Jailed for illegal gambling, blind swordsman Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) befriends Shimazo Kitase (Koichi Mizuhara), a man facing the death sentence for a litany of crimes, though he claims to be innocent. Since Ichi is due for release, Kitase begs him to visit his home village and get a message to two men who can prove his innocence, yakuza bosses Jubei (Kenjiro Ishiyama) and Senpachi. He also asks Ichi to look after his wife and daughter. Along his journey, Ichi stops off at an inn where his super-hearing enables him to win big money at an archery contest. Sure enough, the local yakuza ambush him afterwards. Sure enough, his lightning fast sword skills make short work of them all. All this greatly impresses, Hyakutaro (Kanbi Fujiyama), a rather roguish young monk who tags along with Ichi, only to vanish when yet another desperate man asks him to deliver payment for an urgent bill. Shortly thereafter, Ichi discovers Hyakutaro has stolen his name! Posing as the sightless swordsman, he has been swindling yakuza bosses across the region, demanding cash, food, wine and women in return for his phoney protection.
“Every time someone asks me a favour like this, I get into trouble”, remarks the self-effacing swordsman. One of the overriding themes of the Zatoichi series is our hero’s ongoing empathy with the downtrodden and unjustly persecuted. It is an idea shared with Hollywood westerns and their vision of the wandering cowboy, but equally plays to the myth of the righteous yakuza from Japanese folklore. However, the undercurrent to Ichi’s altruism has him repeatedly exploited by less scrupulous characters. Throughout the course of the eleventh Zatoichi film, known as Zatoichi Sakata Giri (Zatoichi: Backwards Slice) in Japan and packaged as Zatoichi and the Doomed Man in the West, the sightless swordsman has his identity stolen, is tricked by a little boy into entering a yakuza den, and fooled by the feisty Yone (Eiko Taki) into saving her life. Zatoichi remains arguably the most vulnerable of all martial arts heroes and yet rather than seek vengeance, shrugs off these experiences with gruff good humour. Wily working class rogues who live by their wits don’t infuriate Ichi. It’s bullying gangsters he can’t stand.
Zatoichi and the Doomed Man was directed by Kazuo Mori, sometimes billed as Issei Mori, a stalwart of the series and other samurai movies, known as chanbara movies in Japan named after their sword-clashing sound effects. Mori had a long-standing working relationship with Shintarô Katsu, having also made Secrets of a Court Masseur (1960) the movie where Katsu first played a blind man and which inspired the Zatoichi series. This time Mori delivers what is almost a buddy movie, detailing an amusing love-hate relationship between Ichi and shameless charlatan Hyakutaro. Kanbi Fujiyama gives a lively and engaging performance as the alternately crafty and apologetic monk. The film includes a very funny scene wherein Hyakutaro, in his guise as Zatoichi, requests a masseur only to find himself in the hands of the real Ichi. As the plot develops, it transpires Hyakutaro is connected to Kitase though his finale fate concludes on an ironic note.
Though a little convoluted, the film ranks among the most tightly plotted and swiftly paced Zatoichi adventures, full of memorable characters and some strikingly staged set-pieces. It climaxes with one of the most impressive duels in the series, as Ichi slashes his way through an army of swordsmen in the fog-shrouded Kashima Bay. While the villains prove wily enough to try roping and snaring him, and even try to shoot him in the back, one problem with these early entries is Ichi never faces an opponent that really challenges him. The closing sequence offers a near Zen-like moment of tranquil repose as Zatoichi contemplates the endless ocean.