Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage
Zatoichi umi o wataru
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Michiyo Okusu (Kichi), Isao Yamagata (Boss Tohachi), Hisashi Igawa (Eigoro), Masao Mishima (Gonbei), Manabu Morita (Takuji), Jotaro Senba (Bokasuri), Ryutaro Gomi (Jyonenbo), Saburo Date (Kagimatsu), Kunie Tanaka (Storyteller), Jun Katsumura
Screenplay by Kaneto Shindo

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

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is the legendary "lost Zatoichi" that went unreleased in the United States until 2013. According to ancient lore, the Weinstein brothers/Miramax optioned the rights to the movie years ago for Quentin Tarantino to do a potential remake that never materialized. So this one was known to English-speaking fans only through fansubbed copies until Criterion issued it as part of their Zatoichi mega-set.

Aside from its former rarity, this installment is also distinguished by its fine creative personnel. The screenplay is by Kaneto Shindo, the prestigious fillmmaker known for masterpieces like Onibaba. The cast includes familiar jidai-geki veteran Isao Yamagata as Boss Tohachi, and if ever any actor was born to play a Zatoichi bad guy, it's him.

After taking a sea voyage where he encounters a bawdy storyteller and a pickpocket, Ichi arrives at a Buddhist shrine to pray and seek atonement for his sins. This spiritual introspection follows logically from the previous two movies in which Ichi has grappled with the morality of his violent actions. He resolves to stop killing, but of course that's a pledge he can't keep for long. A would-be assassin named Eigoro forces Ichi to cut him down in self-defense, which leads Ichi into a sort of twisted variation on Seven Samurai: Ichi wants to help a village in its struggle against the oppressive Boss Tohachi, but he's the only one willing to fight.

Ichi's Lady Friends: When Eigoro's horse leads Ichi back to the dead man's home, Eigoro's sister Kichi impulsively grabs a sword and slashes Ichi across his shoulder. When he doesn't resist and allows Kichi to take her rightful vengeance, she is touched by his valor. Kichi ends up bandaging Ichi's wound and nursing him back to health, gradually falling in love with the man who killed her brother. Her whiplash transformation from avenger to sweetheart almost seems like a deliberate parody of Ichi's lovestruck leading ladies.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Boss Tohachi fancies himself a master of archery, but Ichi always manages to one-up his attempts at showing off. When Tohachi shoots an arrow at Ichi, the blind man simply draws his sword and slices the arrow lengthwise before it can touch him. When all parties come together for a meeting at the watermelon farm of village leader Gonbei, Tohachi's men toss a watermelon in the air and it lands in front of Gonbei shot full of arrows. Unperturbed, Gonbei touches the melon and it falls apart in perfect slices for eating, where Ichi has invisibly cut the airborne fruit while Tohachi was shooting it.

Dice Game: No dice. Tohachi invites Ichi to have a game with him at one point, but things get nasty before they ever get a chance to play.

Mystery Ronin: Boss Tohachi's henchman Takuji trails Ichi from the boat trip with the pickpocket. Takuji wants revenge for Ichi's past killing of his brother, so Takuji's story contrasts against Kichi's. He seeks Tohachi's help in his vendetta against Ichi, not brave enough to confront Ichi on his on, and things end badly for Takuji. On the other hand, Kichi fearlessly takes on Ichi directly, then has to question the morality of vengeance and chooses the path of forgiveness.

The poetic simplicity of the Kaneto Shindo script gives Zatoichi's Pilgrimage a unique tone, more like a Zen parable than the typical chivalrous yakuza chambara we're accustomed to. There is a complex ethical message here about the nature of retribution and action vs. inaction. In his willingness to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the morally impure farmers, Ichi even becomes a sort of Christ figure. This also stands among the best-looking Zatoichi films, with magnificent outdoor cinematography including the Buddhist shrine with a seemingly infinite number of steps for Ichi to climb. There lots of deep-focus, long-range shots with characters strategically positioned very small in the frame for effective Kurosawa-style compositions. How fortunate that Criterion has taken the hassle out of tracking down this once-lost classic.

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