Review: Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

In Samartian Zatoichi, the nineteenth and last Z film of the 1960’s, we get what almost amounts to a reboot.  Ichi’s usually infamous, attracting many ne’er do wells who’d like to kill him for a bounty, but in this film no one seems to have heard of him.  He also does several things that are out of character.  He acts as a hired killer for a local oyabun, he loses at dice, and he also cheats when he realizes he can’t gamble and win.  It’s almost as if we’ve returned to the Ichi of the very first film.  Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest films in the series due to its lean scripting and sumptuous visuals.

The story revolves around a young yakuza and his sister.  He owes the oyabun money and a gang is sent out to either collect it or dispatch him.  Ichi is told  to follow the group and observe but when they fail to kill the man, Ichi steps in and shows them how it’s done.  Then the sister, Sode, arrives with the money for the Oyabun and Ichi realizes his mistake.  It turns out that the Oyabun doesn’t want the man at all.  He wants his sister so he can give her to a local government administrator in exchange for political favors.  Once Ichi learns the truth, he makes Sode’s safety his mission in life, thereby making enemies of the oyabun and his men.

The interesting part of the plot is the fact that Sode must depend on her brother’s killer for protection.  Both Ichi and Sode are slightly uncomfortable with the arrangement — Ichi because of his regret over the killing and Sode because she wants revenge — but they have to come to terms with their emotions and let go of the past if they’re both to survive.

The film moves at a brisk pace but it doesn’t try to cram too much in.  Several of the Z films are guilty of having too many subplots and complications.  Here, the balance is just right thanks to the efforts of master director Kenji Misume.  His installments in the series are always among the very best.  Yes, there are a few too many coincidental meetings with characters we’ve met earlier, but I’d rather have that than just pile up character upon character with no hope of paying off most of them.

Shintaro Katsu is once again at the top of his game here.  After 18 films, he plays Ichi with such effortlessness that it’s easy to assume that he really is blind and marvel at the things he’s capable of doing.  Among the supporting cast is Takuya Fujioka as Shinsuke, a yakuza who’d rather side with Ichi than continue to serve a corrupt oyabun.  He provides an interesting foil for Katsu’s character and we see, once again, how vital a sidekick is for Ichi.  I’ve often thought it would have been cool to have an ongoing Robin for Katsu’s Batman, but then again, it’s Ichi’s lone wolf nature that, at least partially, defines the character.

Composer Sei Ikeno successfully mixes eastern and western elements to create a lush soundtrack.  It’s one of the most effective in the series, reflecting the emotional content of the film without pandering.  Cinematographer Fujiro Morita, who also shot Daimajin and several other Z features, pushes available technologies to the limit to create some memorable images that serve the story quite well.  Sode’s flashback sequence is a genuine treat to behold.

There are, unfortunately, a few new stylistic touches that remind us that this is a film from the 60s.  The opening credits give us some crazy colors that would be right at home in the 1980’s.  There’s, once again, a Katsu-crooned ballad slapped in where it really doesn’t belong.  And the follow-spot sword fight near the end is an interesting if ineffective choice.   But these are nitpicks from the future because all of those choices would have felt right to moviegoers of 1968.

It’s been a couple of months since I watched a Zatoichi film and I genuinely missed the blind masseur!  Taken as a whole, this is one of the Z films that simply works.  Samaritan Zatoichi comes very highly recommended.

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