Sterling direction and cinematography mark this seventh entry in the popular blind swordsman series. In the unforgettable pre-credit sequence, the camera adopts the point-of-view of a fly buzzing around the sleeping Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) till he cleaves it in half! Thus unnerving the surly samurai hitherto giving him evil looks. The story proper begins with Ichi on the run before he is unexpectedly wounded by a cocky, rifle-wielding young punk named Seiroku. He is rescued from the river by kindly Miss Kuni (Naoko Kubo) and her entourage. In gratitude, Ichi intervenes when Kuni’s father, the benevolent Boss Bunkichi has problems with his rival across the river, stuttering, snaggle-toothed Boss Yasugoro (Tatsuo Endo), who wants total control of their joint river-crossing service and hires a pack of rampaging ronin to enforce his will. Further problems arise when Bunkichi’s no-good son returns to the scene, none other than Seiroku, still bearing a grudge against our sightless swordsman.
Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword is an ideal entry point for newcomers to the Zatoichi movies since it lays out all the series tropes before they became stale clichés. It features another charmingly wry and philosophical performance from Shintarô Katsu as the tragicomic hero who routinely plays up his handicap to take villains by surprise. In 1960 Katsu played dual roles as a blind masseur and a criminal imposter who takes his place in Secrets of a Court Masseur. His performance in this otherwise obscure film inspired Daiei studios to create the Zatoichi series, starting with The Tale of Zatoichi (1962). Unique among martial arts heroes, Ichi is equal parts Charlie Chaplin and Toshirô Mifune, kind to small children and pretty girls, prone to practical jokes, humble and polite till he explodes into righteous fury. His adventures are both simultaneously comic and dramatic with plots structured along the lines of vintage westerns: the lone hero rides into town, righting wrongs before moving on.
Goofy but likeable comedy (e.g. Ichi mistakenly ignores a warning from some local kids and falls into a hole; gabs with a mouthful of rice; peeps at a naked woman in the bathtub - whom he obviously can’t see but revels in the thrill nonetheless!) sits alongside some exciting action set-pieces, though the basic plot boils down to yet another variation on Yojimbo (1961) which was itself derived from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest. It is the incidentals that enliven the leisurely plot and provide some novel twists to the formula. Kazuo Ikehiro - who directed another series entry: Zatoichi’s Adventures Overseas (1967) a.k.a. Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage - stages an excellent underwater sequence with Ichi slashing at his opponents like the shark from Jaws (1975). When Ichi reverts into killing machine mode, all traces of the affable clown disappear as Ikehiro’s moody staging imparts an aura of near supernatural dread, one enhanced by an outstandingly ominous score by Sei Ikeno.
Features the classic line: “It’s scum like you that give gangsters a bad name!”