Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Zatoichi's Cane Sword
Zatoichi tekka tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Shiho Fujimura (Shizu), Eijiro Tono (Senzo), Yoshihiko Aoyama (Seikichi), Tatsuo Endo (Boss Iwagoro), Masumi Harukawa (Ryu), Makoto Fujita (Umazo), Kiyoko Suizenji (Haru), Masako Aboshi (Matsu), Junichiro Yamashita (Shinnosuke), Ryutaro Gomi (Ronin), Fujio Suga (Inspector Kuwayama), Ryuji Kita (Gembei), Eigoro Onoe (Zato), Yusaku Terajima (Noodle Shop Owner), Gen Kimura (Hanzo the dice player), Sachio Horikita (Mosuke), Kimiko Tachebana (Tane)

Daiei Studios, 93 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Zatoichi's Cane Sword has one of the most memorable storylines in the series, and Ichi's best attempt to lay down his sword and lead an honest life. Ichi meets a master swordsmith named Senzo (played superbly by the great character actor Eijiro Tono) who examines Ichi's cane sword and identifies it as the work of his late mentor. Senzo further discovers a tiny crack in the blade and warns Ichi that it will snap after one more kill. Ichi takes this as an omen that he too is nearing the end of his lifespan unless he changes his ways, so he trades his sword to Senzo for a plain wooden cane and accepts steady employment as a masseur at an inn.

The tale of Ichi's reformed lifestyle is wrapped inside a rich and complex plot about yakuza gang treachery. In the opening scene Ichi comes across the dying Boss Shotaro, a chivalrous yakuza who has just been brought down by assassins. At the inn where Ichi takes a job, the innkeeper Gembei has taken in Shotaro's daughter Shizu and son Seikichi. Shizu wants her brother to take their father's place as the new boss and keep the evil Boss Iwagoro from taking over, but the scholarly Seikichi has no interest in the family business.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Shizu is portrayed by the lovely Shiho Fujimura, who returns for her second role in a Kimiyoshi Yasuda Zatoichi film. Whereas her Mitsu in Zatoichi on the Road was nothing but demure sweetness, Shizu is tough and strong-willed, repeatedly described as having the demeanor a man. She's the one who should succeed Shotaro as the new yakuza boss rather than her genteel brother. There are no romantic sparks between Shizu and Ichi, since she has eyes for the innkeeper's son Shinnosuke. Also worthy of mention is the casting of one of my favorite Japanese actresses, the full-figured beauty Masumi Harukawa, as the mistress of Boss Iwagoro, named Ryu. Giving her a massage, Ichi gives Ryu's plump hips a squeeze and she protests that she doesn't like to be massaged down there. Ichi says, "That's a shame, because that's my favorite spot." Gotta agree with the sly dog on that!

Musical Interludes: There's one other notable female character, Haru the singer. Early on Ichi travels into town with a band of troubadors, finding himself enchanted by Haru's singing. The musicians turn up again once later in the movie but don't really play a significant part. Haru is played by Kiyoko Suizenji, who it seems was a popular singer in Japan at the time, so her casting was probably a crowd-pleasing gimmick. Shintaro Katsu himself works in a impressive musical moment with Ichi entertaining Boss Iwagoro and his cronies (including Ryu) with a song and dance routine. The lyrics about hunting baby ducks take on a sinister connotation given Ichi's veiled contempt for his yakuza audience.

Dice Game: Oh yes, there is plenty of dice rolling in this movie. First Ichi attempts to join in on a street corner game being run by a charismatic hustler named Umazo, but the game gets broken up by the Iwagoro gang for not being authorized on their turf. Later Ichi takes in a big haul at an Iwagoro gambling den, boasting that he figured out their scam. At Gembei's inn, Boss Iwagoro and his entourage raise a ruckus with prostitutes and illegal gambling, much to the chagrin of the law-abiding staff. Ichi crashes this game and draws the attention of Boss Iwagoro, who's ready to have the blind troublemaker killed until he realizes it's Zatoichi and puts on a sheepish show of respect.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Before surrendering his sword, Ichi fends off an ambush while he and Senzo are dining at a noodle stand. After slaying the last attacker, Ichi slurps down the noodle hanging out of his mouth. At the Iwagoro gang's dice game, the unarmed Ichi seizes a goon's dagger with his smoking pipe and twirls it up into the ceiling. Then he tosses up the pipe to knock down the dagger so it slices into the dice cup.

Mystery Ronin: There's not really a classic mystery ronin in this one. The closest thing would by Monji, a thug who works for Boss Iwagoro. This story doesn't have such a need to build up a worthy adversary for Ichi since our hero's real struggle is against his own dark nature.

Ichi without his cane sword just isn't the Zatoichi we know and love, but he can still handle himself quite well with just his wits, his skills and a wooden cane. Fortunately for us, he ends up getting to replace his worn-out sword with a newly minted blade forged by Master Senzo, to keep him slicing and dicing for many adventures to come.

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