On his way to Mount Myogi, where he plans to pray to the first light of the New Year, Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) is approached by the surly Shinsuke, who is on the run after killing a man. He asks the blind swordsman to deliver a note to his sister, Sen (Eiko Taki), a servant girl in nearby Kasama. Ichi arrives to find the town busily preparing for the New Year festival, with local inns packed with street vendors, acrobats and other entertainers. With a shortage of space, lucky Ichi gets to share his room with some lovely ladies, including Saki (beautiful Miwa Takada, who played different roles in several Zatoichi films), daughter of a local politician who went missing a few days ago. Now the villagers are distraught that the new intendant Goroto Kajima (Akitake Kono) has allied himself with the local yakuza headed by Boss Jinbei (Kichijiro Ueda). Whilst aiding kindly Sen, Ichi realises the man Shinsuke killed was Saki’s father, but also that he may have been set up.
You can always count on Zatoichi to help a damsel in distress. And be kind to kids. And score big money at the local gambling den. And dazzle enemies with his superhuman sword skills. Okay, there are a lot of things you can count on with Zatoichi. Opinion seems somewhat divided as to whether Adventures of Zatoichi, the ninth film in the popular chanbara series, is a rather routine entry or else among the strongest outings for the sightless swordsman. Although its sword-swinging action is confined to the last fifteen minutes, this spins a deceptively simple story that packs a big dramatic punch. A striking pre-credits sequence follows the wind kicking up dust in Ichi’s path. “It’s a good thing I’m blind”, remarks our self-deprecating hero. There is a dual irony in this statement, given Ichi is far more perceptive than most but as the film shows us, his faith in the inherent decency of downtrodden folk sometimes leads him to make mistakes.
In some aspects, Adventures of Zatoichi seems to have been conceived as family-friendly entry in the series, what with the presence of then-popular TV comedians Daimaru and Rocket Nakata as a couple of wisecracking street performers (who memorably mimic Ichi’s facial expressions and sword moves), a chaste romance between Ichi and the doe-eyed young heroine, and the inclusion of Senkichi and Tatsukichi, two charming child acrobats who prove instrumental in helping Ichi save the day. However, the key relationship is between Ichi and Giju, a pathetic old drunk whom the film hints is either Ichi’s long-lost father or else someone that shares a very similar past. Haunted by the resemblance, our hero strikes up a friendship with Giju and tries to salvage his dignity, but the affable old drunk proves an unexpected opponent. Which leads to an emotionally-charged confrontation between an enraged Ichi and a sad old fool who pathetically begs for his life.
Kimiyoshi Yasuda was the resident monster movie specialist at Daiei studios, including Majin (1966) - which also stars Miwa Takada - and 100 Monsters (1968). He also directed five films in the Zatoichi series, including the excellent Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman (1971). With Adventures of Zatoichi, Yasuda hits all the usual crowd-pleasing buttons but highlights a fair few shock twists and lyrical moments. A reoccurring theme of these early, more optimistic Zatoichi films is the empathy among humble, hard-working peasant class Japanese and the film surrounds the blind hero with a warm ensemble of memorable characters. The film finds Ichi at his most contemplative, musing on morality and mankind and, after whirling his blade through an army of bad guys, praying before a sunrise he cannot see.