Not to be confused with 1963’s Zatoichi the Fugitive, 1968’s Zatoichi AND the Fugitives was the penultimate Z film of the 60’s, and it features some of the most evil bad guys we’ve ever seen our hero go up against.
Now that I’ve seen 18 of these movies, the one big question that comes to mind is how did they keep the scripts so close in theme and presentation without making them feel repetitive? I’m sure there are those who do think that Ichi-san has the same adventure over and over and over, so why did they continue for so long? When you see these films, I think you really have to imagine the market into which they were originally released. At two or three films a year, each less than 90 minutes in length, these are closer to being an HBO or Showtime series than a big budget film series of today. When you tune into your favorite TV show, the last thing you want is to see it reinvented every week, right? You want to visit the same characters, settings, and situations that drew you into the series to begin with. I think the same is true for the Zatoichi audience.
Which brings me back to the feature at hand. In Z18, there is a refinement of sorts that I can only attribute to the changing times. Like the previous two or three films in the series, there is more blood, but there is also more severity in the nature of the acts carried out by those to whom Master Ichi would dispense justice. If there were ever a Tanrantino reboot of the Ichi films, I imagine the villains to be much like these. They’re petty thieves and murderers on the run from the authorities with nothing to lose, and that makes them very dangerous. Most of them carry swords or knives, but they don’t appear to be ronin (masterless samurai). They’re just rowdy idiots, with the exception of their leader, a more sedate man who wields an extra-long o-katana. When I saw the array of weaponry in this gang, I knew I was in for some good fight scenes.
But being the master director he is, Zatoichi veteran, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, makes us wait. He even goes so far as to have the thug’s leader stop a big showdown in a bamboo forest because he knows that Ichi will kill all of them easily. His men think he’s nuts, but we know better and it helps to build the tension to the breaking point.
It certainly helps to have bad guys who aren’t just protecting their wallets, but the standard evil oyabun is here too. What makes him more interesting though is the fact that he’s being extorted by the gang of miscreants at the same time that he’s trying to get their help. It makes for an interesting plot.
In addition, we have a village doctor who takes Ichi in and is a genuine role model, both for Ichi and for the people he serves. It isn’t often than we get a genuinely good guy who can hold his own in these movies, but this one’s good enough to put even Ichi to shame. It doesn’t hurt that Dr. Junan is played by veteran character actor Takashi Shimura. Probably best known in the west for his portrayal of the samurai leader Kanbe in Seven Samurai, he was in over 200 films before he called it quits. He had roles in films that ranged from genre titles like Godzilla and Mothra to genuine classics like Kagemusha and Throne of Blood. Much like Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu, Shimura’s performances helped to define an era of Japanese film. To see him at work in Z18 is a real treat, especially in such a multifaceted role.
The one misstep here, which probably wasn’t seen as a misstep at the time, is the inclusion of several obnoxious ballads and some cool hippie electric guitar music. Thankfully, the “super-cool” music choices aren’t enough to diminish the power of the film because music is used very sparingly here. This should be a lesson to filmmakers who want to include “the latest thing” in their pictures. In most cases, it will seriously diminish their shelf life.
Overall, the multitude of pluses outweigh the single, glaring minus. Zatoichi and the Fugitives proves to be yet another winning entry in the series. Highly recommended.