iSugio

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword – Review

by Dane Benko

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Zatoichi finds misfortune amidst his travels yet again when he becomes the victim of an assassination attempt by the coward Seiroku. Seiroku is merely trying to earn street cred from the gang he runs with, but Zatoichi’s prompt disappearance after getting shot reveals that Seiroku is an attention-seeking blowhard. Zatoichi awakes from the gun wound to learn he was rescued and nursed back to health by a fireworks maker named Kyubei who was travelling to Kajikazawa with a one Miss Kuni.

Of course that means Zatoichi is off to Kajikazawa to give thanks for their help, and of course he arrives just in time to stumble in the midst of another territory conflict. Miss Kuni is the daughter of Bunkichi Tsugumi, benevolent gambler who hosts a big annual celebration that the village is gearing down for. However, across the unbridged and hard-to-ford river is the villainous Yasugoro of Takeya, a chess-loving crime boss who sees the river as potential income, as the workers who carry travelers across belong to Kajikazawa.

Yasugoro isn’t above blackmail and conspiracy, all while contriving to get the Intendant involved. Too bad Bunkichi has Zatoichi around, which means Yasugoro must put his sleaze to work to find a way to discredit Zatoichi as well, all of which seems preventable enough until Seiroku shows up and turns out to be Bunkichi’s son. Upsetting the unsteady balance Bunkichi was attempting to hold, Seiroku lights the fuse of the inevitable fireworks that occur on the night of celebration under actual fireworks.

Director Kazuo Ikehiro returns from the fractured and messy Zatoichi and the Golden Chest (1964) for a movie much more complete but only slightly better. There was a strong feeling in Golden Chest of unrealized stylistic flourishes and a bigger overall movie (as well as missing scenes), but Flashing Sword seems to try to make up for it by admitting the series to be a piece of episodic pulp.

The thing is, the series IS episodic pulp, it’s just worth acknowledging that Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is where the series has traveled so far down blind road and back alleys that the cynical social statement of the first two films is but a distant memory, the character of Zatoichi no longer a reserved wit playing on perceptions to keep villains constantly underestimating him, but has now become more a doddering  holy fool with a sixth sense for managing to be in the right place in the right time (and a seventh sense for leaving for just as long as necessary for the villains to pull something together to move the plot forward). He even gets petty, such as when he smears rice around Yasugoro’s place in disgust, a small enough slight it’s not even brought up again in the rest of the movie.

This movie is not all bad, however. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is a lighter, brighter sort of entertainment, complete with slapstick pratfalls and screwball turns of phrases, at least until the second half, where the tone changes drastically and the events even get somewhat surreal.  There are some quirky details that set it apart, including the deaf firework maker Kyubei counterpointing the blind swordsman, and a worn-out mook who has the particular misfortune of always being selected by Zatoichi to carry back and forth across the river.

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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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