Review: Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, the fifteenth film in the series and the third directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, is a fairly straightforward Z film with a couple of exceptions.  First, there are two musical numbers, one of which is performed by Master Ichi himself, and second, there is a wonderful twist ending that really works.

The story begins in the usual way.  A performing troupe is going to a small village to work the New Year’s celebration.  Ichi catches a ride with them and, once in the village, they learn that the local Oyabun has decided to gouge all the merchants and performers.  Ichi wants to help out, so he uses his usual cunning to win at dice and he gives his winnings to the troupe so they can pay to rnt the space for their performance.  Unfortunately, the local boss doesn’t take too kindly to losing at his crooked dice game so he decides to dispatch the wandering blind man.  Ichi takes refuge with a drunken old blacksmith who reveals that Ichi’s cane sword is a masterwork forged by his own mentor.  The old man also discovers that the sword has a tiny crack which will very likely break the blade the next time it’s used.  In a touching scene, Ichi gives the blacksmith the sword as a memento of his master and as an incentive to get the old guy on the wagon, which leaves him with a stick in place of his beloved weapon.

As always happens, the crooked folks in charge eventually figure out who they’re dealing with and they come after Ichi in full force.  There is yet another large battle between Ichi and a huge number of swordsmen, but this one is especially spectacular as it happens at night in the falling snow.  The fight choreography is exceptional and the editing is airtight.  This is a fight not to be missed.

The only downside to Z15 is its convoluted plot.  The story of the blacksmith is fantastic and the usual crooked officials are as reprehensible as ever, but there are extra subplots thrown in that only serve to confuse the issues of the core plot threads.  After the lean and mean quality of the plot of  Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, I was sad to see how quickly the series reverted to this ploy.  That’s not to say this film isn’t good.  It is.  It’s very good, but I think it could have been even better if the story had been a little more focused.  I would have loved to have learned more about the old blacksmith, but maybe that’s just because I’m a big fan of Japanese swords and the artisans who craft them in real life.

The look of Sekichiro Takeda’s cinematography is crisp and clear with bold colors and interesting compositions.  He also shot Z14, but never returned to shoot another installment.  It’s a pity because Z14 and Z15 are two of the best looking films of the series.

The music is sadly dated, sounding a bit like the producers were attempting to modernize the feel of the picture.  Unfortunately, “modern” films in 1967 featured things like conga drums.  I’m happy to note, however, that the music is clearly reproduced here, unlike most of the previous 14 films’ scores.

As usual, I have no gripes about the performances.  Master Ichi’s duck dance reveals the true comic talent that Shintaro Katsu never completely indulged during his career.  He’s just as snappy with the song and dance routine as he is with a sword.  But the true standout here is Eijiro Tono who plays the old blacksmith, Senzo.  What a career he had!  He was in over 200 films between 1936 and 1994, including turns in Seven Samurai, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Yojimbo, and two of the Shinobi No Mono films.  The blacksmith could have easily been overplayed, but Tono plays him in a way that really tugs at your heartstrings.

I prefer this particular adventure of Master Ichi’s over some of the others because his sword is at the center of the plot, but even if you’re less enamoured of the Japanese sword than I am, there’s lots to like here.  Recommended.

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