Original title: Zoku Zatôichi monogatari
D: Kazuo Mori / 72m
Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Yaeko Mizutani, Masayo Banri, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Yutaka Nakamura, Sonosuke Sawamura, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Mitsuemon Arashi, Yoshito Yamaji, Eijirô Yanagi
Made to capitalise on the unexpected success of The Tale of Zatoichi (1962), the imaginatively titled The Tale of Zatoichi Continues sees the blind masseur (Katsu) making his way back to Sasagawa, to honour the promise he made in the first movie, to make an annual pilgrimage to the grave of Master Hirate, the ailing samurai he fought and killed a year ago. An initial altercation with the men of Lord Kuroda leads to a further encounter that is interrupted (and dealt with) by a wandering samurai called Yoshiro (Wakayama – though credited as Kenzaburo Jo). At the next town, Zatoichi is hired to give a massage to the same Lord Kuroda, who it turns out, is a simpleton. Kuroda’s retainers, fearing that their Lord’s secret may be revealed by Zatoichi, aim to have him killed, and send their men to look for him.
At a nearby inn, three courtesans are bemoaning how quiet the evening is because of the search for Zatoichi. One of the three women, Setsu (Mizutani) reminds him of his lost love, Ochiyo. He asks to spend the evening with her, and she agrees. Just then, Yoshiro and his retainer, Sanzo (Nakamura) enter (Zatoichi hides in case they’re Kuroda’s men). It becomes clear that Yoshiro was also in love with a woman called Ochiyo, and Setsu bears an uncanny resemblance to her. He too wants to spend the evening with her but she refuses, and she leaves with Zatoichi. The next morning, Koruda’s men catch up with them, but Zatoichi bests them. This leads Kuroda’s retainers to employ the services and men of local yakuza boss, Kanbei (Sawamura). Kanbei’s men also fail to best Zatoichi but learn that he is making his way to the Joshoji Temple in Sasagawa; Kanbei aims to enlist the aid of that town’s yakuza boss, Sukegorô (Yanagi).
Yoshiro follows in Zatoichi’s wake and we discover he isn’t a wandering samurai but a wanted criminal. He seeks help from Sukegorô but is advised to leave the area. Meanwhile, news of Zatoichi’s return reaches Otane (Banri), the servant girl he left behind at the end of the previous movie. She learns of Sukegorô and Kanbei’s plan to ambush Zatoichi at the temple and goes to warn him. With Zatoichi able to repel both boss’s men, the fight is interrupted by the appearance of Yoshiro, and the two men duel to the death, during which the secret behind the story of Ochiyo is revealed.
Although you could be forgiven for thinking that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a bit of a cheap knock-off, a knee-jerk reaction to the success of the first movie, nothing could be further from the truth. True, the much shorter running time hints at that, but this is a worthy successor, and builds on the themes of betrayal and redemption that were introduced before. The way in which Minoru Inuzuka’s script brings everything full circle back to the bridge at Sasagawa where Zatoichi and Hirate fought, is cleverly done and resonates in a way that is completely unexpected. This is a sequel that could easily have been added to its predecessor for a much longer – and in some ways – more satisfying introduction to its wonderfully complex character.
The events of the first movie are given due reference, and allow Zatoichi’s skills as a swordsman to be used to good advantage, alternately hastening and delaying the expected swordplay, and allowing for a variety of encounters that are expertly choreographed (with the necessary exception of the final duel between Zatoichi and Yoshiro; it shows the blind swordsman isn’t as superhuman as his enemies might think, and the movie is all the better for it). Returning characters Otane and Sukegorô (both played by the same actors as before), though given less to do, are both welcome elements, and their involvement lends an added depth to the final third of the movie, while the newer characters are played to perfection by a cast that are entirely credible throughout (as the brooding Yoshiro, Wakayama is a stand out). As with the first movie, the cast don’t put a foot wrong, but it’s still very much Katsu’s movie, another superb performance given added depth with the revelation of his having a lost love: when he describes how she left him – and for the very man she professed to hate – the expression of pain and longing on Katsu’s face is truly moving.
There is an added layer of humour this time round, as well as a more compelling female relationship for Zatoichi to deal with, and a hint of how the series is likely to develop, further enriching what is already a rewarding viewing experience. Shot again in glorious black and white, the movie is often beautiful to watch – witness the scene where Zatoichi muses at the edge of a lake – and director Mori, while not adopting completely the style and look of the first movie, does show a willingness to experiment with unexpected shots and compositions (several scenes are shot from above, while one fight scene is filmed from such a distance it would be jarring if it weren’t also such a pleasant surprise).
Rating: 9/10 – a wonderful follow-up to The Tale of Zatoichi and confirmation if any were needed that the character’s development for cinema was no flash in the pan; intelligent, robust filmmaking that satisfies and rewards in so many ways it’s like a banquet.