Returning to a village from his past, blind gambler swordsman Zatoichi (Shintarô Ichi) is aghast to learn things have taken a turn for the worst. His old masseur teacher was murdered and the man's virginal daughter, Sayo (Mikiko Tsubouchi) has been imprisoned at the local brothel where she and other prostitutes are subject to all kinds of abuse. Ichi's attempt to spring her free is derailed by the arrival of Isoda (Fujio Harumoto), a high ranking official at the Imperial court who enjoys liaising with prostitutes. Forming a fast a friendship with wily dice thrower Denroku the Weasel (Norihei Miki) and his perky young daughter Tsuru (Sachiko Kobayashi), Ichi learns Isoda is helping yakuza Boss Tatsugoro (Sonosuke Sawamura) fiddle his taxes. Unfortunately events force Denroku to choose between helping his friend Zatoichi and protecting his daughter.
Any film franchise reaching its tenth installment is bound to seem a little formulaic. Even though there were plenty of triumphs to come for the Zatoichi series by the time Zatoichi's Revenge rolled into cinemas audiences could practically set their watch by the predictability of the plot. Once again Ichi arrives somewhere he has been before only to find evil afoot. Thereafter he rescues a damsel in distress, befriends a plucky orphan, uses his super senses to score big money at the local gambling den and squares off against a super-skilled adversary. All very predictable. Yet bolstering this stock plot were some high calibre performances, not least from star Shintarô Katsu, along with a set of visuals with an interestingly experimental edge.
Zatoichi's Revenge marks the moment when the series transitioned from stately traditional chanbara in the classic Akira Kurosawa style towards a funkier sensibility paving the way for such hallucinogenic martial arts epics as the Lone Wolf and Cub movies that were of course produced by Shintarô Katsu. Avant-garde editing, black and white flashbacks intercut with present day colour, hand-held point-of-view shots and creative use of both ambient sound effects and eerie, unsettling silence all manage to alleviate the predictable nature of the plot and turn this into something quite compelling. This was only the second movie made by Akira Inoue, a prolific filmmaker active to this day and best known for his cult women in prison movie, er, Women's Prison (1968). Foreshadowing that film Inoue focuses on the suffering and camaraderie among the imprisoned whores. Although the action is nowhere as sleazy or gratuitous as, say, Bamboo House of Dolls (1973), he does not shy away from scenes where they are brutally beaten and abused observed from afar by a justifiably appalled Zatoichi.
Away from the harsher aspects of the plot, Inoue also doles out those lyrical moments of poetry and comedy that make any Zatoichi movie worth savouring. Notably a sequence with Ichi walking through the woods hand-in-hand with young Tsuru. As they duet on a charming folk song he quietly kills a would-be assassin before gently urging her to keep singing. The sub-plot wherein sweet, innocent Tsuru gradually has her eyes opened to the more unsavoury aspects of her father's character yet still loves him enough to steal Ichi's sword prove quietly affecting. Denroku emerges a particularly lively, engaging and faceted supporting player and even gets his own amusing action sequence. Interestingly, for a change the big baddie of the piece Boss Tatsugoro turns out to be a blustering fool as the real brains is his yojimbo (bodyguard) Kadokura (Takeshi Kato). Which leaves it all the more surprising when Kadokura is disposed of so early. This renders the climax, wherein Ichi takes on the entire town single-handed (again, a scene done many times before and set to be repeated many times once more) dramatically lightweight albeit an undeniable triumph of action choreography.