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Zatoichi on the Road – Review

by Dane Benko

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Note on the translation: original title is closer to Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey.

In two elegant opening shots, Zatoichi on the Road reintroduces us to our titular character, surprising gamblers everywhere with his acute senses and wandering alone along the fields, until he’s met up with Kisuke, emissary from Doyama, here to recruit our blind friend to a battle between Kizuke’s Boss Kihozo, and Boss Tobei of Shimozuma.

Of course, nobody goes courting Zatoichi without setting off a cascade of violence, and Kizuke is quickly dispatched in a brawl that also takes the life of the husband of a mysterious woman named Hisa.

You’d think that Zatoichi already has his hands full, but upon continuing his journey, he stumbles across a wounded old man who begs him to help a young woman named Mitsu return to her home in Edo.  Turns out Mitsu’s being hunted by a pack of samurai, apparently for stabbing their lord in the face with a hairpin.  Due to his duty to the dead man and his sympathy for the helpless Mitsu, Zatoichi takes her under her wing and starts the journey to Edo.

Like many of these chambara serials, the two separate missions reflect two separate aspects of Zatoichi’s character: the coming boss fight represents the state of the world he travels in, and the protection of Mitsu is a personal journey of honor turned longing for connection.  And like the other chambara serials, it’s not long before these two journeys predictably intersect.

For no sooner does Ichi and Mitsu settle into a nearby inn, but Hisa reappears, accompanied by the slimy Jingoro, the man who paid the samurai including Hisa’s husband to attack Zatoichi and Kizuke.  Hisa turns out to be a wily and duplicitous dealer, a perfect counterpart to Zatoichi, who quickly learns Jingoro’s motivations and teaches Jingoro not to underestimate him.  As this confrontation happens, Hisa convinces Mitsu to question Zatoichi’s trust, and runs her off to a travel group lead by Boss Tomegoro of Kagotome.

And that’s where things get interesting.  Tomegoro recognizes the value in Mitsu (we’re talking about 1000 gold pieces, but Tomegoro has his eyes set on 5000), and takes her away from Hisa.  But Hisa isn’t done with her plans and Zatoichi quickly appears to reclaim Mitsu out of duty, which sets Tomegoro after Zatoichi as well – and Tomegoro is on Kihozo of Doyama’s side in the upcoming battle.  So there we have it.  Zatoichi must protect Mitsu at all costs from various interests trying to capitalize on the price on her head, whilst traveling to Doyama to get embroiled in a conflict with various characters and groups of entangled and conflicting motivations.

Sounds like a regular day in the life of Zatoichi.  And this movie generally plays it off as such.  New Zatoichi helmer Kimiyoshi Yasuda doesn’t add any particular style or flourish to the film, basically sitting back and letting Katsu perform his popular character with only a few attempts at impressive visuals and a little keen swordplay here and there.  The script is almost as lazy: Zatoichi has randomly developed an expository babble.  Where previously he was a keen wit with clever and considerate use of words and silent when he needed to pay attention, he now mutters out loud every last thought he has to describe his decision making process and motivations.

Luckily the story moves fast enough that it eventually whisks these elements toward the inevitable bloody showdown where various characters are to meet their end, so it’s all in good fun in the long run.  Zatoichi on the Road doesn’t add much to the iconic character we don’t already know, except that now he’s more prone to amusing himself with minor acts of presdigitation, and his going rate for sword for hire is 30 gold.  But it’s an amusing piece of entertainment anyway.

It does add a hint to something occurring in the wider world of the series that would be nice to see developed.  In one scene, a samurai hunting after Mitsu sits on his haunches and refuses to move further.  As he’s jostled and heckled by the other samurai for not living up to his duty, he bemoans the lack of purpose behind these constant ego politics of his bosses.  Shortly thereafter, a couple of mooks in Shimozuma mutter, “People are getting fed up with the bosses.”

Perhaps that little seed of dialog will blossom to a wider serial theme of an increasing public retaliation against the system that has set Zatoichi on his course from the beginning.  As Zatoichi’s fame across the country grows, perhaps a revolution is growing in the process.

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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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