“Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman” is already the 22nd film of a series of 25 films made about this blind swordsman. If you haven’t seen one yet and want to get a sense of the tone and mood of the films, think of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, most notably “Once Upon a Time in the West”. The protagonist, Zatoichi, the blind masseur, is the lonesome cowboy, who travels through the country without a permanent residence and without family or friends. He has traded his horse for sandals and his revolver for a sword disguised as a walking stick, which he has mastered like no other. As in the spaghetti westerns, the land is dry and hot, the heads are sweaty and the faces furrowed, often shot close-up. The world in which the lonely hero moves is harsh and relentless, as tormented, money- and power-hungry crooks rule it. Women generally have nothing to crumble in the milk.
Zatoichi himself, like his Western counterparts, is no stranger to gambling here and there and drinks sake (the Japanese counterpart of whiskey) like water. In character he is a bit more modest than most gunslingers and a bit more philosophical. Another big difference is that Zatoichi himself never seeks danger. He ends up in it through a combination of circumstances and takes his responsibility. Usually, however, that means that a lot of heads start rolling, of the bad guys that is.
Wang also comes across his path by accident. He is wanted by the people in the area, because he is said to have killed innocent civilians. Nice fact: Zatoichi does not directly judge him, but tries to judge him on his character. They become friends. But due to all kinds of misunderstandings they eventually end up opposing each other, which is less for them, but good for the viewers at home: a sensational confrontation is bound to happen.
For this film, an old hero has once again come out of the closet, this time the one-armed swordsman from China, from the eponymous successful martial-arts film by Cheh Chang (Hong Kong, 1967). Although Yu Wang must have mastered some kung fu and sword fighting skills and he doesn’t act badly, his character is a lot less credible than that of the blind Zatoichi. In fight scenes you can clearly see the major drawbacks of the missing arm, it is all less balanced, less controlled. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that he really takes people out with one arm. This is then offset by some special effects, where the man flies through the air that it is a sweet delight. Maybe there are monks who can really do that and it fits well in the Chinese martial arts tradition, in the Zatoichi idiom it is a bit out of place, making it just too enjoyable. If at any point you inadvertently see his arm hidden in his suit, the credibility of his character is virtually shattered. And it is difficult to act against that.
It makes “Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman” a lesser movie in the series, which doesn’t mean he’s bad. The story, although simpler than usual, is as always well put together and except for the one-armed swordsman, the characters are believable and well thought out. The music is beautiful, although you can almost accuse the composer of plagiarism, because his music is very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, the composer of famous spaghetti westerns. Perhaps it would be a good idea to posthumously create a variation of the genre with the Zatoichi series. What about “Noodlewestern”?