but the formula definitely works.

Dice Game: Ichi intrudes on a meeting of high-ranking yakuza bosses and has the massive cojones to address the assembly as their peer. When his audacity goads the yakuza and Tanakura toward a violent confrontation, Ichi pulls out a pair of dice and offers to settle their differences in a game. But instead this leads to...

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi tosses one of the dice cleanly into the narrow neck of a sake bottle one yakuza is drinking from. Then he draws his sword in a flash and slices the bottle into two lengthwise. Plus the die inside falls to the ground in two halves. Tanakura had just attempted to intimidate Ichi by slicing a sake bottle horizontally. Silly Mystery Ronin, you'll never beat Ichi at parlor tricks. And in the opening sequence, Ichi demonstrates a different area of skill by entering a sumo tournament to earn some quick cash, apparently using has masseur's knowledge of pressure points to dispatch his grappling opponents with ease.

It's also worthy of note that that Chuji of Kunisada, the legendary Robin Hood of Japan and ninkyo-eiga movie hero, makes a cameo appearance as a respected boss that Yagiri and his cronies take pains to steer clear of. It's only a brief scene in which Chuji and Ichi express their mutual regards and indicate that they are old acquaintances. Chuji returns for a more substantial role in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi on the Road

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