iSugio

Zatoichi the Fugitive – Review

by Dane Benko

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It is summer festival time and the sects of the Joshu Yakuza are at a place of transition. Sakichi is set to be heir to the Shimonida clan, but his ascension opens up opportunities to the usual in yakuza plotting and fecklessness. Tokuro Yogiri is conspiring with other clans he’s invited to the village festival to take territory from the shy and spineless Sakichi, who sees the power dynamics inherent in being a boss as an inconvenience getting in the way of other more relaxing pursuits, such as courting the young orphan Nobu. Nobu’s father Shimazo runs an inn that becomes the focal point of these dynamics as Yogiri rolls him into the fold of the conspiracy and a mysterious samurai named Tanakura appears.

Into this mess wanders our hero Zatoichi, whose fame has begun to precede him and whose physical prowess has advanced to higher levels than ever before. Astute and chivalrous as always, Zatoichi nevertheless has to contend with a price on his head, which causes an unfortunate incident on the riverside involving a duel with young Kisuki Munjo. Arriving in town in order to pay penance to the mother of Munjo, Miki, Zatoichi stays at Shimazo’s Obata Inn, whereby he is quickly wrapped up into the local outlaw politics as always. And to drive the personal element, the mysterious samurai Tanakura is married to none other than Zatoichi’s former love interest, Tane.

This is the second Zatoichi film by director Tokuzo Takana, who has brought Zatoichi into full color and turned the character away from a chased wolf and into a nearly unstoppable equalizer for the forces of good. The plot is classic jidaigeki: opposing factions of a certain locale get more than they anticipated when the superior skilled ronin who wanders into their midst; meanwhile that selfsame character finds a character, usually a girl, who turns that conflict personal. What’s interesting here is that we don’t get to exit on the girl gazing sadly into the distance as their impossible love is signified with the slowly fading silhouette of the hero.  Also, this particular entry into the Zatoichi series stands out because normally in jidaigeki, a character’s moral flaw (usually indicated by the bushido) underlines their fatal moralistic end. In Zatoichi the Fugitive, not everyone’s personal flaws necessarily results in their death and not everyone’s morality protects them from harm.

In comparison to the previous movies, this one is more fast paced and action packed, though it is much more character driven than modern action movies or serials from the West.  There’s a lot of blink-and-you-miss it moments of characterization where a single decision affects everyone else in a cascade of cause-and-effect. Gone is the question of whether Zatoichi will escape the world of crime, replaced now with the basic motivation of wondering how he’ll manage to survive. But even as he struggles with each character that comes along in his own way, the expectation placed on him by others is that he’s not only going to survive, but resolve all the regional conflicts, a position he never asks for nor appreciates being put in.

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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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