Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Adventures of Zatoichi
Zatoichi sekisho yaburi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Miwa Takada (Saki), Eiko Taki (Sen), Kichijiro Ueda (Boss Jinbei), Mikijiro Hira (Gounosuke), Jotaro Senba (Shinsuke), Yuzaburo Ii (Giju), Akitake Kono (Gorota Kajima), Koichi Mizuhara (Kamazo), Ikuko Mori (Hanokama), Rocket Nakata (Comedian), Daimaru (Comedian), Gen Kimura (Dice Thrower)

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

When a stranger asks Ichi to deliver a note to a woman named Sen who works at a nearby inn, the blind swordsman ends up getting pulled into yet another confrontation against oppressive yakuza. The town is preparing for the popular new year's festival with Sen's inn overrun with visiting entertainers and vendors. The new local intendant and the corrupt Boss Jinbei are demanding an exorbitant 40 percent cut of the revenues at the festival, and conspiring on other dirty business that prompts Ichi to intervene.

Ichi's Lady Friends: There are two key ladies Ichi meets up with at the inn: Sen and Saki. Sen is the sister of Shinsuke, the yakuza on the lam who gave Ichi the note. Saki, a guest at the inn, is the daughter of a benevolent town chief who is the target in a yakuza plot. The plotlines involving the two women get rather complicated, and since the actresses look a bit similar, it's all kind of hard to follow. The seemingly separate stories finally come together when it turns out that Shinsuke is being used as a pawn in the scheme against Saki's father.

Dice Game: Ichi goes to Boss Jinbei's gambling den with a huge stack of ryo, deliberately coming across as a blind rube ready to be fleeced. When the boss attempts to use loaded dice against him, Ichi exposes the fraud with a flash his of sword, shearing the dice roller's topknot to reveal the dice hidden in his hair. It's cool and all, but the scene is awfully derivative of the dice scene from the last movie, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Sure, the whole series is formulaic, but it's usually a bit more clever in changing up its signature bits from one movie to the next.

Musical Interludes: At the gambling parlor, Ichi meets up with an old drunk named Giju and they go have sake together. Giju seems an old folk song for Ichi, who is moved by the somber melody. Ichi begins to suspect he may have some family connection with the old man...

Mystery Ronin: The requisite bad-ass ronin employed by Boss Jinbei, Gounosuke, is played by Mikijiro Hira, best remembered as one of the Three Outlaw Samurai. His character in the Hideo Gosha classic was the one most like a Zatoichi mystery ronin: man of few words, cold, arrogant, highly skilled and deadly. By coincidence, there is also an unusual secondary mystery ronin in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight who is similar to the Isamu Nagato character from Three Outlaw Samurai: a jovial, bearded, rotund fellow who chooses not to fight Ichi in recognition of his moral position.

Ichi Loves Kids: The pre-credits opening has Ichi returning a kite to a group of kids after it lands on his head and baffles the hell out of his super-senses. Later a pair of young acrobat boys in town for the festival become Ichi's junior sidekicks. They end up supplying Ichi some valuable information and assistance that helps him save the day.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: In one scene with the acrobat kids, Ichi slices a spinning top clean in half. Then he seeks an audience with Boss Jinbei and finds him playing a game of go with his cohort, the corrupt intendant. Perhaps deliberately, the encounter is awfully reminiscent of a stock scene from the Shimizu no Jirocho movies, in which Stuttering Yasu rudely ignores Jirocho and keeps his attention glued to his go match. Whereas Jirocho overturns the game table to make himself heard, Ichi is more subtle. He draws his sword in a flash, then after he leaves and Jinbei returns to his game, the table falls apart where Ichi had invisibly sliced it in two.

A lot of fans seem to think Adventures of Zatoichi is one of the best in the series, but I have to differ. In fact it's the first one that I rate as only "Very Good" instead of "Classic," since it seems to me the quality level dips a notch after the outstanding original eight. But even an average Shintaro Katsu Zatoichi is still great by any typical standard.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi's Revenge

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