A pregnant woman is assaulted on the highway and Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) is embarrassed to find himself acting as midwife. Entrusted with the dead woman’s baby, our hero journeys to the village of Dashu where he hopes to find her husband, Satoro, but is dogged every step of the way by a little boy named Kenta, who pelts him with rocks. After outwitting small-time hustler, Seiji (Osamu Sakai), Zatoichi befriends his father Tobei (Hisaya Morishige), an ageing law enforcement officer unable to prevent Dashu being overrun by violent gangsters. It transpires, Kenta is Satoro’s son and recounts to his father what he thinks he saw: Zatoichi killing his mother. Reluctant to slay Satoro in a duel, Zatoichi offers to help the troubled family instead. Gangsters working for Boss Tetsugoro (Rentaro Mikuni) are set to seize Satoro’s sister, Oyae (Naoko Otani) and make her a sex slave in forfeit for his unpaid debt. As Tetsugoro increases his stranglehold over Dashu, eliminating anyone who stands in his way, Zatoichi calls upon his wide array of martial arts skills.
Zatoichi At Large was the first of the “new” series made at Toho Studios after original producers Daiei went bankrupt. The 22nd instalment of the series proper, it replays certain key motifs (Zatoichi has adopted orphans and rescued girls faced with prostitution several times before), but is a well-paced, expertly crafted entry that ranks among the most entertaining. Told very much like a western, with our lone hero wandering into a troubled town, Kinya Naoi’s screenplay portrays the harsh realities of village life. The poor baby is passed from pillar to post with nobody willing to look after him until Zatoichi shells out cash. Yakuza scumbags subject local maidens to humiliating gynaecological exams before forcing them into prostitution.
The film is far from bleak though, with several broadly comic scenes, the highpoint of which involves the wacky village entertainers performing their shows before a distinctly unimpressed Boss Tetsugoro. The acts include a samurai play performed by trained monkeys, a surreal monologue delivered by a screechy-voiced actor with a droopy moustache, and Japan’s answer to The Krankies; topped off by Zatoichi demonstrating his own unique skills - scaring the bejeezus out of yakuza by stripping them naked with a twirl of his sword. Zatoichi is at his most selfless and abused here, pelted with rocks, strung up and beaten, and in one touching scene, offering to turn himself in and collect the reward to save Oyae. Always drawn to a pretty face, the old smoothie tells Oyae: “I may be blind but I can tell you have a lovely body.” Only a blind, master swordsman can say stuff like that without getting a slap.
Beautifully photographed by Fujio Morita, oversaturated colours drench pictorial landscapes and richly detailed studio sets, while a wistful, easy-listening score lends a dreamy air. The final fight scene is exceptionally well staged, as Zatoichi ploughs through one hundred opponents like a raging animal, then emerges from a burning building to tackle Tetsugoro. As per series convention, a super-skilled swordsman dreams of facing down Zatoichi and finally gets his chance in the unsettling, freeze-frame climax.
Now pay attention, here is where things get complicated. In an infamous blunder, Artsmagic released this film on region 2 DVD under the title: Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage. The real Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage was directed by Kazuo Ikehiro in 1966, but remains unavailable in Britain. If you want to buy Zatoichi At Large look for it under the title Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage. If you’re curious to see the real Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (a.k.a. Zatoichi Travels Overseas), you’ll have to invest in a multi-region DVD player. Got all that?