Review: Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

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Zatoichi’s Conspiracy is the 25th film in the series, and it’s the last of the Z films made before series star and producer Shintaro Katsu decided to move the series to television.  From 1962 to 1973, Zatoichi loomed large at the Japanese box office and occasionally hit it big in foreign markets with blockbusters like Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman.  I’ve never read why Katsu decided to move to TV, but it probably had something to do with the massive changes that had taken place in film over the decade that Zatoichi was king of the box office.

Z25 follows the usual formula with one big exception – this time, the town that Ichi must save is his own.  With the flip of a coin, he decides to visit the village where he was raised.  After a brief journey and a run in with a group of highwaymen, he discovers that things aren’t going so well in his old stomping grounds.

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A corrupt official has schemed to make sure that the local rice farmers aren’t able to meet their quota.  A large fine is levied against the town and none of the local officials has any idea how they’ll pay it.  Fortunately, Shinbei, a wealthy Tokyo businessman who was Ichi’s childhood friend, offers to foot the bill and help get the town back on track.  Everyone’s happy until they realize that the whole thing was a scheme devised by Shinbei to allow him to take control of the town’s secondary resource, it’s quarry.  Of course, our old friend Ichi has a thing or two to say about that, and he usually speaks with his sword.

Directed by series stalwart, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, this is one of the better Zatoichi features.  After 25 films, it’s somewhat easy to take for granted just how good this film is.  While I enjoyed it, I wasn’t surprised by anything the film had to offer.  It has a little of the “been there-done that” feel.

Writer Yoshi Hattori doesn’t stretch Ichi beyond his original formula.  According to IMDB, this is one of only three screenplays he wrote during his career, which is a shame.  This story shows real promise.  His plot is extremely effective, with all of the side characters fulfilling necessary roles, but there isn’t a lot of time left for fights.  I usually prefer the emphasis to remain on character, as it does here, but I feel like it could have used a few more reminders of Ichi’s prowess with his cane sword.

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As is always the case, Katsu is exceptional.  It amazes me that his performances are so consistent in all of these films despite how long in the tooth the series became.  Here, he’s joined by a fine cast of supporting players that includes the great Takashi Shimura who’s best known in the west as Kambei in Seven Samurai.  There isn’t a sour note sounded by anyone in this ensemble, but the great Eiji Okada is especially good as the corrupt businessman who was Ichi’s childhood friend.

The cinematography by the very busy Chishi Makiura is inventive but very stark.  There were times when I felt like I wanted to crawl out of the darkness as many scenes take place in dimmed interiors and at night.

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Music is by Godzilla and Daimajin composer Akira Ifukube, but this time it’s slightly less reminiscent of his better-known work.  Sound design is interesting, if not fully realized due to the technological limitations of the time.  The scene in the rice storehouse especially benefits from the sounds of spilling rice during Ichi’s fight.

I wonder if moviegoers in 1973 realized they were seeing the last “real” Z feature.  Even if they didn’t, I did, and it made me feel somewhat melancholy as Ichi wandered off at the end of the picture.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy is highly recommended, especially for those new to the blind masseur’s adventures.  The plot is taunt, the performances excellent, and the production above average for the series.

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