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Zatoichi the Fugitive

Original title: Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

D: Tokuzô Tanaka / 86m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Miwa Takada, Masayo Banri, Jun’ichirô Narita, Tôru Abe, Jutarô Hojo, Sachiko Murase

Zatoichi (Katsu) is travelling alone in the countryside when he reaches a town where a sumo challenge is taking place.  Having won the challenge, the blind masseur is relaxing by a river when he is attacked by a lone yakuza.  Zatoichi defends himself, and as the yakuza lies dying from his wounds, he tells Zatoichi he only attacked him for his mother’s sake.  Zatoichi learns the man’s name and out of duty to him, learns where she lives and offers her his apologies.  The man’s mother, Maki (Murase), forgives him, but as Zatoichi leaves he’s stopped by the man’s clan boss, Yagiri (Abe), who demands his life in return.  But before any more blood can be spilt, Maki and the boss of another clan, Sakichi (Narita) intervene.  Sakichi takes on the responsibility for taking Zatoichi’s life, sparing him until the end of the festival that is taking place.

Zatoichi decides to rest at a local inn.  He is tended by Onobu (Takada), who is in love with Sakichi, though her father is against any match.  Also staying at the inn is a drunken ronin, Tanakura (Hojo) and his wife.  Zatoichi is surprised to find that she is Otane (Banri), the woman he was in love with.  As he begins to deal with the emotions this brings up, Zatoichi becomes aware of a plot involving Yagiri and the innkeeper to take over Sakichi’s territory; Tanakura is there to aid them.  With the festival drawing to a close, Yagiri tries to engineer matters so that Sakichi has to confront Zatoichi, but the young boss is too much of a coward to actually do so.  A fight between Zatoichi and some of Yagiri’s men leads to a final showdown between the masseur and Tanakura, and a tragic outcome.

Zatoichi the Fugitive - scene

The fourth in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive is a slightly misleading title in that Zatoichi isn’t on the run, and everyone knows exactly where he is throughout.  What isn’t in any doubt, though, is that this instalment of the Zatoichi saga is just as well realised and absorbing as the previous entries.

The basic template is also firmly in place.  Zatoichi arrives in a small town, there’s bitter rivalry between two yakuza gangs, an innkeeper’s daughter may or may not provide a romantic interlude for our hero, various swordsmen will try their luck singly or in groups to kill Zatocihi, domestic intrigues will come to the fore, betrayal and treachery will occur as naturally as the characters breathe, and there is an eventual showdown between Zatoichi and an equally proficient samurai.  It’s all very familiar but it’s all so well executed that it’s almost comforting to watch.

While the sword fights are, on the surface, the main reason to watch a Zatoichi movie, it’s the drama that sets up these encounters that makes all the difference, and prove why the series is so effective four movies in (and with twenty-one still to come).  The script by Seiji Hoshikawa retains Zatoichi’s sense of honour and his deep sense of regret when he’s forced to kill someone, Katsu’s troubled looks and humble demeanour perfectly encapsulating the profound respect he has for (most of) those around him.  Here we see a little more of his anger than before, and directed at more than just the main villain, Yagiri.  With the character’s stoic nature already established, to see him more emotionally invested in his swordplay makes for an interesting broadening of the character and his humanity.  And, for the first time, we see how physically vulnerable he can be when Tanakura manages to wound him (though not too seriously, of course).

Zatoichi’s interplay with Onobu and Otane are given roughly equal screen time, and the distinction between them is made clear by their feelings about their own lives.  Onobu wishes to be with Sakichi and sees happiness for them both, while Otane regrets the future she’s already chosen.  Both actresses give impressive performances, though it’s Banri (playing Otane for the third time) who demands the most attention, her sorrow and despair at the way Otane’s life has turned out etched on her face like a mask she can’t remove.

With so much going on beneath the surface of all the characters, returning director Tanaka’s confident approach pays dividends throughout, and the movie looks glorious thanks to the vibrant colours of the Japanese countryside which are often stunning to look at.  The sword fights are the most exhilarating yet, and there’s a very clever display of Zatoichi’s “sword drawing” skills.  With a quietly emotive score by Akira Ifukube that complements the mounting tension, this entry in the long-running series is as effective and commanding as its predecessors (and how many Part Fours can say that?).

Rating: 9/10 – another superb entry in the series, Zatoichi the Fugitive ups the emotional content and has a gripping denouement that resonates long after the movie sees Zatoichi moving on; with Katsu giving yet another flawless performance, this is better than anyone – perhaps even production company Daiei – could hope for.