Review: Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Seven is often thought of as a lucky number, so is the seventh film in the Zatoichi series worthy of its numberical place in line?  Up until the rather abrupt ending, I’d have answered with a resounding “hai”

Director Kizuo Ikehiro brings the same visual buffet to the table that he cooked up for Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, but this time the story is more coherent and the characters more clearly drawn.  With each film, there seems to be a distillation process happening.  The writers, directors, and star of the films learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.  If that’s the case for the whole series, I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

In this episode, Ichi is shot by a bounty hunter who’s out to win fame and fortune by killing the infamous blind swordsman, though I’m not sure how much fame would have come from shooting the blind guy instead of besting him in sword combat.  Ichi awakens to find that he’s been saved by a local doctor who was paid by a travelling woman (Kuni, played by Naoko Kubo) who witnessed the events.  Eventually, Ichi lands on her doorstep and attempts to repay her kindness through service.  Like in every Z film, the beautiful daughter of the local oyabun is attracted to the blind man.  Maybe it’s just the Florence Nightingale Effect, but it happens in almost every one of these movies.  Maybe it’s just that our hero is a genuinely nice person.

There’s less swordplay here than in some of the Z films, but that’s a good thing since that means there’s too much going on to waste a lot of time on fights that don’t advance the story.  When the blind swordsman’s sword does fly, it’s satisfying and exciting.  One fight in particular, held in chest-deep river water, is not to be missed.

The plot has some good twists, but none at the expense of common sense.  By the end of the film, all the disparate elements are connected in a satisfying way, but we’re still left with an Empire Strikes Back style of ending that doesn’t quite work.  Unfortunately, the ending is just a a stylistic choice so the story isn’t directly continued in Z8.  This is definitely one of the best Z films I’ve seen, but it could have been better if the plot were more clearly resolved in the end.

Shintaro Katsu is as sympathetic as ever in the title role of the wandering yakuza masseuse.  I worry a little about some of the translations, as they always translate yakuza as gangster and oyabun as boss.  While these are technically accurate, the yakuza were much more than mobsters.  Some, like Kuni’s father, Bunkichi, were community leaders who held their constituents’ best interests at heart.  To compare them to American gangsters does them a great disservice.  Even Ichi describes himself as a gangster in several lines, and it just doesn’t make sense.

If you only watch a handful of Zatoichi films, this is one to see.  Highly recommended.  Just prepare yourself for that ending.

 

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