Zatoichi on the Road (1963)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Zatoichi the Fugitive
Zatoichi kenka-tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Shiho Fujimura (Mitsu), Ryuzo Shimada (Jingoro), Reiko Fujiwara (Hisa), Matasaburo Niwa (Yamada), Yoshio Yoshida (Boss Tomegoro), Sonosuke Sawamura (Boss Tobei), Shosaku Sugiyama (Boss Hikozo), Yutaka Nakamura (Matsu), Gen Kimura (Yakuza enforcer)
Music by Akira Ifukube

Daiei Studios, 85 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

After Ichi accepts an invitation from a friendly yakuza henchman whose boss wants the blind swordsman to come meet him, a rival gang attacks and kills Ichi's escort before they reach their destination. Then Ichi finds himself traveling instead with Mitsu, a wealthy young woman being pursued after spurning an attempted rape by a samurai lord.

Dice Game: As if in recognition that the gambling den sequences have already become a trademark of the series, this fifth film in the series opens with a quick dice game vignette. It's assumed that the audience knows the deal: Ichi calls shenanigans at a crooked game, heated words are exchanged, Ichi draws his sword and scares the hell out of everybody. Cut to opening titles.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: In that opening dice game, Ichi repeats his signature trick of slicing a lit candle right down the middle such that both halves are still burning. Later on he tosses an empty sake bottle in the air and catches it on a chopstick. And in a hilarious sequence when Ichi seriously wants to intimidate a yakuza boss, Ichi slices a bitter persimmon in midair and then makes the boss eat it. As Daffy Duck would say, thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin!

Ichi's Lady Friend: Played by the heartbreakingly cute Shiho Fujimura, Mitsu initially remains distant when Ichi offers to help her get home to Edo, but it the course of their travels she warms to her blind protector. Ichi declines to act on the potential love connection, but he does touchingly cling to a frilly pouch she dropped, granting himself a memento of this special lady.

Mystery Ronin: There is a tough-guy yakuza named Jingoro who goes up against Ichi, but he's a pretty loosely sketched background character. I would say the role of the mystery ronin is more suitably filled by a woman, the yakuza femme fatale Hisa. Even though she's not a swordfighter, she is a cryptic menace who tails Ichi all throughout the story. One of the men Ichi kills in the movie's first melee was her husband, and when Ichi apologetically tells Hisa that this deed makes him her enemy, she just kind of shrugs and says, "Whatever, dude." Hisa just moves along to a new yakuza boyfriend and keeps doing her thing.

True to its English title, the action in this movie largely takes place on the road with plenty of gorgeous outdoor cinematography. Among the indoor studio scenes, there's one that makes a great demonstration of the advantages of Ichi's masseur profession. He's able to infiltrate a yakuza boss's house just by walking in the front door, and all the henchmen just assume the boss called for a massage and show him right to the big man's chambers. Ichi doesn't even have to make up a cover story or say a word. It's a social assumption Ichi exploits time and time again.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

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