Today I watched Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (1989)
After a long hiatus the blind swordsman series returns, continuing the adventures of the titular warrior, masseuse, and outlaw gambler. This film is the final time Shintaro Katsu will play the character and his second, and final, time directing. The plot for this film is very dense and sometimes confusing, the many subplots playing like a best of Zatoichi scenarios. There is a shift in the power structure of a wide number of Yakuza, as a young and ambitious leader takes control, he is also well connected with the local authority who are obviously quite corrupt. Much of the action revolves around a large supply of antique muskets being traded on the black market. Of course there is also a damsel in distress and a mercenary samurai to round out the Zatoichi tropes in good fashion.
Much like Katsu’s last stint as director, this film sees the subject matter darken significantly and the narrative delivery done so with more experimental flare. The over-complicated narrative serves to enforce the grittier and more realistic mood this film delivers, instead of it being distracting, it fades into the background and enforces the character drama. This is also a notably bloodier entry into the franchise, the arterial spray style of swordplay is strong here. Even the decrease in film quality helps this film deliver a darker, edgier, but ultimately more philosophical and thoughtful entry into the series.
A lot of this tonal edge plays into themes of the aging warrior and of a changing world. Youthful villains become the most agressive and effective Ichi has ever faced and they are empowered by modern weapons, which are ironically antiques because of Japan’s cultural isolation. There is definitely a lot one could read into this plot and it’s symbols about the changing face of Japan in the Eighties and the rising prominence of youth culture. I think the film handles these well, there is a tendency for these kinds of movies, especially ones from Japan, to take on an aggressive anti-youth mentality, but not so much here. Changing times are more just a fact of life in this film.
As this is the final entry into the Katsu era of Zatoichi, it is also fittingly a character study of our often mysterious protagonist and sees him at his most emotionally open. The film delves into his dark world and his philosophies in numerous dialogue sequences that are an incredible showcase of Katsu’s skill not just behind the camera, but in front of it as well. The film is rife with incredible imagery, especially when lanterns are involved, continuing Katsu’s style of impressionistic imagery. All this comes together, the intense violence, the character driven storytelling, the breathtaking imagery, to create a masterful swansong for the series, but beyond that it is also one of the series finest entries with it’s themes and drama pushing it to the highest echelon of Zatoichi films. 5/5