Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival
Zatoichi abare himatsuri
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Tatsuya Nakadai (Mystery ronin), Reiko Ohara (Okiyo), Masayuki Mori (Yamikubo), Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata (Umeji), Ko Nishimura (Migi), Yoshitaro Asawaka, Ryutaro Gomi, Yuuji Hamada, Yukio Horikita, Shingo Ibuki, Ryunosuke Kaneda, Jun Katsumura
Screenplay by Shintaro Katsu and Takayuki Yamada
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 96 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Misplaced chivalry gets Ichi in trouble when he offers unsolicited help to a damsel in distress who turns out not to be so innocent. He rescues a woman who has been auctioned off as a mistress to the highest bidder, and then there's hell to pay. Ichi also tangles with a blind yakuza boss, the "Dark Lord" Yamikubo, whom Ichi denounces for exploiting the poor commoners with "underground taxes" and carrying himself like some sort of shogun. Yamikubo first puts on a show of being kindred spirits with Ichi as his fellow blind yakuza, but swiftly takes measures to eliminate our hero. Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival is the first film in the series where Shintaro Katsu gets a writing credit, so you can imagine this being wish fulfillment with scenes the star always wanted to play up to now.

Mystery Ronin: One of the best! The legendary Tatsuya Nakadai puts in a stellar performance as a mystery ronin so mysterious, we never even learn his name. Or much else at all, really. He turns out to be the ex-husband of the bought woman Ichi saved, out to kill Ichi under the mistaken assumption that Ichi slept with her. In contrast to the overblown disappointment of Toshiro Mifune's guest spot in the last episode, Nakadai subsumes his celebrity into the Zatoichi mythos in a cool, understated and far more satisfying manner, revisiting the stone-cold psychopath mode he perfected in The Sword of Doom. Halfway through the movie, Kenji Misumi vividly illustrates the character's insanity with a silent impressionistic montage that looks like something out of Fellini or Kubrick.

Ichi's Lady Friends: At a dice game Ichi meets a beautiful young lady named Okiyo who asks to place her bets with him on a winning streak. Okiyo is secretly the daughter of Boss Yamikubo's lieutenant, sent to entrap Ichi with her feminine wiles.

Dice Game: In addition to the first game with Okiyo, Ichi later plays a one-on-one round against Boss Yamikubo. The stakes are life and death, and there's a unique twist befitting a dice game between two blind gambling yakuza. This game takes place at the center of a hexagon-shaped pool that looks like the lair of a James Bond villain. The surface of the pool gets set on fire to capture Ichi inside a sea of flames. Goldfinger would have been proud.

Ichi Loves Kids: Ichi runs across a gang of kids playing on stilts. When one of them falls and starts crying, Ichi cheers him up by doing a goofy bow-legged stilt walk.

Musical Interludes: Ichi meets an effeminate young yakuza named Umeji who is trying to get his start as a pimp. Umeji gets his prostitutes to party with Ichi, who entertains the ladies by tying a sake bottle on top of his head and improvising a ditty about his masseur profession. "Hey, anma-san!"

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi slices a sake cup while a yakuza holds it in his hand, and it doesn't fall apart until he nervously takes a sip. Before their big showdown, Ichi and Boss Yamikubo face off over a game of go. The two blind players are able to keep track of the complex positions of the board pieces just by listening to the sliding sounds.

In this installment the Zatoichi series eases into the 1970s chambara trend of titillating nudity. The sex slave auction contains glimpses of bare breasts. But the explicit display doesn't only apply to the actresses: Shintaro Katsu is game for a little exhibitionism himself. In an impressive action sequence set at a bathhouse, Ichi fights off a band of would-be assassins while everyone is naked.

And speaking of new sexual frontiers, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival also features Zatoichi's big gay adventure. The wannabe pimp Umeji puts romantic moves on Ichi in the bedroom in an overt display of homosexuality virtually unheard of in chambara films heretofore. Umeji is played by the androgynous Japanese celebrity known as Peter. By strange coincidence, after the two actors appeared in this Zatoichi film, Tastsuya Nakadai and Peter would go on to co-star as Lord Hidetora and his jester Kyoami in the 1985 Kurosawa epic Ran.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman

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