Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Zatoichi's Conspiracy
Shin Zatoichi monogatari: Kasama no chimatsuri
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Yukiyo Toake (Omiyo), Eiji Okada (Shinbei), Kei Sato (Magistrate), Takashi Shimura (Sakubei), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Shobei), Rei Yokoyama (Yuri), Tatsuo Endo (Boss Iwagoro), Shiro Kishibe (Gang member)

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 88 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

In this 25th installment, the grand 13-year run of Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi series closes out with a triumphant bang. Financial realities and changing moviegoer tastes made it necessary to shift the franchise to television after this, and though the quality of the movies may have faltered a bit in the '70s, Katsu Productions was still capable of turning out a firecracker like this one.

The story has Ichi returning to his hometown where he confronts a childhood friend named Shinbei who has now become a powerful and crooked rice merchant. Continuity surrounding Ichi's background can be a slippery thing: he says he it's been 20 years since he was in the village where he grew up, but back in the third movie we saw him visit his hometown and the old lady who raised him. You could figure that as a blind child, he might have been shuffled around between foster families and known a number of different hometowns. But I like to think of the Zatoichi saga as a series of legends that have been passed down through time -- tall tales, really -- so details have changed in the retelling and there's no point getting fussy about the lack of consistency here and there.

Shinbei hires Ichi for a massage without recognizing him from their past. When Ichi reminds him of their childhood adventures together, Shinbei pretends not to remember and brushes him off, casting away connections to his former life as a poor commoner. Shinbei makes the apparently benevolent offer to pay off overdue taxes on behalf of the village's rice farmers, but his ulterior motive is get the villagers in his debt so he can mine the quarries that have always belonged to them and keep the profits. This would be the conspiracy of the movie's English title, though it's misleading to say the conspiracy belongs to Zatoichi. Our hero pleads for his old friend to stop exploiting the poor, and when reason and decency fails, Ichi's sword has to settle the matter.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Ichi chances to meet Omiyo, a young lady who was raised by the same wet nurse as Ichi although she was born after he left the village. Ichi remembers her grandfather Sakubei (played by the great Takashi Shimura in his second Zatoichi role) and immediately forms a brother-sister bond with Omiyo. Unfortunately, the evil Shinbei has a twisted predilection for deflowering virgins and sets his sights on Omiyo. Following the good girl/bad girl pattern, Ichi also crosses paths with Yuri, a wild child who runs around with a pack of thugs she calls her "husbands." Yuri's gang antagonizes Ichi at first, but Yuri finds herself fascinated with the blind man and ends up helping him get out of a desperate jam.

Dice Game: At a gambling den Ichi accuses the dealer of changing the dice. The offended dealer tosses the dice at Ichi, and in a single sword stroke he cuts both dice in half and clips the dealer's hair to reveal the other dice stashed away there.

Mystery Ronin: There is just barely a mystery ronin who appears to threaten Ichi in passing for about three seconds, then in the final melee Ichi whacks him in short order. Pretty weak.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Standing at a crossroads at the start of the movie, Ichi decides whether to go home by tossing a coin with a hole into the air, then catching it on a toothpick. Ichi later teaches a crooked magistrate a lesson about his inaccurate devices for measuring the farmers' rice. When the official tries to heap up the rice to fool the blind man, Ichi cleanly swipes off the excess with his blade. Then in one of his most amazing feats ever, in that same rice warehouse Ichi conceals himself inside a bale of rice. Never mind that there's no one there to neatly tie up the bundle from the outside for him, and this hiding place offers no apparent strategic advantage or safety from his enemies' blades -- this teeny bale is about the size of a fire hydrant! And yet burly Ichi comes bursting out of it by means of an unconvincing edit. Like I said before: tall tales.

Zatoichi's Conspiracy isn't an absolute classic of the series, but it has a powerful, weighty feel worthy of wrapping up the original cinematic oevure. You have to love the scene where Ichi goes after Shinbei with his face and body caked in mud, looking a like a stone golem of vengeance. There's a cool bit of casting with the supporting character Shobei, the village superintendent who gets entrapped in Shinbei's conspiracy. He is played by Yoshio Tsuchiya, best remembered as the peasant representative Rikichi in Seven Samurai. The parallels between the two roles and similar closeups of Tsuchiya's shocked face lend this Zatoichi milestone a fine touch of gravitas.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi

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