Review: Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

Like most Zatoichi movies, this one begins with Ichi hoofing it, hence the title.  The original title in Japanese is literally translated as  Zatoichi Fight This Week.  He’s been invited to a yakuza boss’ home for an undisclosed reason.  Since the messenger is providing for excellent food and quality lodging along the way, Ichi accepts.

Before they reach their destination, they’re attacked by mercenaries and the messenger is killed.  Ichi continues on the journey only to find a group of swordsmen who are hunting down a man and a young woman.  They kill the man but the girl manages to escape.  As you may know by now if you’ve watched many of these films, when people die around Ichi, they often proclaim a dying wish so he’ll be honor-bound to oblige them.  In this case, Ichi’s asked to help the girl get home to Edo.

The situation gets complicated when two different gang leaders try to hire Ichi to fight for their side, using the girl as a pawn to persuade him.  The whole situation builds until the final battle when Ichi solves the problem in his own, very satisfying, way.

Kimiyoshi Yasuda directs On The Road and his style is very zen in its simplicity.  That’s not a terrible thing, but when the preceding film was as visually striking as it was, it makes this one seem downright simple.  I am particularly fond of Yasuda’s direction of the Kaiju classic, Daimajin, so I’ll be looking forward to his subsequent attempts with Ichi.

The film looks great in HD.  The blu ray transfer from Criterion is far from perfect, but it looks much better than previous DVD releases.  There are some nice visual flourishes that help clarify the action, but nothing that gets in the way of the storytelling.  Shozo Honda’s cinematography is compelling, with wonderful use of shadows to imply Ichi’s perception of the world.  These films were shot a breakneck speed, so it’s always nice to see how much visual interest a shooter like Honda could manage at such a pace.

The cast is solid all around.  Reiko Fujiwara steals the show as the beautiful schemer, Ohisa.  Of course she has the advantage of playing the most interesting character in the film, but Hisa might have seemed more of a plot necessity than a full-blown character had she not been handled by such a talented actress.

This installment is definitely above average for a Zatoichi film even though it never pushes past the basic formula.  Recommended.

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