Review: Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

Zatoichi’s Vengeance, the thirteenth film in the Zatoichi series, shows some serious improvements over the previous installments.  I imagine that after ten or twelve movies, writers, directors & actors alike would all want to sink their teeth into something more substantial, and so it is with this film.

This is the first Z movie in which I noticed significant themes other than the series’ usual idea that leaders are corrupt and the poor townsfolk are good.  In this film, Ichi is presented thematically as a force of nature.  Many of the shots that feature him in a powerful position feature natural elements like streams or massive trees alongside or behind our hero.  For the first time (that I’ve noticed anyway), Ichi is established as a force of nature himself.  That’s extremely significant in a country where Shinto is the primary religion.  Ichi is a primal force – a Shinto superhero of sorts.

The plot is similar to those of other Z films.  Ichi stumbles across a dying man who, with his last words, asks that his money be delivered to his child.  Since Ichi gets no other information, he’s hardly in a position to fulfill the dying man’s wish, so he goes on his way.  As fate would have it, however, he stumbles upon the family in a town that is being overrun by a local yakuza boss.  You can probably figure out the rest, but the Z films are never entirely about plot.  They’re often about sacrifice.  Ichi gives the dead man’s money to the family and is tempted to leave when he learns of the bad situation with the yakuza, but he ends up staying long enough to intervene.

The most interesting character, who appears to have been borrowed from the earliest installments of the series, is a samurai assassin who is hired to kill Ichi despite his respect for the man.  Their fight on the shore of a stream is almost lyrical.  Unlike many of Ichi’s fights where he strikes down countless minions with single blows, this one is against a skilled opponent and lasts for several minutes.  It’s awesome when reinforced with the new thematic material.

Overall, the presentation of this installment is the best I’ve seen yet.  That makes sense since I’m seeing them chronologically.  Z13 was made in 1966, only four short years since Z1, but the advances made in film technology over that period are evident.  Even with HVE’s crappy transfer, the images are cleaner than in any of the previous installments.  Sound still suffers somewhat but it isn’t as bad as in previous DVDs that were overladen with distortion during every music cue.

Director Tokuzo Tanaka, who was to go on to direct The Snow Woman among his other 48 films, shows a deft touch with this story and he keeps it moving along despite the considerable number of subplots at hand.  I especially liked the suspense he builds when Ichi chooses to allow himself to be beat up instead of defending himself in front of an impressionable young boy who thinks he’s the greatest thing ever.  This installment clearly deserves a nod because it elevates the pulp premise with the presentation of a prestige picture.

Z13 is highly recommended.  It’s one Zatoichi film that is not to be missed.

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