Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Directed by Shintaro Katsu

Zatoichi in Desperation
Shin Zatoichi monogatari: Oreta tsue
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Kiwako Taichi (Nishikigi), Katsuo Nakamura (Ushi), Asao Koike (Boss Mangoro), Kyoko Yoshizawa (Kaede), Yasuhiro Koume (Shinkichi), Joji Takagi (Kamijo), Masumi Harukawa (Ohama)

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 95 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

For the penultimate film in the series' classic run, Shintaro Katsu himself takes the director's chair while continuing to portray the blind swordsman as no one else ever could. Ultimate auteur freedom or actor/producer's ego run amok? That's a matter for debate, but Zatoichi in Desperation certainly has a different look and feel, even if the story plows the same old territory. Ichi meets an old lady on a rickety footbridge and accidentally causes her to fall to her death. To atone for the tragedy, Ichi seeks out the woman's daughter and consequently gets into all sorts of violence-related trouble.

Ichi's Lady Friends: The daughter that Ichi tracks down turns out to be a prostitute named Nishikigi. She's not terribly upset when Ichi breaks the news that her mother died, and really seems like her station in life has left her incapable of emotion. When Ichi takes it on himself to raise the money to redeem her from the brothel, Nishikigi is more baffled than grateful. She makes a shrewd assessment of Ichi's habitual pattern of doing unsolicited good deeds for strangers: he's more riven by the need to ease his guilty conscience than by compassion for her welfare.

Dice Game: To amass the small fortune needed to buy Nishikigi's freedom, Ichi pulls his old reliable hustle of asking to roll the dice at Boss Mangoro's gambling parlor. As an ironic twist, one of the gamblers that Ichi cheats is Nishikigi's shifty lover, Ushi (played by Katsuo Nakamura, younger brother of the more famous Kinnosuke). It could have made for a more dramatic plotline if Ichi was inadvertently taking money from a noble person in order to do one of his good deeds, showing how his reliance on gambling as a means to right wrongs is a moral fallacy. But Ushi turns out to be pretty much a lowlife yakuza jackass anyway, so the message isn't as compelling as it might have been.

Mystery Ronin: Ichi bundles up his huge dice winnings and scornfully tosses a ryo coin at Boss Mangoro as "a tip." Mangoro's grim yojimbo named Komijo slices the gold piece in half in midair. Mangoro offers Komijo 100 ryo if he can kill Ichi.

Ichi Loves Kids: A tragic subplot involves a girl named Kaede who is also in service at Nishikigi's brothel. At the age of 14 she is about to be offered to her first client. Kaede's only family is her young brother Shinkichi, who helps Ichi track down Nishikigi at the start of the movie. Later little Shinkichi makes a defiant act against the oppressive yakuza boss Mangoro and gets subjected to a shocking level of violence beyond any child abuse ever seen before in a Zatoichi movie. Ichi ends up not being very directly involved with Shinkichi and Kaede's plights, which serves to show the futility of our hero helping out one victim of corruption while countless others continue to suffer.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: With Boss Mangoro holding Nishikigi hostage, Ichi is forced to submit to laying his hands on a table so Ushi can stab both of them. Ichi bandages his stigmatic wounds, then ties his sword to his hand so he can go back and fight. In his sad injured state, he's still able to plow through Mangoro's goons in the final battle.

Musical Interludes: There's a brief scene of geishas playing shamisens, but more importantly I have to single out the soundtrack for being very memorable. A lot of Zatoichi fans prefer the classical Akira Ifukube-style scores and scorn the more contemporary music employed in the later movies, but here the heavy '70s Soul Train soundtrack is pure bad-ass. Especially the scene where the five foolhardy yakuza ambush Ichi at night. This would have been a humdrum fight scene with no score or plain music, but Kunihiko Murai's blaring funk makes it awesome.

Zatoichi in Desperation has a number of compelling story elements, but overall it betrays the guiding hand of an amateur director. No disrespect to Katsu-shin, but this movie makes the viewer appreciate the unsung professionalism of craftsmen like Kenji Misumi and Kazuo Mori. The camera angles and composition are muddled, there are loads of jarring edits and poor transitions, and this movie generally feels more like the smaller-scale TV show that the series was about to morph into. The opening scene with the old lady on the bridge has an especially ragtag feel, with that shoddy strobe-cut montage whenever Ichi recalls how she fell to her death. But the raw intensity of the story helps overcome the movie's stylistic shortcomings. And another big plus is Masumi Harukawa, one of my favorite actresses, making her second Zatoichi appearance as the zaftig madam of the brothel. I always love looking at her... it's just too bad she kept getting cast as villains and never got to play Ichi's love interest, because they would have made a heck of a couple.

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