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Zatoichi and the Doomed Man – Review

by Dane Benko

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While temporary in jail for gambling, Zatoichi meets Shimazo, who pleads Zatoichi to help him. It seems Shimazo was framed for arson and murder, and needs either his contact Senpachi Kurouma or Boss Jubei Araiso in Oarai to vouch for him. His life, as well as his wife and daughter, are at risk.

It’s the wife and daughter that attract Zatoichi’s attention, but after he’s out and heading towards Choshi, he comes across the fork toward Oarai and makes the particularly un-Zatoichian decision to stay out of this one. “Every time someone asks me a favor like this, I get into trouble.”

Meanwhile, Zatoichi comes across a mendicant monk named Hyokutaro at an archery contest, where together they earn 50 ryo. At first Hyokutaro wants to ‘hold the money’ to protect them, which sets off Zatoichi’s suspicions, but the troublesome Hyokutaro seems to take a liking to Zatoichi anyway and the two head off together, at least temporarily, until Hyokutaro vanishes.

Which just goes to show trouble attracts Zatoichi like gravity, because it’s not long before he runs across an injured man hiding in the bushes from three ambushers. After dispatching the ambushers, the man (named Kahei) pleads with Zatoichi to deliver a certified bill for a shipping agency in Choshi.

Unable to ignore the pull of another adventure, Zatoichi decides to do Kahei’s bidding, which of course gets him involved in yet another boss-led conspiracy. It seems Senpachi Kurouma and Boss Jubei, the self-same contacts Shimazo mentioned, are attempting to the gain the ownership of the majority of the territory off of Kahei’s shipping agency. In the meantime they run extortionate hotels and frame, dispatch, or kidnap dissenters, including Shimazo. And thus Zatoichi sadly proclaims, “I guess I’m going to Oarai anyway.”

Which journey turns out to be complicated by the matter of Hyokutaro, who seems to be ruining Zatoichi’s reputation by impersonating himself as the famous blind swordman and keeps running off with boss’s money after offering them his swordmanship services. He’d keep getting away with it, too, if he didn’t go and offer his services to Boss Jubei himself. Also, his mysterious past and feckless attitude seems to have a root in another familiar character…

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man has a lot of good moments, but by this point the formula is almost paint-by-numbers and even Zatoichi’s hesitations seems to be simple quick plot points to get him from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s still entertaining and pleasurable to see him consistently one-up people by playing off their expectations. In fact, after a lot of the rough conflicts Zatoichi has had in previous films amongst the bosses, it’s nice that in this one he gains the upper ground rather quickly and stops them before they do anything really damaging.

What does stand out in this movie, however, is the final battle in a foggy shipping yard. This is one of the series’ most creative and spectacular setpieces, as Zatoichi slowly and considerately moves around various fishing-related obstacles (read: nets, nets everywhere) and staves off attackers nonetheless. It’s a gorgeously shot scene and has quite a few surprise moments for both sides. This scene is one of the best examples of Zatoichi’s physicality and how he maneuvers through obstacles.

Another stand-out moment is a touching scene where Zatoichi visits the ocean for the first time. He may not see the ocean, but still feels the immense distance and depth. It relates once against to the idea that Zatoichi has a superhuman ability of perception, but on a more meaningful basis that his limitations and history is still transcended by his spiritual, internalized depth. In this way we have an interesting contrast with the mendicant monk Hyokutaro, whose blatantly fake use of the monk garb and silly, youthful lack of ability to take responsibility shows how empty most of the world around them has become… and how it may not necessarily be his fault, as there are deeper and more troublesome corruptions in the current culture.

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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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