Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight
Zatoichi kessho tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Nobuo Kaneko (Unosuke), Hizuru Takachiho (Ko), Gen Kimura (Hyaku), Ikuko Mori (Babysitting prostitute), Shosaku Sugiyama (Hangoro), Saburo Date (Pickpocketed samurai)
Music by Akira Ifukube

Daiei Studios, 87 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight could also be called Babysit, Zatoichi, Babysit. Or Lone Zatoichi and Cub. This is the one with Ichi and the baby, and it is outstanding. In fact, I consider this the very best of the Zatoichi series, the one I will hold up as a true masterpiece.

When a case of mistaken identity leads a young mother to be attacked and killed in Ichi's place, Ichi feels obligated to take her baby boy safely home to his father in a distant town. A very different kind of "yakuza on the road" story ensues, in which Ichi's usual escapades are complicated by the presence of an infant and our hero grows attached to the kid. The original Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi returns for the first time since the series debut. I wonder if Misumi's experience on this film may have been a factor in his later involvement with the Lone Wolf and Cub series. He sure proved himself to the master of mixing little kids into violent chambara action flicks.

Ichi Loves Kids: Even though he's too young to speak or do anything but cry, eat and sleep, the unnamed baby would be the the definitive Zatoichi child co-star. The movie explores all the humorous and charming difficulties a wandering blind yakuza would go through with an infant in his care. There's plenty of diaper jokes, with the baby peeing in Ichi's face ("I guess it's a boy"), Ichi's makeshift diapers cut from scarecrow clothes, and Ichi's habit of always sniffing the dirty diapers and making a face. And inevitably Ichi ends up fighting and killing while the kid is around, resenting his attackers' lack of respect for the little one. In one case Ichi slashes up his enemies while changing a diaper. Later he delivers a death blow to an assailant who moans in agony, and Ichi says "Shh!" because the baby is sleeping.

Musical Interludes: Early in his journey, Ichi encounters a sad-faced young woman singing a forlorn lullaby to her child. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful melody with lyrics about a baby crying because its mother has passed away, but the emotion requires no literal translation. The profound expression in this moment is absolutely on a caliber with Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse. The young mother's refrain is rendered orchestrally in Akira Ifukube's score throughout the film, including the opening credits, and towards the end Ichi sings it himself. All told, the finest soundtrack in the Zatoichi series.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Naturally Ichi needs to enlist some feminine assistance along his travels. At one point he meets a nursing mother who offers to feed his baby, and later he hires a prostitute to babysit so he can get a good night's sleep. Later Ichi teams up with a sly pickpocket named Ko and they form a dysfunctional ad hoc family unit. Ko expresses wishes of settling down with Ichi and raising the boy themselves, but their relationship never really turns romantic. It's more a matter of Ichi trying to teach the pickpocket to change her ways and lead an honest life.

Dice Game: You bet, Ichi goes gambling with the kid in his arms, changing diapers at the dice table. The boss of the gambling den tries to take back Ichi's huge winnings by challenging him to a one-on-one bet with loaded dice. Ichi detects the scam and uses his sword skills to expose the hidden dice, tossing the baby into Ko's arms before slashing away.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi uses his skills to defend Ko from a samurai whose wallet she was caught stealing. Ichi offers to let the man kill him, his "wife" and "their child," if the samurai will just give him a piece of paper first. Puzzled, the samurai produces a slip of paper, which Ichi slashes into three equal pieces. Ichi asks the samurai to write their posthumous names on the papers to bring to a temple after he kills them. Impressed, the samurai releases them and advises Ko to be a more worthy wife to such a fine swordsman. The samurai is wonderfully played by frequent Zatoichi extra Saburo Date in one of his best speaking roles.

Mystery Ronin: The closest we get to mystery ronin in this episode in the members of the Monju gang, the yakuza who kill the baby's mother in their vendetta against Ichi. No one member of the gang is established as a main villain, and Ichi mows through those guys like anonymous chattel.

Some fans dislike Fight, Zatoichi, Fight because they think it's too silly and preoccupied with baby care instead of the usual bad-ass gangster business. I disagree. The lighthearted comedy gives way to intense drama when Ichi reaches his destination to return the baby to his father. Ichi and Ko each wrestle when their attachment to the child, and when Ichi reaches the father to do the right thing, the family reunion does not go as expected, and you can feel the brutal heartbreak Ichi suffers. The movie wraps up with a climactic showdown in which the last of the Monju gang attempt to defeat Ichi with flaming torches and our hero being forced to confront the limits of his compassion. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight shows us Ichi at its best, and it's packed with memorable moments and images that define the unique identity of the character and the series. That's why this is my favorite.

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