Zatoichi and the One Armed Swordsman (Z22) broke box office records when it was released in 1971, and for good reason. Unlike Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, this pairing was much more than a cash in. It’s actually a good movie. This Japanese/Hong Kong hybrid film is an excellent example of how the Z series flourished by not only accepting change, but by embracing it. It’s an extremely entertaining film, albeit with a few glaring flaws courtesy of the Chinese elements.
I should mention that I don’t usually like HK films. I find the wire work and over the top goofiness to be off putting. Most of today’s current crop of Hollywood actioners have unfortunately followed the HK model leaving us with a bunch of CGI crapfests that are hard for me to even sit through. While there are some HK elements in Z22, filmmaking technology and storytelling had advanced farther in Japan than it had in HK in 1971, so this film looks much better than the Shaw brothers productions of the same era.
The story revolves around a small Chinese boy whose parents are killed when they disrupt a procession of samurai making a delivery to the shogun. The boy finds an ally in the mysterious Wang Kang, a Chinese man who tries to defend the boy’s parents but fails. Wang Kang is in Japan seeking an old friend who’s currently living at a Buddhist monastery. Ichi witnesses the killing of the boy’s parents and wants to help, but ends up at odds with Wang Kang because of the language barrier that exists between them.
The story gets more complicated as it rolls along, including the standard corrupt officials, well-meaning peasants, and the good-hearted prostitute, but it never forgets that its central premise involves two men whose disagreements stem from simple misunderstandings. It also manages to expand in the middle without losing sight of it’s target – the final fight between the two heroes. That fight doesn’t make complete sense, but I’d have been disappointed had it never happened.
The filmmakers presume that the viewer has some knowledge of both Zatoichi and Wang Kang, the appendage-challenged swordsman. I knew nothing of old one-arm before this film, but that didn’t impair my enjoyment of the picture. Japanese audiences of the time were very familiar with the Shaw brothers’ series, but I did wonder why Wang fought with such a stubby little sword (it’s apparently a broken blade from a previous adventure). A lot of the dialogue is in Chinese, presented in Japanese subtitles for the original audience, but translated for English speakers in exactly the same way that the Japanese dialogue is translated. This can lead to some confusion when the viewer can understand everyone but the characters onscreen can’t understand one another. This isn’t a fault of the film or the excellent presentation from AnimEigo (which does its best to make it clear), but I think it’s important for English speaking audiences to know going in.
IMDB lists veteran director Kimiyosho Yasuda as the captain of this ship, but Wikipedia states that the film was co-directed by Hsu Tseng Hung. That makes sense due to the international nature of this collaboration and it would explain why this film has less on the table in terms of visual style than some of the other Z films. Yes, there are the obligatory smash-zooms and blood-soaked shots that were seen everywhere in 1971, but the overall style of the film is a little too by-the-numbers.
My biggest complaint is with the Chinese kung fu elements that are included. They just don’t jive with the world of Zatoichi. Wang Kang does some impossible leaps and some silly chops on his way to some genuinely impressive swordplay (especially impressive when you realize that actor Jimmy Wang Yu had his right arm tied behind his back!). Shintaro Katsu’s blade work is as impressive as ever, of course. I just wish they’d left the flying out of it.
While this is one of the better Z films, it falls short of being one of the best due to the Hong Kong wackiness. Nevertheless, its interesting plot and thematic core make it an excellent standalone film for both Z fans and first time viewers. Recommended.