Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Takayuki Yamada and Kimiyoshi Yasuda.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Jimmy Wang (Wang Kang, a Chinese martial artist on the run), Yuko Hamaki (Osen, a kindly prostitute), Michie Terada (Oyone, a justifiably angry woman), and Shinsuke Minami (Hanoichi, another blind, funny, wily masseur).
The Zatoichi universe drew from a variety of non-Japanese sources, almost from the beginning. The grand panoramas and extreme closeups have roots in Sergio Leone’s pictures, though it should be noted that both spaghetti and American westerns were deeply influenced by Japanese samurai cinema (see: ahem, Akira Kurosawa), so around and around we go. Rock music makes headway into the movies. So does psychedelia. Still, most of that shows up as cinematic technique, rather than what’s on the screen. What’s onscreen is firmly entrenched in Edo-era Japan, from the fashions to the technology to the elaborate social customs.
But, just as westerns ain’t American history, we shouldn’t hold samurai films to the standards of textbooks, either. Japan under the shogunate probably looked dimly like what we see in the Zatoichi universe, with all its exaggerations and postures. C’mon. It’s a series about a blind swordsman, in which the kimonos are never, ever wrinkled. So, assume it plays fast and loose with the culture.
Rarely, though, has the series played so fast and loose as it does in Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman. The loopiness is right there in the title; no one’s pulling wool over our eyes. And, when it becomes immediately apparent that the one-armed swordsman in question comes from China, during a historical period in which Japan was deeply isolationist, it’s hard to take its sense of facts seriously. Which is just proof that pop culture and artistic franchises can bowl over history any day.
“Zatoichi” was a household word by 1970, and its star—not to mention the new production company for the series, Toho Studios—wanted to set himself apart from Daiei definitely, and maybe make “Zatoichi” known throughout the rest of the Asian world in the process. We saw this bravura with the opening of Zatoichi the Outlaw, in which the franchise differentiated itself from its predecessor in the credit sequence. One-Armed Swordsman is more muted, as befitting its director (Kimiyoshi Yasuda), but the introduction of Chinese cinema tropes to this Japanese world gets the job done just as effectively. The movie brings together Katsu and Jimmy Wang, a Chinese martial-arts star and mainstay of the Shaw Brothers Studio, a Hong Kong-based company as famed and influential as Toho. In doing so, it fuses the fluid, airborne ballets of Chinese wuxia cinema with the decidedly more grounded action of the samurai flick. Imagine it as if it’s Hollywood in the 1930s, and MGM loaned one of its contract stars to Paramount, except that in the case the studios aren’t even in the same country, and the countries in question have some, um, fairly recent hostility.
So, the Katsu/Wang union was a big deal. The fusion, however, proves to be the least exciting thing about One-Armed Swordsman, at least in terms of the action.
That’s disappointing. See, for all my talk about The Seven Samurai being my gateway drug into Asian cinema, I’ve spent most of the last two decades preferring Hong Kong’s action movies over Japan’s. I love the wire work, the flying kicks, the floating through trees, the ghosts, the insane stunts, the grace and sexy dance of wuxia. If The Seven Samurai was one path, I’m forced to admit that the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon trail proved more fruitful to me in the long run. (Liking the Wu-Tang Clan gave me an assist, too.) I love that martial-arts movies, unlike Japanese or American ones, are primarily about bodily movement, about the body as a weapon. Of course, there are swords, poles, maces, and more, but they’re extensions of the actor/athlete using them. I love how mythic and poetic wuxia can be, with its fusion of the ethereal and the everyday, the folktale and the historical record, and its less-than-strict adherence to the laws of gravity. You see this wildness in Japanese animation but its human-based action cinema seems more earthbound. I was expecting Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman to fly.
It doesn’t, though it does glow.
The light sometimes seems to radiate outward from the actors, dimly but warmly illuminating the rooms around them. They create their own fires. With its browns, blacks, and burnt yellows, One-Armed Swordsman feels autumnal, so it’s no surprise to find Kimiyoshi Yasuda in the director’s chair. Indeed, it’s a movie about decline and loss. Two major characters become orphans in the course of the movie; Wang Kang seems to have never really had a home or a family. Neither has Zatoichi, for that matter, which binds the two fighters together even though they are tragically disunited by the inability to speak the other’s tongue.
No one connects, though everyone’s trying to. Sometimes, this is played for laughs. Mostly, though, the Sino-Japanese language barrier is tragic. Poor Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang, as the one-armed man of the title), on the run in a country foreign to him, is forced to use translators and negotiators for assistance. These intermediaries, as often as not, dupe him and otherwise lead him into harm’s way. The fact that he can’t understand Zatoichi means that he misreads the blind masseur’s intentions, with terrible consequences. Despite his dazzling fighting technique, which everyone else in the film is puzzled by, Kang can’t protect himself, much less the people with whom he comes into contact. He’s like a bloody version of King Midas—everyone he touches becomes bruised.
The film leaves a mark. Mothers and fathers get their throats slit, and neither Zatoichi nor Wang Kang can rectify this, exactly. A boy becomes an orphan, and then a daughter becomes one, too, and their sad fates are sealed without the possibility of much intervention from our hero. Hell, Zatoichi’s just trying to get out of this town alive. A child dies and, though it happens offscreen, it stings. A good man succumbs to the wiliness of Japanese codes that he can’t understand. A good man is forced to make a terrible choice, because he can’t see and thus can’t read the handwriting on the wall.
This sounds bleak. Looking back at One-Armed Swordsman in retrospect, it is bleak—more wintry than autumnal. But there are pleasures galore. Yasuda’s naturalist gaze makes images sing. The close-quarters fighting is superbly choreographed, through the flying wuxia work is less so. (The latter’s too jumpy and unsure of itself.) The single takes and roving camera make me restless with anticipation. Some interior and night scenes feel as if staged by Rembrandt’s paints. The plot hangs together and pulls me along.
Through it all, Katsu and Wang stage an intervention between Japan and China’s pop cinema cultures, arguing forcefully for them to come together. The actors share relatively few scenes here but those scene resonate. You wish they could become friends. But you see the barriers—language, social codes, fashion, traditions—that keep them apart. Increasingly in the film, that cultural baggage looks more damaging than productive, more alienating than connecting. This series has made no secrets about criticizing the Edo period’s feudalism and political corruption. Now its isolationism takes some licks, too.
The message was worth hearing in 1971. 43 years later, it still is.