J.P. and I are back with a double shot review of the fourth Zatoichi film, Zatoichi the Fugitive. When you’re done here, make sure you head over to his site to read his thoughts on the film (link at the bottom of my review).

Zatoichi the Fugitive [座頭市兇状旅] (1963)
AKA Zatoichi 4

Starring Shintaro Katsu, Miwa Takada, Masayo Banri, Toru Abe, Junichiro Narita, Katsuhiko Kobayashi

Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka

Expectations: Moderate.

I love samurai films. I’ve heard great things about the Zatoichi series over the years, but I have yet to really dive head first into the world of the blind masseur. About five years ago, I saw the first film in the series and I was underwhelmed. Zatoichi had been built up to me as this amazing series of films, but I found the first film to be slow and just okay. I liked it enough to remain interested in the series, but I had shelved it in my mind for future times. Sometime between then and now, I saw the 2003 Takeshi Kitano remake. I used to really like his films, but again I was underwhelmed with his remake. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I do remember hating the very obvious computer generated blood effects in the film. Get a bag of blood and splatter it around. C’mon.

So going into Zatoichi the Fugitive I was hoping that it would reignite my interest in the series and show me what everyone was going on about. The first thing I noticed was that this film was in color. I had expected black & white like the first, so this was a welcome surprise. I love black & white cinematography more than most, don’t get me wrong, but after seeing this film, color is the correct choice for Zatoichi. The one downfall of using color though, is that for the fights I come in expecting blood-letting and Zatoichi the Fugitive is very sparse in that department.

Zatoichi the Fugitive opens with our hero coming upon a wrestling match. He challenges the champion and proceeds to wipe the floor with him and any other combatants thrown at him. Unknown to Zatoichi, these men are all Yakuza and they feel very dishonored at being beaten by a blind man. Zatoichi stays at the town inn and the Yakuza plot to have him killed.

The first half of the movie slowly builds the characters of the town where Zatoichi stays for the duration of the film. This can get a little confusing if you’re not paying close attention to who is who and all that. It also seemed like some of the events were playing off of events in earlier films. I had thought that these sequels were all unrelated, but at least at some level, there are things carrying over into this film. This is not to say that the film is unintelligible to the new viewer, quite the opposite. As I said above, the first half of the film sticks mainly to character building so you have plenty of time to catch up. The second half of the film is much more fast paced and contains a fantastic final duel between Zatoichi and his rival for the film, Tanakura.

The film and the Zatoichi character reminded me of the early issues of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series. In those issues, Ogami Itto travels around doing good deeds unrelated to his personal story. He wanders into a town and finds a situation that needs resolution. He provides it and moves on. Zatoichi is in that same vein and does it well. In this way, Zatoichi is also similar to James Bond as a character. Never mind that they are related in the “longest running film series” department, the characters both travel around and solve the problems at hand. I’ve found that over time my appreciation for James Bond as a character has increased and allowed me to enjoy the lesser films in that series more than I had previously. While watching Zatoichi the Fugitive, I felt a similar feeling and I can see myself really getting hooked on these fun samurai films and revisiting them over the years.

Fun is the key word here. Zatoichi the Fugitive is by no means a masterpiece of international cinema. Akira Kurosawa released Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High & Low around this same time period. This film does not compare at all, but it’s not fair to expect it to. Just like how the James Bond movies are well-made B-pictures, Zatoichi has a similar feel. It is well made and for the most part well shot, but it feels light and escapist. It won’t move mountains, but it is a great way to pass an hour and a half. Shintaro Katsu perfectly plays the blind swordsman Zatoichi, and I can understand why people say that he is the only one that can play him. Katsu inhabits the soul of the character and is Zatoichi.

My favorite moment in the film comes at around the halfway point. Tanakura confronts Zatoichi in front of the Yakuza gang leaders. Tanakura slices Zatoichi’s cup with a lightning-fast sword strike. Zatoichi one-ups him by throwing a gambling die into one of the Yakuza’s cups and then performs a quicker-than-lightning slice. The cup of the Yakuza remains still for a moment before it breaks cleanly into two pieces. As it falls to the floor, you see that the die has also been sliced in two. You cannot argue with such displays of furious sword skill. Zatoichi is the man.

Now head over to J.P.’s I’m Outta Here Movie Thoughts and check out his companion review!