At a roadside inn a dying woman entreats blind swordsman Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) to escort her young son Ryota to his father, Shokichi (Takao Ito), an artist who lives in the far away town of Maebara. Ichi dutifully embarks on an eventful road trip alongside the naughty little boy who enjoys playing endless pranks on the sightless sword hero. Along the way the pair hook up with Miss Tomoe (Yukiji Asaoka) and her band of travelling performers who are harrassed by thugs working for Boss Gonzo (Asao Koike), sadly not a bent-nosed Muppet with a sexual fetish for chickens but the local yakuza don. Frightened Ryota prevents Ichi from intervening but the group are saved instead by Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), a roving ronin of considerable renown who is intrigued by the blind man’s phenomenal sword skills.
There were several films where Zatoichi was paired with either a helpless infant or a precocious kid including Adventures of Zatoichi (1964), Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) and Zatoichi At Large (1972), possibly taking their cue from Charlie Chaplin’s seminal comic melodrama The Kid (1921). After all, Ichi always was the most Chaplin-esque of chanbara heroes. In the third of his five series entries, director Kenji Misumi does not sentimentalise little Ryota, who is drawn as mouthy and mischievous yet sympathetic. In one poignant scene Ichi asks artistically-inclined Ryota to draw Tomoe’s face in the sand, only the boy ends up drawing his mother instead. Much like the Chaplin movie the heart of the movie is the relationship between outlaw and child, two equally downtrodden protagonists although in this instance the narrative is somewhat rambling and unfocused, lingering on characters that don’t play a big role in proceedings, notably Tomoe.
Zatoichi Challenged opens as star Shintarô Katsu waxes lyrical, in character, before crooning a song over the opening credits (“Oh lonesome road”) emphasising Ichi’s status as a melancholy, solitary figure in spite of his instant empathy with the downtrodden and needy. In fact there are several instances where characters burst into song so this almost ranks as a chanbara musical. However, this is foremost a poignant, character driven drama and while swordplay is largely confined to the finale the film does not suffer a lack of action staging, amongst others, a suspenseful sequence with Zatoichi and Shokichi trapped under a rock slide. Shokichi turns out to be a feckless gambler in debt to - surprise twist ahoy! - Boss Gonzo who imprisons the artist to paint a series of pornographic vases forbidden under an imperial edict. Confusingly, aside from one dead girlfriend, Shokichi has not one but two love interests including a tragic geisha named Osen (Mikiko Tsubouchi) though he eventually settles down with the sweet daughter of a local potter played by lovely Miwa Takada, who appeared as different characters in several Zatoichi films.
That Shokichi and his son are both equally flawed makes it all the more affecting when Ichi sets out to defend them from Tajuro Akazuka. Akazuka fills the series’ stock role of noble opponent, a distinguished samurai fallen on hard times. He grows to admire not only Ichi’s skill but more importantly his integrity, illustrated in a nice scene where the blind masseur politely spurns his charitable offer of a silver piece for a simple shoulder massage, insisting on being paid only what is due. It turns out Akazuka and a fellow undercover spy are government agents on a mission to eliminate everyone connected to the pornography ring including the hapless artist. Who knew the shogunate took such extreme action against porn peddlers? Today’s smut mongers have it easy by comparison. As someone who values human decency above the law, the idea of killing an artist for something they drew is a concept Zatoichi cannot understand. Typical of Misumi’s arresting visual sense the final showdown unfolds amidst a picturesque snowfall with beautiful Panavision photography by Chishi Makiura who went on to work his magic with the director again on the seminal Lone Wolf and Cub films. The extended battle does not disappoint and proves suspenseful and emotionally draining for both Ichi and the audience with a surprising outcome.