Review: Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Zatoichi in Desperation is the 24th film in the series, but it’s the first installment directed by series star, Shintaro Katsu.  It’s an enjoyable movie–certainly better than most of the other entries from the 70s–but Katsu does fall prey to some of the usual mistakes made by inexperienced directors.

Once again, Ichi is on the road, wandering about and, as Jules from Pulp Fiction might say, looking to get into adventures.  He encounters an old, shamisen-playing woman on a rickety old bridge and inadvertently causes her to slip and fall to her death.  Being Ichi, he feels very guilty so he uses what he knows of the woman to seek out her daughter in a nearby fishing village that’s known for its brothels.  He wants to tell her what happened and make amends if he can.  Of course, the town is run by corrupt yakuza and of course, they’ve heard about the large bounty on Ichi’s head, so our hero has to dodge swords while attempting to set right his perceived wrong.

It’s a fairly standard plot for a Z film, but it’s presented in some new and sometimes exciting ways.  Those mistakes I mentioned before?  They mostly fall into the “clever shots” category.  Just about every long time actor turned director overdoes it with crazy shots and this is no exception.  Fortunately, it was 1972 so crude, clever shots were everywhere, but Katsu really went above and beyond.

Surprisingly, his performance doesn’t suffer.  Katsu and his fellow actors really step it up here, creating a more realistic version of the world of Zatoichi.  Some of that is due to the way in which the picture is shot, but most of it is the work of the actors.  There isn’t a misstep to be found here.  If only they had a better script to act out.

The screenplay by veteran Z scribe, Minoru Inuzuka, isn’t terrible, but it continues that annoying Z-film habit of adding in extraneous characters and situations when none is really needed.  There’s a subplot about a 14 year old servant girl who’s being pursued by a pervy local leader.  There’s a subplot about some swordsman who works for the local oyabun and who thinks he’s got the right stuff to take on Ichi.  There’s a subplot about the oyabun cornering the local fishing market and screwing the local population of fishermen.  All of these are okay story points, but almost none of them have anything to do with the main plot and they take up lots of time with lots of characters who often fail to pay off in any significant way.  Even the swordsman has his moment in the sun cut short when his battle with Ichi amounts to almost nothing.

Most of the sword fights are extremely well staged.  I don’t want to give anything away, but for the first time I was actually concerned for Ichi’s well being.  I imagined that the remaining films must take place in physical therapy.  I was thrilled when he turned his disadvantages to his advantage and showed us why he’s a hero.  I suppose that’s ultimately why this film works, in spite of the many distractions.

By the way, this is another relatively poor transfer.  Being from AnimEigo, I expected more.  For some reason, they just weren’t given access to a pristine print, so this is the best they could do.  I certainly don’t blame AnimEigo as most of their discs are top notch.  I just hope that one day we’ll get to see this film, and all the others, properly restored and released on Blu Ray.  Until then, this one is still recommended.

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