Zatoichi Challenged (1967)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Zatoichi Challenged
Zatoichi chikemuri kaido
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Jushiro Konoe (Akazuka), Miwa Takada (Mitsu), Yukiji Asaoka (Tomoe), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Sen), Mie Nakao (Miyuki the singer), Takao Ito (Shokichi), Asao Koike (Gonzo), Midori Isomura (Mine), Tatsuo Matsumura (Tahe), Eitaro Ozawa (Torikoshi), Jotaro Chinami (Chokichi), Kojiro Kusanada (Kurisu), Kenzo Tabu (Manzo), Osami Nabe (Hanzo the carpenter), Hirohisa Toda (Shinnosuke Emi), Koji Fujiyama (Gokishi), Koichi Mizuhara (Sobe), Shosaku Sugiyama (Naruyama)

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

Ichi takes a road trip with a young boy named Ryota after promising the boy's dying mother to escort him to his father. That's the simple premise behind this classic episode directed by top Zatoichi sensei Kenji Misumi, who always does the best chambara movies starring kids (see also Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and Lone Wolf and Cub.) Ryota has never met his father Shokichi, an artist whose gambling debts have left him indentured to the yakuza boss Gonzo. Shokichi is being forced to use his talents to design erotic pottery being sold as high-priced contraband.

Ichi Loves Kids: Young Ryota has inherited his father's artistic talents, and even shares his predilection for drawing beautiful women. Besides drawing with ink and paper, Ryota also does sketches in sand at the seashore so Ichi can "see" them with his fingers. The kid is a snotty brat at times, talking back to Ichi or giving him a rock and calling it candy. Even so, Ichi develops a fondness for Ryota as he always does with kids, spending his money on new walking sandals for the boy when his own are in tatters. In a great scene of wordless comedy, as Ichi and Ryota are finishing a meal, Ichi picks up the last rice ball and tears off a small piece to offer to the boy. Ryota ignores it. Then Ichi puts the big chunk of rice in front of the boy and he grabs it, leaving Ichi to eat the little piece himself with a sour look on his face.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Ichi and Ryota meet up with a group of traveling performers and befriend a couple of actresses, Tomoe and Sen. The main leading lady turns out to be Mitsu, the daughter of a pottery maker and sweetheart of Shokichi, who is willing to adopt Ryota as her own son.

Musical Interludes: For the first of several times in the series, Shintaro Katsu sings in the score for the opening titles, crooning lyrics about the blind yakuza's lowly existence. Shortly after that, just like in Zatoichi's Cane Sword, Ichi's encounter with the drama troupe is an excuse for a pop singer to inject a peppy tune. This time the songstress is Mie Nakao, who made a minor splash in the American market in the '60s.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: When he's getting hassled by Manzo, "the underling of an underling," Ichi decides to shut the guy up with a flash of his sword that cleanly shaves off his eyebrows. Yes, his eyebrows. As if that weren't hilarious enough, Manzo shows up again later on with new eyebrows painted on with smudged makeup.

Dice Game: No dice in this one, but not for Ichi's lack of trying. At one point he's on his way to a dice game but gets sidetracked when someone calls on him for a massage.

Mystery Ronin: Respected actor Jushiro Konoe turns in a first-rate guest appearance as Akazuka, a samurai on a secret mission in disguise as a wandering ronin. Ichi and Akazuka repeatedly meet on the road and form a mutual respect. In one great scene, Akazuka pays Ichi an inordinate amount for a shoulder massage, and Ichi refuses to accept an act of charity. The situation threatens to explode in a clash of egos and pride until Ichi defuses it by striking a compromise. This sets the stage for the inevitable climactic confrontation when the two swordsmen face off on opposite sides during a beautiful snowfall. It's one of the best photographed and choreographed duels in Zatoichi history.

It's barely worth noting that this particular episode served as the loose basis for a 1990 Hollywood adaptation called Blind Fury. Rutger Hauer stars as a Vietnam veteran who was somehow trained by villagers to be a blind swordsman after losing his sight in combat. The movie incorporates the story of the blind hero taking a boy to find his father, who is this case in being forced by gangsters to manufacture illegal drugs instead of forbidden artwork. Blind Fury is a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi and only lays bare the absurdity of a blind dude fighting with a sword.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi and the Fugitives

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