Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Zatoichi and the Fugitives
Zatoichi hatashi-jo
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Takashi Shimura (Sensei Junan), Kayo Mikimoto (Shizu), Kyosuke Mashida (Ogano Genpachiro), Yumiko Nogawa (Aki), Hosei Komatsu (Boss Matsugoro), Akifumi Inoue (Kumeji), Jotaro Sennami (Minokichi), Hisataro Hojo (Genta), Koichi Mizuhara (Sennosuke), Kazuo Yamamoto (Isuke), Ryuji Funabashi (Ushimatsu), Shozo Nanbu (Tokuzaemon), Yukio Horikita (Inokichi), Seishiro Hara (Sakata), Rieko Oda (Osei), Yukari Mizumachi (Yoshida-ya's Maid), Teruko Oumi (Osato)
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

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

Not to be confused with episode four, Zatoichi the Fugitive, this one is about Ichi tangling with a gang of six vicious thugs on a murderous crime spree. The story behind these fugitives is a mystery that's gradually revealed, so I won't go into much detail except to note that the cold-blooded bastards don't hesitate to wipe out innocent families and murder children.

A major highlight in this installment is the casting of the great Takashi Shimura as Junan, a wise and kindly country doctor who befriends Ichi. Junan invites Ichi to stay and work at his practice as a masseur, noting that massage and acupuncture are part of the medical arts. Ichi relishes his fellowship with the selfless doctor, being accustomed to getting no respect as a lowly blind masseur. Then when a yakuza gang comes in and offers him reverential greetings for his other professional position, the fearsome gangster Zatoichi, you can see the shame on Ichi's face now that the sensei realizes he's a yakuza. Respect from a doctor meant a million times more to him than respect from gangsters, and now he has lost it.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi does so many fabulous stunts that I'm gonna get them all out of the way first. He effortlessly dices a snake as it pounces on him from the branches of the tree he's resting under. He slices a sake bottle lengthwise -- not just in half, but in four equal quarters. When the fugitive thugs try to trip Ichi by placing obstacles in his path, he gracefully sidesteps them all, including an outstretched sword blade. He blocks numerous knives thrown at him by holding up the hilt of his sword for them to land in. He tosses a coin across the room into a small sake cup. He zips his sword past three attackers with any apparent effect, and then their shredded kimonos fall off.

Mystery Ronin: This time the mystery ronin is actually a yakuza, the leader of the fugitive gang named Genpachiro. He witnesses Ichi kill the snake early on and recognizes that this blind man is not to be trifled with. Repeatedly Genpachiro stops his men from attacking Ichi, saying he's sparing them from certain death. He seems to bear a strong measure of honor in comparison to his immoral underlings, and revelations about Genpachiro's background shed light on his personality.

Ichi's Lady Friends: In this episode we get the good girl/bad girl combination. Shizu is Junan's sweet-natured daughter and assistant. She shares a nice moment with Ichi gathering medicinal plants in a floral meadow. Ichi tells her he used to remember what colors looked like after losing his sight as a child, but now all the hues have faded away into darkness. The villainess is Aki, the deceitful female accomplice of the fugitive gang who serves as their spy and lookout. After Ichi gives her some vocational guidance at the point of his sword, Aki chooses a new path in life.

Musical Interludes: The opening titles feature Shintaro Katsu singing a yakuza ballad set to awesome spaghetti western music, and the song reprises later in the film.

Dice Game: The fugitives play a round of dice amongst themselves while holed up in their hideout, but there is no game that Ichi participates in this time.

We're accustomed to Ichi mowing down armies and emerging unscathed, but in Zatoichi and the Fugitives he actually loses a fight and gets badly hurt for a change. In the tradition of film noir, Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, our hero gets the crap beat out of him, limps away in a trail of his own blood, then hauls himself up by sheer will for a final showdown while he's still barely alive. The grueling scene of Ichi blindly digging a bullet out of his shoulder with his sword is the very definition of bad-ass.

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