Zatoichi's Vengeance (1966)
Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka

Zatoichi's Vengeance
Zatoichi no uta ga kikoeru
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Shigeru Amachi (Kuroda), Jun Hamamura (Blind Priest), Mayumi Ogawa (Cho/Shino), Gen Kimura (Tamekichi), Kanae Kobayashi (Tamekichi's mother), Koichi Mizuhara (Innkeeper), Kei Sato (Boss Gonzo), Saburo Date
Music by Akira Ifukube
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Daiei Studios, 83 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Not to be confused with the similarly dubbed tenth installment, Zatoichi's Revenge, this is really not so much a true vengeance story since Ichi isn't seeking retribution for a personal loss. But I think this is the better movie overall.

In his dying wish, a fatally wounded yakuza named Tamekichi asks Ichi to take a large sum of money to his son Taichi. Ichi finds the boy living with his innkeeper grandparents in a formerly crime-free town that has been overrun by the brutal Boss Gonzo. So our hero naturally steps in to protect Taichi's family and the rest of the community from oppression. Along the way he meets a Yoda-like blind priest whose amazingly perceptive remaning senses rival Ichi's own. The priest serves as the voice of Ichi's conscience, advising him to consider the moral consequences of his actions.

Dice Game: The only dice in this movie is the one Ichi finds inside Tamekichi's money pouch. Finding that it's loaded, Detective Ichi concludes that Tamekichi must have been killed for cheating at gambling.

Ichi Loves Kids: Ichi forms a protective bond with Taichi and accompanies him to a festival. The popular "thunder drums" at the festival hurt Ichi's sensitive ears and reveal a weakness to be exploited against him later. A group of Boss Gonzo's thugs cruelly bully Ichi for his blindness, not knowing who they're messing with. Ichi laughs it off as long as he can and advises Taichi not to make fun of handicapped people like these bad men. Finally fed up, Ichi slices their lantern and balanced the tip of its lit candle on the end of his sword, causing the goons to flee. The blind priest chastises Ichi for drawing his sword in front of Taichi, since he's now corrupted the boy into idolizing his violent ways. Hoping to undo the damage, Ichi later lets the gang beat him up in front of Taichi while they terrorize his grandparents. Of course, this "turn the other cheek" approach is not Ichi's final solution to the conflict.

Musical Interludes: The blind priest favors Ichi with a mournful biwa song about mortality during their Zen discussions of right vs. wrong.

Mystery Ronin: The original mystery ronin returns! Shigeru Amachi, the actor who played Miki Harate in The Tale of Zatoichi, is back in the role of a different character but still filling the same role in the narrative. Kuroda shows less camaraderie toward Ichi than Harate did, but this ronin has a similar streak of tragic nobility that emerges.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Ichi meets a kind prostitute named Cho who hires him for a massage. Cho is new in town and recognizes that her very presence there represents the corruption and crime that the yakuza have recently brought down upon the village. She is the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold, using her own money to pay off the angry pimp when a young new recruit is refusing to turn her quota of tricks. Cho's secret is that she is the estranged wife of the ronin Kuroda, having sold herself to servitude because of her husband's debts. Now Kuroda has come to free her and needs the last 50 ryo to pay off her contract. Desperate to raise the money, Kuroda accepts an assassination job from Boss Gonzo. The target: Zatoichi.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: There's a great little moment when Ichi invades Boss Gonzo's abode for a final talk before the big showdown. Exuding pure disdain, Ichi picks his nose and flicks a booger across the room into Gonzo's sake cup, and the unsuspecting boss gulps it down. This is the prelude to a wonderfully tense sequence when Gonzo's men cower around Ichi looking for the right moment to pounce and kill the blind wise-ass, but fully recognizing how they're apt to get slaughtered if they move a muscle.

The conclusion of Zatoichi's Vengeance brings us a spectacular showdown with Boss Gonzo shrewdly using the loud festival drums against Ichi to handicap his "sonar" hearing. Gonzo's men trap Ichi on a narrow bridge and bring in the pounding thunder drums on both sides. Kazuo Miyagawa shoots the scene in gorgeous silhouette against a dusk sky that glows electric blue, prefiguring the stylized fight cinematography popularized in latter-day chambara like Samurai Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1. The fateful duel between Ichi and Kuroda is heartbreaking because Ichi has been cheering for Kuroda and Cho to be reunited and live happily ever after, but Ichi knows that is impossible.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi's Pilgrimage

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