Original title: Zatôichi kenka-tabi
aka Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey
D: Kimiyoshi Yasuda / 87m
Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Shiho Fujimura, Ryûzô Shimada, Reiko Fujiwara, Matasaburo Niwa, Yoshio Yoshida, Sônosuke Sawamura, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Yutaka Nakamura
The fifth entry in the series sees our hero being escorted to meet a prospective employer. Zatoichi (Katsu) is spotted by members of a yakuza clan who are aware that the propsective employer the blind swordsman is to meet is their sworn enemy, the head of a rival yakuza clan. With a showdown happening soon between the two clans, Zatoichi’s presence can mean only one thing: the rival boss is looking to hire him, and thereby swing matters in his favour. In an attempt to stop Zatoichi being hired, the gang members ambush him and his guide. Zatoichi despatches them with ease but not before his guide is killed.
The wife of one his would-be killers, Hisa (Fujiwara), witnesses the aftermath of the attack and learns Zatoichi’s identity. She takes this information back to the clan boss who, quite rightly, is disturbed by this development. But he has another plan in motion, one that involves the kidnapping of a young girl, Mitsu (Fujimura), for ransom. By luck, Zatoichi almost literally stumbles across a dying man who implores him to “save Mitsu”. Gaining her trust, Zatoichi determines to help her get back home. But it turns out that both yakuza clans have the same idea, and the blind masseur finds himself having to avoid both gangs, as well as the criminal intentions of a crooked innkeeper.
Five movies in and you could be forgiven for thinking that the series should already be running out of steam, but Zatoichi on the Road sees the franchise taking the basic “wandering swordsman” premise and putting a clever spin on things. Here, Zatoichi’s pledge to a dying man exposes the character’s nobility and selflessness to an even greater extent than in previous entries, as he shepherds Mitsu to her home in Edo, protecting her and keeping her safe. There is the usual romantic angle thrown in, but where before, Zatoichi has fallen in love with the lead female character, here his romantic feelings are held in check by his own awareness that there’s no chance of a relationship developing between them (though he does remain initially hopeful, as always).
Romanticism aside, the movie focuses on traditional notions of honour and fealty to the samurai code, with Zatoichi upholding these in isolation while – again – those who profess to follow the same code pay lip service to it. Both clan bosses are venal, greedy men who use the code for their own ends, and Zatoichi’s innate sense of propriety remains in stark contrast to the corruption that surrounds him. While each boss schemes and plots the end of the other, Zatoichi turns the tables on them, even when one of them finally manages to kidnap Mitsu and hold her hostage. By using their own avarice against them, Zatoichi highlights the ways in which their covetous natures will always undermine their criminal intentions. It’s a moral approach that everyone can relate to, and is played out with confidence and straightforward charm.
One of the series’ strengths is Zatoichi’s avoidance of violence wherever possible. Of course he’s going to find himself in situations where he has no choice but to fight, but here Minoru Inuzuka’s screenplay features a scene of such simple brilliance that it’s worth watching over and over again for Katsu’s superb performance and Yasuda’s assured direction. In it, Zatoichi rescues Mitsu from the clutches of a crooked innkeeper and does so without resorting to using his sword. It’s a tense, riveting scene, and sees Zatoichi attack the innkeeper and his men verbally over and over, denigrating their position and their competence. It’s further enhanced by their awareness of who Zatoichi is, and what he’s capable of; no one wants to risk their lives and prove him right.
But when there is a fight that Zatoichi can’t avoid, the sadness and melancholy that afflicts him is touchingly rendered by Katsu, whose immersion in the role is by now complete. He’s a wonderfully expressive actor, vulnerable and strong at the same time, and with no airs or graces about him. Whether he’s expressing his disappointment at the situations he finds himself in, or marvelling at some of the simpler pleasures in life (tea, for example), Katsu’s Zatoichi is a fully rounded character that any viewer can relate to. And he portrays the character’s loneliness so vividly that there’s very little further information we need to know about him in order to understand why he gets involved in righting wrongs and defeating injustice.
As the object of everyone’s crooked intentions, Mitsu is essentially a McGuffin decked out in a kimono, a hook to hang the plot on. But Fujiwara imbues her with a childlike artlessness that makes her more than just an object of lust and financial gain for the two clans. Her quiet, subservient nature is so calming that it’s no wonder Zatoichi finds himself falling for her, offering as she does a peaceful alternative to the wandering, often violent life he leads. Zatoichi’s search for peace is a constant theme in the series, but it’s here, where the chance of his attaining it is so close (and yet so far) that gives his yearning such resonance.
Filmed largely on location, with some poorly lit interiors doubling as the outdoors from time to time, Zatoichi on the Road retains the visual strengths of the previous colour entries, and the sword fights are still as well choreographed as before. Yasuda’s first outing as director on a Zatoichi movie proves both absorbing and resplendent, his positioning of the camera yet another example of how determined Daiei Studios had become in ensuring that each movie had its own identity while adhering to the overall tone and and accessibility of the series.
Rating: 7/10 – another successful entry in the series, Zatoichi on the Road is as engaging and captivating as its previous outings, and manages to provide further evidence that the character can – and will – avoid the pitfalls of series’ ennui; with Katsu providing yet another polished, emotionally astute performance, the movie never once takes the easy route in telling its deceptively simple story.
NOTE: Alas, the following trailer is free from subtitles.