Zatoichi at Large (1972)
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Zatoichi at Large
Zatoichi goyo-tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Rentaro Mikuni (Boss Tetsugoro), Hisaya Morishige (Tobei), Etsushi Takahashi (Denjuro), Naoko Otani (Oyae), Osamu Sakai (Seiji), Utae Shoji, Jun Katsumura

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 90 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Ichi finds a pregnant woman dying from sword wounds in the middle of a field. After he helps her deliver a baby boy, in her final breaths she asks Ichi to take the baby to his father. As usual, Ichi's good deed ends up pitting him against an evil yakuza boss and blood must be shed. Along the way our hero teams up with a cagey old police constable named Tobei who has his hands full attempting to enforce the law in a town run by crime.

Ichi Loves Kids: With shades of the classic Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Ichi once again ends up as the custodian of an infant. But this time Ichi is able to deliver the baby to his family pretty quickly instead of playing surrogate father for the whole movie. Then there's another kid who stalks Ichi and keeps throwing rocks at his head, like Ignatz pursuing Krazy Kat. At first this plays like a typical Zatoichi running gag of kids picking on the blind man, but later we learn who the belligerent little boy is and the rationale behind his grudge against Ichi.

Ichi's Lady Friends: When Ichi locates the inn owned by the family of the newborn, the father Sataro is out traveling and only his sister Oyae is around. They are in debt to the vicious Boss Tetsugoro, and the baby's late mother was supposed to be bringing the money to pay him off. Since the loan is now in default, Tetsugoro takes over the family inn and turns it into a brothel. When the boss threatens to put Oyae into service as a prostitute, Ichi resolves to defend her virtue and her freedom.

Mystery Ronin: Here we have Denjuro, a hotshot swordsman who hires himself out to Boss Tetsugoro and seeks to test his skills against the famous Zatoichi. The role is capably portrayed by familiar character actor Etsushi Takahashi, but Denjuro is totally a cookie-cutter mystery ronin with basically no development to distinguish him from the past 22 movies.

Dice Game: For starters there's a three-cups, find-the-ball game that Ichi gambles on with the aid of his hearing. The operators of this scam are played by Reiji Shoji and Utae Shoji, a popular comedy team who also make a cameo as the quarreling innkeepers in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival. Later there's a proper dice game scene distinguished by a sultry female dealer. Typically the dice rollers are shirtless men who can't cheat with anything up their sleeves, but this lady gets away wearing a full kimono while she works. Of course, her gender doesn't cause Ichi any hesitation in revealing how she cheats.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi shows up at an audition for festival performers to protest the unreasonable amount Boss Tetsugoro wants to take from their earnings. He claims he knows a few tricks, and the boss scoffs and asks the masseur if he dances nude. Ichi draws his sword to disarm the boss's henchmen in spectacular fashion, then slashes up their kimonos that fall away to reveal their bare asses without giving the men a scratch. "Now about that nude dancing," Ichi quips.

One last interesting side note: at that same audition, a storyteller uses trained monkeys in costumes to depict the legend of Boss Chuji of Kunisada. Chuji is a Robin Hood-style folklore figure who has starred in many chambara films and previously appeared in the flesh in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. It's not inconceivable that Chuji would have already become the stuff of storytellers' lore during his own lifetime. I always enjoy seeing these sorts of legends depicted in kabuki plays and songs and such in jidai-geki movies, since it forms a meta-commentary on the ancestral roots of these films I love.

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