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Review: Zatoichi the Outlaw-Zatôichi rôyaburi (1967)

Directed by: | 95 minutes | , , | Actors: , , Ko Nishimura, , ,

“Zatoichi” is a creation of the Japanese writer Kan Shimozawade (1892-1968), who specialized in “period adventure drama”. Or rather: stories from one period in the of Japan (the feudal era in the 19th century), which deal with the adventures of a blind swordsman and which always have a well-developed dramatic line. The films owe their strength to a careful study of time and its habits and customs, but also to the human knowledge of the maker, who clearly understood that human weaknesses are timeless and therefore recognizable to everyone. A total of 25 “Zatoichis” were filmed between 1962 and 1974. In all those films, the story is at least as important as the action and the characters are well thought-out multi-dimensional characters.

“Zatoichi the Outlaw” is the sixteenth in the series. The story is fascinating and well told; without a voice-over or the like, not too simple lines are clearly set out. That requires some attention, especially with all those difficult Japanese names that you have to remember. However, the basic idea is simple, it doesn’t take much explanation: swordsman helps the weak and poor who are threatened by the rich and strong.

The nicest thing is the fact of the very modest, blind masseur (Zatoichi) who is always underestimated among strangers and eventually shows his great sword fighting skills at crucial moments. So good action and despite the fairly complicated plot, the story is told smoothly, with dry humor and a lot of knowledge of business and especially people. It must be said, however, that the outlined world view is not really positive. Some people are even more greedy, selfish or opinionated than others and almost everyone cheats on everyone. That is one of the important themes in this story: who can you trust and what do you base that on? Maybe you better not trust anyone at all and only go for your own shop.

The (former) samurai Ohara Sushui, also called sensei (master) by his “followers”, thinks differently. Like a kind of Gandhi, he takes care of a bunch of simple farmers who are destroyed by their gambling tendencies in difficult times and who are helped by cunning landowners (and gambling owners at the same time!) From their money and their land, sometimes with brutal violence. Sushui has renounced the use of his sword and tries to make the farmers aware of their strength, namely that they are many and that they are strong together, even without weapons. He also teaches them to work more accurately and to stand up for themselves, which leads to many giving up gambling. The land and gaming owners are not happy about this and are looking for ways to get rid of Sushui, but he is still a formidable opponent, without a sword, but still. In addition, Zatoichi comes to his aid. But Zatoichi is also confronted by Sushui with an important question of conscience: is violence really necessary to help people?

It cannot be said otherwise: this is cinema at the highest level. Intelligent, credible, with a well-dosed amount of humor and action, at times very profound and always entertaining.

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