Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword
Zatoichi abare tako
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Naoko Kubo (Kuni), Tatsuo Endo (Boss Yasugoro), Ryosuke Kagawa (Bunkichi), Takashi Etajima (Seiroku), Ryutaro Gomi (Tengen), Bokuzen Hidari (Kyubei), Mayumi Nagisa (Shizu), Jun Katsumura

Daiei Studios, 82 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

After Ichi is shot in the back by a young yakuza hoping to gain street cred for killing Zatoichi (one of the rare occasions when firearms figure significantly in the series), our hero sets out to find and thank his unknown benefactor who saves him from dying. The good samaritan turns out to be Kuni, the daughter of the benevolent yakuza boss Bunkichi. Ichi's friendship with Bunkichi's family draws him into a conflict with the deplorable Boss Yasugoro, who is conspiring to take over Bunkichi's riverside concessions and ferry business. This is exciting stuff for jidai-geki nerds like me who are fans of the Shimizu no Jirocho legend, since this Yasugoro is the same Stuttering Yasu character who is a recurring Jirocho nemesis. There's also a Boss Bunkichi who is an ally of Jirocho in Jirocho Fuji Part II. Too bad Jirocho himself never shows up to meet Ichi.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: The pre-titles sequence has Ichi trying to take a nap while pestered by buzzing flies, until he whips out his sword and slashes them out of the air. Later on there's a dazzling scene when Ichi rampages down a hallway slicing candles left and right, aiming to put his enemies in the darkness with him. When he reaches the end of the hall, one by one the cut candles drop to the ground and the lights go out. In his showdown against Yasugoro, Ichi balances a burning candle tip on the end of his sword, producing excellent lighting effects on Stuttering Yasu's sweaty, panic-stricken face.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Ichi and Kuni engage in some innocent flirtation, with Ichi dropping the line that he would be too intimidated to talk to a beautiful woman like her if he could see. Balancing out the heavy drama of Zatoichi's Flashing Sword are some of the funniest scenes in the whole series, which includes priceless exchanges between Ichi and Kuni. When Kuni offers a starving Ichi some food, he stuffs a shit ton of rice into his face and then tries to speak, choking on his lines and cracking up. You can actually hear the crew on the set laughing at Katsu -- thank goodness Kazuo Ikehiro and the editors made the admirable decision not to leave that blown take on the cutting room floor, because it is hilarious comedy gold!

Mystery Ronin: Yasugoro hires a tough ronin named Tengen as an enforcer. Tengen explains to Yasu that Zatoichi is the swordsman who killed Boss Sukegoro and Miki Harate from the first two movies, providing a nice thread of continuity. These sorts of references to previous episodes become rarer as the series progresses.

Dice Game: No dice.

Ichi Loves Kids: Ichi is buying himself a treat from a candy vendor when he hears some kids coming by. He offers to buy them all some candy, then cringes a bit when he realizes it's a huge gang of about fifteen of 'em.

One more thing: the great character actor Bokuzen Hidari, best remembered as the comical old geezer in Seven Samurai and other Kurosawa classics, makes an appearance here as Kyubei, a master craftsman in the fireworks trade. His career in explosives has left Kyubei partially deaf, so there's comedy in his attempts to communicate with Ichi. Kyubei's fireworks at Bunkichi's festival provide the backdrop for the final battle sequence, in which loud noises during a fight are shown as Ichi's weakness, since he relies on hearing to attack his foes. This kryptonite will be exploited against him in later installments including Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and Zatoichi's Vengeance.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

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