iSugio

Adventures of Zatoichi – Review

by Dane Benko

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Adventures of Zatoichi finds the blind swordsman on his way to Mount Myogi to worship the first light of New Years. On this path he comes across an escaped convict named Shinsuke, who requests Zatoichi take a letter to his sister Sen in Kasama and to make sure that nobody reads it. Zatoichi concludes that Shinsuke chose him because his blindness prevents him from reading the letter. Nevertheless, Zatoichi agrees to the mission.

Kasama, meanwhile, is bustling with pre-New Years activity as street venders and entertainers gear down for the festival. However, the people are chagrined to hear Boss Jinbei’s announcement of a 40% tax on all their income from the festival, at the wish of new attendant Gorota Kajima.

Zatoichi finds Sen working at an inn, and in return for the letter is offered a room with Lady Saki and her maid. Saki is staying in Kasama awaiting news from her assistant Gosuke, who went off to discover the whereabouts of Saki’s father, the headman of Ota village, who was traveling to Edo to petition against Attendant Kajima.

Well it turns out that Sen’s brother Shinsake also has beef against Jinbei and Kajima. The two hired him as an assassin, then arrested him after the job was completed. Zatoichi thus finds himself trying to protect Sen and Shinsake from Jinbei and Kajima while investigating their role in the disappearance of Saki’s father.

Kimiyoshi Yasuda returns to the series for the first time since Zatoichi on the Road (1963). Like that previous movie, Yasuda keeps the camera still and lets the characters drive the story with few visual stylistic flourishes. The few visual flourishes that Yasuda employs then have a certain unique strength to them, such as a moment where Zatoichi splits a children’s toy top that spins until it splits perfectly in half. Those moments are held and protracted to increase anticipation.

Character-wise, Adventures in Zatoichi turns out to be one of the most full and vibrant films of the series. In addition to Sen and Saki, Zatoichi also finds accomplices in two acrobatic boys and an old drunkard named Giju, who lost his son on Mount Myogi some New Years long ago, and whom Zatoichi begins to wonder may not be his own father. Other colorful characters appear intermittently such as a comedian duo.

Jinbei and Kajima are accompanied with a frustrated master swordsman named Gounsuke, whose only real desire is to find challenging opponents to duel. Another swordsman mook on Jinbei and Kajima’s side is an unnamed tossabout who ultimately never ends up fighting, which itself seems to be a throwback to a similar character in Zatoichi on the Road. Guonsuke and this swordsman are two sides of the problem of being underpaid: Guonsuke has talent and value far out of proportion to his compensation, and the other matches his compensation by being effectively useless.

This is one of the many indications Yasuda gives in the movie toward the larger social issues of the bosses and intendants, and the disruptive force Zatoichi represents in that context. But he’s smart enough to not make Zatoichi so linearly progressive.

In the first bustle of activity on the streets of Kasama, Zatoichi receives a fallen daruma doll by a vendor, who compares it to Zatoichi on account of the doll’s blank eyes. For context, a daruma doll is a traditional Zen doll depicting Dharma that represents luck and encouragement. The eyes are sold blank; one is meant to be filled when setting a goal, and the other is meant to be filled upon achieving it.

This symbolism is one of the better aspects of Adventures of Zatoichi. Zatoichi appears in the town as a figure of luck of encouragement, but fortune itself is much more complicated. At one point the daruma doll becomes an object of connection between Zatoichi and Saki: both are looking for their fathers, and so Zatoichi proposes that the two of them fill in one eye of the doll upon discovering their father. But remember that Zatoichi wasn’t compared to the doll, the doll was compared to Zatoichi, and was handed away for free as a defect. Zatoichi is always and still blind.

Like the rest of the movies, Adventures of Zatoichi doesn’t exactly end well for most of the characters involved, but it has a surprisingly positive ending in comparison to the rest. Facing the first sunlight of the New Year, Zatoichi’s face (and the world around him) brightens and a real sense of renewal closes out the movie.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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