He may be blind but Zatoichi's (Shintarô Katsu) in-built babe-o-meter always alerts him to the presence of a pretty girl. While working as a masseur at a flesh market he is instantly aware when a gorgeous woman with long flowing hair strips off her red silk kimono and sparks a bidding war among the aroused yakuza. En route to her new owner, the young beauty is rescued by the ever chivalrous Ichi. But as they spend a chaste night together in a nearby barn, she sneaks away to rejoin her samurai husband (Tatsuya Nakadai) who promptly slashes her dead with his sword. A distraught Zatoichi discovers her body the next morning. After burying the woman, he resumes wandering and eventually arrives in a town where the locals are taxed and terrorized by a powerful yakuza gang whose boss bears the ominous nickname of the Prince of Darkness (Masayuki Mori), a man with whom Zatoichi has something in common.
Zatoichi at the Fire Festival was the last of five films in the series directed by Kenji Misumi, who got the ball rolling with the very first Zatoichi movie back in 1962. Underrated in his day, Misumi went on to achieve some global notoriety as the director of the four best Lone Wolf and Cub movies but sadly died shortly after his last film The Last Samurai (1975) finally drew some critical acclaim. Misumi's work is characterized by extreme visceral action and a surreal visual sense conjuring imagery as arresting as a subversive European auteur like Luis Buñuel. Here the violence is less explicit, in keeping with the more restrained, character-centred tone favoured by series producer-star Shintarô Katsu, although Misumi does include a haunting dream sequence that anticipates the psychological delirium of his later work.
Opening with an amusing and characteristically Chaplin-esque slapstick credit sequence wherein Ichi struggles to shoo away an overly-inquisitive dog, the twenty-first film in the series adheres to the Zatoichi formula in many respects. Our blind hero rescues a damsel in distress, is kind to small children, scores big money at the local gambling den and stands up to an evil yakuza mob before a final showdown against a super-skilled opponent. However Katsu, Misumi and the screenwriters throw a number of welcome and effective curve-balls including the unexpected, almost Janet Leigh in Psycho-like, death of the ostensible female lead. This paves the way to introduce Ichi's celebrity nemesis played by superstar Tatsuya Nakadai.
By this point, Katsu had moved his production company away from financially troubled Daiei studios to Toho Films whose prestige led to the regular appearance of big name special guest stars. Hot on the heels of the legendary Toshirô Mifune's guest role in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1969), Katsu secured another casting coup with Nakadai, star of Hara-Kiri (1962), Kagemusha (1980) and most famously, Ran (1985). He plays a disgraced samurai whose financial troubles led him to sell his wife into prostitution yet whose macho ego compels him to kill her. Jealous of the low-born Ichi's near-supernatural sword skills and convinced he had sex with his wife, the nameless samurai sets out to slay the sightless swordsman. Nakadai is excellent but underused as the psychologically tormented samurai and is not even Ichi's principal antagonist. That honour goes to Masayuki Mori as the aptly named Prince of Darkness who, in an inspired twist, is also blind! Outwardly affable yet utterly ruthless, the mob boss proves Zatoichi's twisted mirror image, a man cites his handicap as the reason behind his cruelty, venality and manipulative nature just as Ichi maintains his blindness makes him more sensitive to the goodness or evil in people's souls.
However, Mori and Nakadai are not the only special guests in this unexpectedly starry series entry. Ichi gains an unlikely sidekick in the fey form of a pimp called Umeji played by Peter, Japan's most famous transvestite gay actor whose eclectic career encompassed such highlights as cult favourite Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), Akira Kurosawa's aforementioned Shakespeare epic Ran and the somewhat less prestigious faux snuff movie Guinea Pig 5: Devil Woman Doctor (1992). Umeji is an undeniably unique presence in the series. His character is hard to gauge as he flirts outrageously with a flustered Zatoichi and even pretends to molest him in bed (!) as pretext for an assassination attempt. This may sound homophobic (and to an extent, it is) but Ichi's behaviour towards Umeji is never less than benign. The pair eventually part as friends after Ichi imparts a frankly rather cryptic lesson on how to be a "real man."
Despite an awkward pace and comedy about as subtle and refined as a Carry On movie (e.g. Ichi spits an egg onto a villain's face, stumbles into a domestic row and gets sprayed with horse pee) the meandering first half is punctuated by some ingenious off-kilter moments including a wholly unexpected, superbly staged fight at a bath-house where a stark bollock naked Zatoichi fights off a dozen similarly nude yakuza whilst trying vainly to preserve his modesty. This hilarious sequence undoubtedly inspired the rather steamier naked swordswoman scene in Sex & Fury (1973) and may have even influenced a similar scene in David Cronenberg's gangster film Eastern Promises (2007). Elsewhere, when it comes to the ladies Zatoichi shares a luck in common with James Bond in that no sooner does one stunningly beautiful woman bite the dust then another stunningly beautiful woman enter his life. Reiko Ohara - who has an incredibly sexy voice - plays a flirty, mercenary lady gambler called Okiyo who again zings Ichi's uncanny sexual antennae at the gambling den. Coerced by the mob to seduce and kill Zatoichi, Okiyo is instead so affected by his kindness and decency she falls in love in a scene that is charmingly played and quite moving. Thereafter events grow increasingly dark and suspenseful with Ichi drawn into a high stakes dice game against the mob with Okiyo's life on the line. For once, Ichi is outfoxed by a wilier opponent and trapped in the titular fiery inferno. Such devious villainy renders his inevitable comeback that much sweeter ("Gentlemen, this is where the real fun begins!") and the striking cinematography turns the climax into a shadowy, nightmarish ballet of bloodshed.