Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Samaritan Zatoichi
Zatoichi kenka-daiko
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Yoshiko Mita (Sode), Makoto Sato (Yasaburo Kashiwazaki), Ko Nishimura (Sosuke Saruya), Takuya Fujioka (Shinsuke), Yasuhiro Minakami (Unokichi), Chocho Miyako (Aunt Haya), Akira Shimizu (Boss Kumakichi), Ryoichi Tamagawa (Chohachi), Machiko Soga (Sen), Jun Katsumura (Rokusuke), Saburo Date

Daiei Studios, 84 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

In my recollections of highlights from the Zatoichi series, I have often found myself wondering, "Which movie was the one where Ichi rides a horse?" So let me state for the record right up front: this is the one where Ichi rides a horse!

Starting the chain of events leading to that odd predicament, Ichi takes an enforcement job for yakuza boss Kumakichi in exchange for his hospitality. Ichi and a half dozen swordsmen go to collect money from a belligerent debtor named Unokichi, with the group thinking the blind man is just tagging along as a worthless observer. Of course, Ichi ends up being the only one mighty enough to take Unokichi down. Then Ichi soon learns he's been duped into killing a man who didn't deserve to die, and goes to great lengths in an effort to right the wrong he has done.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Unokichi's beautiful sister Sode is the unsuspecting object of the plot that leads to her brother's death. Boss Kumakichi deliberately got Unokichi in debt in hopes of forcing Sode into prostitution, then Kumakichi could pimp her out to a lecherous official in exchange for business favors. Sode despises Ichi for murdering her brother and contemplates taking revenge against, but she reaches forgiveness. It's a familiar pattern of Ichi befriending women after killing their brothers, previously seen in Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. When Sode is in danger and Ichi is in a hurry to rescue her, that's how he ends up on horseback. To fine comedic effect, Ichi's skills as the blind equestrian are far more meager (and realistic) than his mastery of the sword.

Mystery Ronin: Our mystery ronin is Yasaburo, portrayed by familiar chambara star Makoto Sato. He agrees to the Kumakichi gang's offer to kill Ichi for pay, even after showing respect toward Ichi and his abilities. There is also a secondary mystery ronin named Shinsuke, a cowardly, comic-relief yakuza who is present at the raid against Unokichi and later resurfaces to help Ichi out.

Dice Game: Ichi gets caught cheating in a dice game moderated by Yasaburo. This leads to a memorable sequence in which Ichi is bound up in a sheaf of reeds to be tossed into the river and drowned, then ends up fighting Kumakichi's men looking like a walking bamboo mat.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Accompanied by Sode, Ichi tries his hand at a carnival game throwing balls at moving rows of targets. Of course he never misses, and while a gathering crowd cheers the spectacle, a laughing Sode catches herself for a somber moment realizing that these preternatural skills are what caused the death of her brother.

Ichi Loves Kids: After Ichi inadvertently treads on a trap some boys have set up to catch sparrows, he advises them to try using beans soaked in sake as bait since drunken birds are easy to catch. Unimpressed with the tip, the kids laugh as Ichi walks off a broken footbridge into a stream.

One last trivia item of special note: Sode's aunt Haya is played by the actress Chocho Miyako, who also appeared in the Tora-san series as Tora's long-lost mother. By some cosmic coincidence, she starred in both Samaritan Zatoichi and Tora-san the Good Samaritan.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

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