Review: Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

The second Zatoichi film of 1967, and the sixteenth in the series overall, saw tremendous change.  Unfortunately, much of it wasn’t for the better.  For the first time, a Zatoichi film was produced by Katsu Productions, the company owned by series star Shintaro Katsu.  After the collapse of Daiei Studios, Katsu picked up the pieces in an attempt to keep the series running.  Sadly, this wasn’t a very auspicious first effort.

The basic plot is a familiar one.  Local bosses and officials are once again exploiting the peasants in a small village and Ichi ends up in the middle of it, but the complex web of deceptions and counter-deceptions, coupled with several subplots and extraneous characters, make this one of the least satisfying of the Zatoichi films.  In fact, it can be downright confusing.  The core issue is a terrible screenplay that never gives Ichi much to do.  Even his fights are given short shrift to make room for more plot.  I’m not averse to plot, mind you, as I’ve found some of the more character-driven of the Z films to be my favorites, but this movie seems to have plot points added just so it will have more more more.

There’s a general air of throwing in more of everything here.  Perhaps Katsu or his company decided they needed to one-up previous Ichi films.  Whatever the reason, first time Zatoichi director Satsuo Yamamoto does a pitiful job making the various plot threads clear, and he mismanages production elements to the extreme.

Take the music, for example.  It’s positively overbearing.  In a lighthearted scene at the beginning of the movie, we have a music cue that sounds like it was ripped from one of the more dramatic sections of Charlton Hestons’ The Ten Commandments!  It simply doesn’t work.  Composer Sei Ikeno was a veteran composer, having scored 63 films, including Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, before working on this one.  That leads me to conclude that the problem wasn’t Ikeno’s music but the way it was edited into the picture.

There are other changes that were apparently geared toward making Ichi-san’s tales more with the times.  The gore quotient, which previously had been nonexistent, is front and center here.  Severed limbs and a lopped off head are among the things you get to see up close.  While I certainly don’t mind the addition of a little blood to make the proceedings more realistic, flying appendages seem more like cheap tricks than realism.  In fact, many fighters die here without spilling a drop of blood, just like in previous films.

Maybe I’m just holding this film to too high a standard.  After so many consistently good-to-great films, there was bound to be a clunker or two.  I hope there’s just the one.  Recommended only for Zatoichi completists.

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