Review: Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

The fourth Zatoichi movie, Zatoichi the Fugitive, is another leap forward for the series.  Even if there were no series at all and this were a standalone film, it would work very well.  Director Takuzo Tanaka created a stunning example of how to make a Zatoichi film work.

The story begins with Ichi killing a man who attacks him on the road.  It seems our friend Ichi has a price on his head again and the man is going for the bounty.  Ichi, being the standup guy he always is, feels it’s his responsibility to inform the man’s family about his death.  This sets into motion a clockwork series of overlapping events that all revolve around Ichi in some way.  I don’t often go into great detail when it comes to plot but I don’t think I could explain this one succinctly if I wanted to.  It’s positively Shakespearean in it’s complexities and yet every element remains lucid.

What’s cool about the story is that Ichi isn’t directly involved much of the time, but others use him to further their own agendas.  This gives the peripheral characters more weight and pushes the tension level higher when we want Ichi to figure out everything that’s going on around him.  By the time he does, unfortunately it’s too late for him to triumph personally, but such is the life of Ichi.  He’s never really allowed to progress.  In that way, this series is similar to the Bond films.  The lead character can’t die but he also can’t improve his life in any lasting way.  The films are more about the characters that surround Ichi.  His life remains somewhat tragic, a fact that’s hinted at in the final frames of this movie.

This is one of the first times that we learn about Ichi’s past.  In this film, he encounters a long lost love, who he affectionately calls Tane.  She’s a beautiful woman who is now with a masterless samurai who presents an interesting counterpoint to Ichi.  How the homeless, blind swordsman continuously attracts the most beautiful women in Japan is beyond me, but I suspect it has something to do with his being the star of the film.

Much like Zatoichi’s Vengeance, another entry directed by Tanaka, the themes of the script are illustrated visually throughout.  The abandoned inn where the young Nobu grew up is an excellent metaphor for the characters’ nostalgia and the erosion created by the passage of time.  Ichi returns to this location for several key scenes and it really adds to the thematic content as well as the production values of the film.

While there’s a brief fight scene near the beginning of the film to set things in motion, Tanaka and screenwriter Seiji Hoshikawa don’t rush to the fights.  They take their time and set up the characters and plot elements one by one so that when things come to a head later, the fights make sense and carry an emotional weight.

The last section of the movie involves a large battle royal that is followed by a one on one duel between Ichi and the ronin.  Both fights are breathtaking in the clarity of purpose of the characters involved and they’re very exciting to watch.

This installment of the series comes very highly recommended!

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