Review: Zatoichi at Large-Zatôichi goyô-tabi (1972)

Director: Kazuo Mori | 88 minutes | drama, action, adventure | Actors: Shintarô Katsu, Rentaro Mikuni, Hisaya Morishige, Etsushi Takahashi, Naoko Otani, Osamu Sakai

Zatoichi is actually Japan’s James Bond, Robin Hood and Superman all at once, but more noble than the first two and less schizophrenic than the last. The dexterity of his sword skills has been praised and feared and is widely reported in the Zatoichi series – this episode is one of the last of twenty-five films shot between 1962 and 1973. Even more famous is his high morality; In keeping with the tradition of the samurai, Zatoichi fights for the weak and his fair play and compassion for the beaten are respected. Zatoichi is a hero without an ego. Not that the Zatoichi films are heavy-handed or overly violent, although some blood sprays around here and there. They are public films with humor, speed, good and bad. Predictable entertainment, but definitely made; what makes the film series unique are Zatoichi himself and the drawn-out fight scenes.

In “Zatoichi at Large” the blind hero must save his own skin as well as his fellow man. A heavily pregnant woman is ambushed by the side of the road, gives birth to her child with the help of the passing Zatoichi and dies. Zatoichi takes the child to the father, but the newborn’s older brother identifies him as a murderer. To prove his innocence, Zatoichi takes on the yakuza (organized crime), who extort the virtuous family.

A simple story, but Zatoichi’s noble fighting skills make it acceptable. Much nicer than our morals right? Not a happy message or collection box, but sacrifice and struggle. Sure, Zatoichi is a movie hero, but an outspoken human, one who doesn’t need a license to kill or a cape, just his heart and senses. So under its own power and it also looks nice, a bit Sergio Leone, but still modestly oriental.

Quentin Tarantino had already noticed this and turned down the aesthetic fighting art of the Zatoichi films for his “Kill Bill” series, which looks even slicker than the inspirer’s own films. In 2003, Golden Lion winner Takeshi Kitano (“Fireworks”) directed and played Zatoichi again, but that film was lost in the publicity surrounding the release of “Kill Bill”.

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