Directed by Kenji Misumi. Written by Kiyokata Saruwaka, Hisashi Sugiura, and Tetsuro Yoshida.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Yoshiko Mita (Osode, another beautiful woman with a legitimate grudge against our hero), Takuya Fujioka (Shinsuke, a funny and roly-poly yakuza), Ko Nishimura (Sosuke Saruya, an oily magistrate), Akira Shimizu (Boss Kumakichi, who’s toadying up to Saruya), and Makoto Sato (Kashiwazaki, a sociopathic samurai).
“Lord, I was born a rambling man.” —The Allman Brothers Band
“The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” —Gary Snyder
Why does Zatoichi keep on keepin’ on? I mean, it would probably extend his lifespan to stop traveling, to settle down in a village, and find a permanent job as a masseur for a doctor’s clinic. Hell, he almost does exactly that in the last film (Zatoichi and the Fugitives). Despite the blindness, potbelly, and slovenly eating habits, hot women seem to glom onto him, so he would have no trouble finding a wife. (Over the course of this series, he’s received at least three de facto marriage proposals.) If he needed to scratch that yakuza itch, he could serve under the employ of a boss he respects, and just stay in town. It’s only by Ichi’s incessant movement that he finds himself in so much trouble, blundering into so many messes, and causing so many of his own. Just sit down, man.
He can’t, for whatever reason. Like so many lone traveler archetypes in cinema, who are almost always masculine, the end of an Ichi tale shows our “hero” movin’ on down the road, with red sunset often as the backdrop. Interestingly, the original Kan Shimozawa story subverts all this. Shimozawa’s Zatoichi stays under the employment of a yakuza boss until he can’t stand it no more, and then leaves—with his wife—and settles somewhere else. He settles down but the story never implies that he’s settling for less. In fact, getting out of the yakuza life seems to be a wise move—for his health and his ethics—for Zatoichi.
But the film enterprise is a franchise, and kept going with Katsu Productions even after Daiei Studios shut down. And franchises keep going, even if it no longer makes sense for them to continue. The biggest difference that I see between Daiei’s and Katsu’s productions is the bleakness. These later films, overseen by the lead actor, show the weight of Ichi’s violence. With each new body that piles up, that’s one more reason for our “hero” to keep moving. He’s outrunning his past but, with each killing, he’s making that past bigger and more dangerous. It’s a vicious circle.
Still, he could just stop.
After all, once Ichi’s killed all the baddies in town, he could become the rare non-corrupt yakuza running it. After all, once he’s gotten the woman whose brother Ichi killed to love him (and this plotline’s happened more than once in this series), why not stick around? The life he’s slicing his way through ain’t so great, so why not try out a different one?
Osode (Yoshiko Mita) wants to know. She’s been through as rough a life as Zatoichi. She’s prostituted to pay off her brother’s gambling (and drinking) debts. Once she’s got the 30 ryo, she returns home, only to find that Zatoichi—working temporarily for a corrupt yakuza—has slain her sibling. Furious and saddened, she makes a half-assed plan to murder Ichi in his sleep and, after that, to return to life in the brothel. She’s going from one terrible home to another.
That plan—if you can call it that—goes awry. (It was originally worse—kill Zatoichi, and then kill herself.) Ichi feels bound to protect her, since he’s killed her brother. That’s as far as he sees. Osode, though, sees the bigger picture. It’s not Ichi who killed her brother but, instead, Ichi’s employer. Under the yakuza code, Ichi was just following orders; Ichi, of course, hadn’t bother to get the full scope of the issue before he unsheathed his blade. He’s trapped in the yakuza life, and unwilling to break it, no matter how many times we have seen it to be corrupt and counterproductive. (I mean, seriously. In nineteen films, I think I can recall one honorable boss, and maybe three magistrates who weren’t absolutely awful.) Osode, as a woman with debts (even though they aren’t her debts), is bound to the whorehouse. At least Ichi can run away.
Despite all this, Osode sees love as the way out of this system. By the end of Samaritan Zatoichi, with all obstacles out of her path, Osode asks desperately for Zatoichi to stay. “How can I ever be happy after you’ve gone away?” she cries. The look on Ichi’s face lets us know that he’s thinking the same thing. The melancholy, spare music—Sei Ikeno’s score is haunting throughout the movie—underscores the tense moment. But Osode is pulled away suddenly and, once she breaks of the moment and gets her bearings again, Zatoichi has disappeared.
He has pulled himself away from women who love him, whom he has loved back, from families with whom he could have made a home. He’s done all this before. But Samaritan Zatoichi‘s tragedy hurts because the slow-burning love here seems real, seems to fit. Osode’s no naive babe in the woods, though she seems so at the beginning, before we know the depths of what she’s done to survive. She’s strong enough to make do with Zatoichi. She’s smart enough to see the system that traps her and him both. (Zatoichi’s always trying to save individual women, to seek vengeance for wronged individuals. He doesn’t see the corruption as a whole.) And she’s beautiful, though Zatoichi will only know that by touch, taste, smell, and voice. Maybe that’s not so bad.
But he flees. In doing so, he escapes a potentially good life so that he can adhere to the codes of the yakuza and feudal law, which have failed him in every Zatoichi film and which will fail him again. If that’s not an indictment of the Edo shogunate, what is?
* * * * *
Though the plot’s rote, cinematic surprises abound in Samaritan Zatoichi. Kenji Misumi directs, and he lets himself loose this time. Sure, there’s his minimalist mise-en-scene and obsession with right angles, but there are also (gasp!) tracking shots and close-ups so tight you’ll think you’re watching a Sergio Leone feature. Luridly hued flashbacks, Dutch tilts, sloooooow cross-fades, and quick flashes between past and present all make appearances. That’s not so odd for, say, Kazuo Ikehiro or any number of music-video directors, but it’s strange for Misumi. A nice change. The fight choreography stuns again, particularly the solo fight between Zatoichi and his rival (Makoto Sato). Misumi allows it to go on and on, all the while ratcheting up the tension with dramatic lighting, eerie drumming, and well-timed cuts.
All this makes me want to see another Zatoichi entry, even though I know it’s in the best interests of the protagonist to quit.