Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi (1989)
Directed by Shintaro Katsu

Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Ken Ogata (Ronin), Kanako Higuchi (Ohan), Takanori Jinnai (Inspector Hanshu), Ryutaro Gan (Boss Goemon Tenjin), Yuya Uchida (Boss Akabei), Toyomi Kusano (Oume), Tsurutaro Kataoka (Tsuru), Miho Nakayama, Makoto Soto

Shochiku/Katsu Productions, 116 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Media Blasters

Ten years after the Zatoichi television series ended in 1979, Shintaro Katsu brought his iconic character back to the cinema for one last hurrah. Katsu directed, produced and co-wrote this finale, concocting a mishmash of familiar Zatoichi plot elements: two warring yakuza gangs, corrupt officials, dice gambling, a femme fatale, a mystery ronin, and Ichi's cane sword cutting down loads of bad guys. The storytelling is weak and characters drift in and out of the narrative so haphazardly it's difficult to understand exactly what's going on. Katsu's previous directoral effort in Zatoichi in Desperation was similarly a disorganized mess, and it might have paid if his ego had allowed him to stick to the acting and bring in some top creative help.

But hey, this is the last real Zatoichi movie. And even though he's getting old, fat and gray, Ichi's still the blind bad-ass we know and love. Let's run down the checklist one final time.

Dice Game: It goes without saying that Ichi goes dicing (and slicing). When he starts cleaning up at a gambling den, all the other gamblers catch on that this guy can't lose and place their bets on whatever he says, which obviously upsets the house -- and is something that logically should have happened more often these movies, honestly. Then Ichi pulls his "blind man rolling the dice outside the cup" scam and pisses everybody off, but before a slaughter of sore losers can commence, Ichi is granted clemency by the intervention of...

Ichi's Lady Friends: ...the sultry young female boss of the house, Ohen. She takes a liking to Ichi and seduces him in a steamy bathhouse scene. Through the Zatoichi series, Ichi has always been modest and reserved with the ladies, and on the few occasions when he partook in intimate relations, the loving always took place offscreen. Not this time! Ichi's explicitly getting his freak on with a sexy tattooed babe in a hot tub. Ohen is set up as an interesting character and potential ally of Ichi against the evil yakuza bosses, but it's a shame that after the sex scene she vanishes and only makes one brief reappearance toward the end. Love 'em and leave 'em.

Ichi Loves Kids: On the road Ichi meets up with a gang of kids and stays with them at their home, which much be some sort of oprhanage. The children help him hatch a baby bird from an egg that fell from its nest, and Ichi humorously participates in their calligraphy lesson. The children's caretaker is an innocent young woman named Oume who also works as a maid at an inn. There she is sexually assaulted by the drunken Inspector Hanshu, and he senselessly hacks one of his underlings into a bloody mess in front of her. Then Ichi intervenes to spare Oume from further horrors.

Musical Interludes: Shintaro Katsu himself doesn't favor us with any songs in this curtain call, but there is a rousing performance from a female singer with shamisen accompaniment at an inn. Far less meritorious is the insertion of a wretched '80s power ballad into the soundtrack -- sung in English! I can tolerate the occasional bit of contemporary pop in a jidai-geki film when it's in Japanese (see Sonny Chiba's Shadow Warriors), but cheeseball lyrics like "Looking at life through the eyes of a loner..." are not something I need to be hearing in the last Zatoichi movie!

Mystery Ronin: The mystery ronin is the best part of the story, performed by prominent actor Ken Ogata with the style and grit of an old-time chambara star. This Man With No Name is a penniless ronin, philosopher and artist who first refuses Ichi's offering to share food when they meet on the road, but his hunger defeats his pride. The ronin sketched Ichi's portrait and they have deep discussions on the symbolism of the colors red and gold. But then the evil Boss Tenjin hires the ronin for his remarkable swords skill, which means he'll inevitably face his blind friend in a showdown. The ronin inscribes an Zen proverb on Ichi's bamboo canteen: "The falling leaf does not hate the wind." Later Ichi gently protests, "The falling leaf does hate the wind." Inferior though this screenplay may be, that's one of the best lines in the whole Zatoichi saga.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: The movie goes surprisingly light on the sword tricks, mostly reprising some familiar past routines. Ichi literally rolls into the final battle inside a giant barrel, reminiscent of the times he fought from the confines of bound receptacles in Samaritan Zatoichi and Zatoichi's Conspiracy. He pops Inspector Hanshu's severed head out of the barrel to do a macabre puppet show before bursting out himself. Later in that same sequence Ichi briefly does battle while cradling a baby on one arm, bringing us back to the classic Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. There's one notably original trick when Ichi severs an attacker's nose and it flies across the room to stick to a wall post with a splat. But really the main amazing feat is that Katsu still manages to perform so many intense action scenes at his advanced age, and doesn't look bad good doing it.

But however enjoyable the action scenes in this movie are, it must be acknowledged that a dark shadow hangs over their production. Katsu's real-life son Ryutaro Gan who appears as Tenjin, the villainous young yakuza boss, accidentally killed a stuntman in the shooting of a swordfight scene. The movie was edited to remove the bulk of Gan's action sequences, and a scandal alleging negligence left Katsu stigmatized for the brief remainder of his movie career.

Despite that tragedy and flaws in the storytelling, the movie does capture the old Zatoichi spirit and shows Katsu still capable of his classic role at the age of 58. It's nice that the movie doesn't dwell on getting old or cliches like coming out of retirement for one last mission and being rusty with the sword. Ichi just keeps on doing his Ichi business after all these years with no signs of slowing down, and there's something comforting in that.

The Zatoichi Series

The Jidai-Geki Knights