A family of Chinese acrobats touring Japan befriend fellow countryman, Wang Kong (Jimmy Wang Yu), the legendary one-armed swordsman, but whilst on the road their little boy accidentally halts an official Nambu Samurai Procession. His parents are slaughtered, with Wang Kong framed for their murders and pursued by the Nambu eager to eliminate all witnesses. Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite blind gambler, masseur, and swordsman, Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) stumbles upon the massacre and is entrusted with caring for the boy. On their journey, Zatoichi crosses paths with Wang Kong and, despite the language barrier, they seem set to blossom a lasting friendship. Tragically, misunderstandings, miscommunication and the machinations of the local yakuza boss, set these two, equally-matched warriors against each other…
Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman has a funky, chop-socky vibe enhanced by zoom-happy camerawork and a score heavy on the fuzz guitar and Tijuana brass. Yet despite the exploitation movie premise, this is one of the most profound, poetic entries in the long-running series, packed with powerful themes: cultural clashes, racism, and lack of communication. The well-crafted story hinges around a series of misunderstandings: the Chinese child unwittingly disrupts a religious ceremony. A girl whose parents are killed mistakenly holds Zatoichi responsible. Wang Kong thinks Zatoichi has betrayed him. Only the bilingual boy is able to negotiate the divide, translating for both his guardians. Initially mistrustful, the warriors bond briefly in a wonderful scene where they try to discuss food, sake and learn each other’s words for “thank you”, finally laughing off their linguistic difficulties.
Kimiyoshi Yasuda was a regular series director, although best known for kiddie-friendly monster movies including Majin (1966), 100 Monsters (1968) and Tokaido Road Monsters (1969) - a major influence on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). Here he portrays an intriguing camaraderie between foreign workers, whores and downtrodden, poor folk, but doesn’t neglect the requisite, broadly comic interludes ( our hero meets a near-identical blind gambler/masseur named Ichi (!) and later, whilst getting it on with a gorgeous geisha, farts in the face of a peeping tom) or the frenetic fights allowing both iconic actors to show of their stuff. True to form, Jimmy leaps and flies through the air, fells trees with a kung fu chop, and fights off a hundred men literally, single-handed, while Katsu maintains his (relatively) naturalistic, chanbara-style swordplay. This is also among the gorier Zatoichi movies, with ears, arms and eyeballs sliced off.
Great performances from Wang Yu as the haunted, persecuted, heroic swordsman and Katsu at his most tragic and caring. Their final face off is heartbreaking stuff, two righteous men duelling because of a simple misunderstanding. Sadly, it is rumoured the film’s plea for tolerance and understanding did not extend off-screen. Wang Yu supposedly had a difficult time with the Japanese crew, a fact borne out by the slew of virulently anti-Japanese movies he made afterwards, including Beach of the War Gods (1973).