Review: Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

The fourteenth Zatoichi film in five years, Zatoichi’s Pilfrimage (a.k.a Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage) is surprisingly hard to find.  I didn’t realize until after I’d seen it that star Shintaro Katsu owned this particular installment outright so it wasn’t a part of most of the home video deals that were made with western companies.  There are stories about fan subs and illegal masters floating around the net, but I don’t know how much of that is true.  I do know, however, that this is a film worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Ichi-san and his cane sword.

The thing that sets this installment apart from the thirteen that came before is its introspective subtext paired with a streamlined plot.  Ichi is questioning the fact that he’s killed an awful lot of people in his time and he seeks answers.  To get them, he’s decided to go on a pilgrimage to 81 Shinto shrines.  Along his way, a man named Eigoro tries to kill him.  Of course Ichi dispatches him with ease, but also with a troubled conscience.  Killing seems to be inevitable for him, but he must defend himself.

As it turns out, after a charming scene between Ichi and Eigoro’s horse, we learn that the man was sent in search of Ichi for the express reason that the local Oyabun wanted the man killed.  This further complicates Ichi’s dilemma.  Is he even acting on his own behalf when he kills if he is manipulated so easily?

The dead man’s sister, Okichi, takes Ichi in and becomes enamored of him despite the fact that Ichi killed her brother.  When the Oyabun comes calling, stating that he’s taking control of the entire village, everyone except for Okichi cowers in their homes, hopeful that Ichi alone will do their dirty work for them.

This film represents another major step forward for the series.  Director Kazuo Ikehiro’s touch is exactly what Ichi’s stories need and since this was his third Zatoichi picture, he’d honed his skills to a fine point.  It certainly helps that the script is so crisp, as is the inventive cinematography and art direction.  This is certainly one of the best looking of the first fourteen films.

Performances are at their usual high level here, but I have to single out Isao Yamagata for his turn here as the slimy, crossbow-wielding Oyabun, Tohachi.  His performance is the perfect match for Shintaro Katsu’s Ichi.  By the time this film was released, he was well known for Seven Samurai (among many others) and he would go on to star in Samurai Rebellion alongside Toshiro Mifune once again.  Still, it’s his portrayal of the Oyabun who smells of horse manure that really takes the cake.

The overall feel of the film is distinctly western, as in from the west, but it also feels a lot like Leone’s spaghetti westerns too.  Ironic since Leone used Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as the blueprint for his Man With No Name movies.  What goes around comes around, as they say.

It also didn’t hurt that, as the series picked up steam at the box office, it also picked up slightly larger budgets.  If this installment got more money, all of it landed on the screen where it belongs.  The music once again sounds distorted and does little to enhance the proceedings, but that’s more of a transfer problem.

I can only hope that the day will come when all of these films get the refurbishment they so richly deserve, but until then, Pilgrimage stands as one of the highlights of the series.  Highly recommended (if you can find it).

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