After twenty-three years on the road (and, boy, are his feet tired), sightless vagabond, swordsman, gambler and all-round badass Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) returns to his home village in Kasama. Of course it is a completely different home village than those Ichi visited in previous entries but the filmmakers never let continuity stand in the way of a solid formula. It is not an easy journey for Ichi. En route he stumbles across a mugging orchestrated by sexy teenage hooker-cum-thief Yuri (Rie Yokoyama) and her gang of delinquent youths. Local innkeepers mistake Ichi for a visiting magistrate only to boot him out on his ass upon realizing he is a "nobody." More happily, the local potter's daughter, Omiyo (Yukiko Toake) turns out to be the niece of the old woman who nursed Ichi when he was a baby. To Ichi's surprise the magistrate also turns out to be a face from the past: his childhood friend Shinbei (Eiji Okada), who denies knowing him. The villagers rejoice when local boy made good Shinbei declares he will pay their taxes for them. However, Shinbei uses this act of generosity as an excuse to help himself to their local rice stocks, precious rock quarry and young women. Needless to say this does not sit well with Zatoichi.
Depending on which source book you believe Shin Zatoichi Monogatori: Kasama No Chimatsuri, a.k.a. Zatoichi's Conspiracy, was either the final or penultimate entry in the long-running film series before producer-star Shintarô Katsu transferred his iconic character to television. Whereas a sense of finality hangs over the other film sometimes referred to as journey's end, Zatoichi in Desperation (1973), this one by contrast comes across as more of the same. On the one hand Toho Films, who took over production of the Zatoichi series after the original studio Daiei went bankrupt, graced this entry with some big name special guest stars: Eiji Okada, star of Alain Resnais' internationally acclaimed Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and surreal allegorical fantasy Woman in the Dunes (1964), sultry Rie Yokoyama from Koji Wakamatsu's incendiary art-porn Ecstasy of Angels (1972), and Takashi Shimura, one of Japan's most revered actors in such seminal films by Akira Kurosawa as Ikiru (1952) and Seven Samurai (1954) is unfortunately grievously wasted in a frankly thankless role. Yet the film adheres to the standard Zatoichi movie template: Ichi returns to his home village, finds trouble afoot, bonds with a pretty girl he then saves from sex slavery, uses his super-senses to win big at the gambling den then takes out the bad guys. Much like Toho's Godzilla movies, these films did not spin plots so much as re-enact rituals over and over again that occasionally reached a sort of mystic grandeur.
Nonetheless, to Katsu's credit, he and his co-screenwriters along with returning series director Kimiyoshi Yasuda reshuffle these familiar ingredients into what ranks among the most wistful and warm-hearted entries in the series. Trying to recapture the past only to find innocence is fleeting proves the major theme. Successive emotional scenes have Ichi beg the spirit of his dead mother to forgive him for what he has become or contemplate ending his rootless existence by embracing family and Omiyo, who considers herself his sister because they "suckled at the same breast." Yet just as the despicable Shinbei is no longer the little boy with whom Ichi once snuck into a pumpkin patch, so too is he no longer the same. As often in this series the script emphasizes the exploitation of the poor by the emergent middle class embodied by Shinbei with Ichi drawn as simultaneously of the oppressed underclass yet also a superhero. The nicely detailed screenplay also delves into the inequities of tax law in feudal Japan where poor farmers prop up the ruling elite with money, land, resources and ultimately even their children.
If Okada and Shimura are underused in stock roles at least Yokoyama proves herself one of Ichi's most memorable sidekicks. She is very watchable as the sassy yet sympathetic Yuri who buries her tender side beneath a streetwalker's swagger. There are traces of Seventies social commentary in the film's portrayal of the opportunistic delinquent youths who go from trying to kill Zatoichi to earn a fast buck to guilt ridden allies eventually risking their lives for a noble cause. Zatoichi's Conspiracy was also the bloodiest entry in the series until Katsu's comeback vehicle Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman in 1989. Limbs are lopped off with jet-sprays of blood reminiscent of the Lone Wolf & Cub movies Katsu produced as vehicles for his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama. Things climax with a well staged finale where Ichi bursts out of his hiding place in a bail of hay to slaughter enemies in whirlwind of swordplay. Yet more memorable is the pathos when he turns his back on family, stability and love for the open road.