Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Ryozo Kasahara.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shiho Fujimura (Oshizu, a woman in trouble), Kiyoko Suizenji (Oharu, a lovely singer, in both senses of the word), Tatsuo Endo (once again playing a truly evil boss, Boss Iwagoro), Eijiro Tono (Senzo, an old blacksmith), and Fujio Suga (Kuwayama, a corrupt inspector)
It’s Japanese New Year once again, and once again Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s in the director’s chair. He must like shooting in the fall. As with his Adventures of Zatoichi, the color palette veers autumnal; the camera takes are slow and stationary; if they aren’t stationary, they zoom in very, very slowly; the pace slows like the drip of molasses from a jar. Everything’s muted, visuals and audio. For the first 75 minutes, it’s so quiet. The score drops away for ten minutes at a time, camera positions are held for two-minute stretches, nothing much is happening but quiet conversation and long pauses. It’s essentially a chamber drama; most scenes have three or less people in the frame, and most of the time they’re just chatting about loss and decay and the regrets that weigh heavy over us as we approach our own winters. Ichi has lots of regrets. Early in the film, an elderly blacksmith—again for Yasuda, an old man plays a central role—“reads” Ichi’s sword like a palm reader, and ascertains that it’s been used frequently. He also discovers that the sword is on its last leg. “It’s probably good for one more kill,” the blacksmith warns him, “but the sword will snap apart when you strike.” The sword’s in its winter. So’s the old man. So’s the season. Zatoichi feels like he’s in decline, too, moving through the film more haltingly than usual, avoiding swordplay whenever he can, and occasionally hiding from enemies instead of confronting them. Without trust in his blade, he feels lost. He listens more than he speaks. Without his cane, he stumbles into things. In fights, in which he’s usually so precise, Ichi manages to demolish two places of business by accident. (One room-wrecking’s played for laughs; one isn’t.) It’s funny but sobering, too. Of course, in the tail end of the movie, the formula rears back up and the swordplay commences. The colors get more lurid, the lighting more dramatic. The latent pulse of violence gushes out amidst a gentle snowfall, which happens in Adventures of Zatoichi, too. Autumn to winter—maybe that’s all Yasuda knows how to do, cinematically. But that’s being uncharitable. More likely, it’s all he could get away with in this assembly-line franchise, his rare chance to hand-write his signature on a film enterprise churned out like rubber stamps.