Toho had to step in when Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, and the first release from them is this co-production with the Hong Kong studio, Shaw Brothers. The one-armed swordsman of the title is Wang Kang (not the return of Ichi’s crippled brother), and is played by Yu “Jimmy” Wang (who had played the same character in two earlier films). The combination of wuxia (weaponised martial arts action), kung fu and samurai swords is an excellent one, and I hoped it happened in more films so that I can track them down. These elements have the potential to be a messy mixture, but director Kimiyoshi Yasuda uses them excellently.
An early fight scene makes it clear that Ichi still has a bounty on his head, and that fountains of blood are likely to be appear in all of the fight scenes. Then Wang Kang is introduced, who is making his way to a friend’s temple in Masada, and stumbles upon a family of Chinese performers traveling round Japan. The parents are then killed in a misunderstanding of Japanese traditions – as the boy accidentally runs out in front of a daimyo procession. Wang Kang tries to help them, but instead fights off the samurai and is then chased as a fugitive. Ichi becomes involved when he finds the now orphaned boy, Xiaorang, wandering a forest alone, and later almost discovers the wrath of Wang Kang. However, they try their best to overcome language difficulties. Despite these attempts, the schemes of the yakuza and the samurai used to find Wang Kang end up to misunderstandings between the two warriors, and Wang Kang ultimately vows to kill Ichi – in one of the tensest stand-offs in the whole series.
Not everything is so grim, though. The early attempts by Ichi and Wang Kang to communicate are amusing and touching, often because they are aided by the limited Japanese of Xiaorang. Wang Kang’s vocabulary is also often misunderstood as water, rice, and sake – leading to him developing quite a taste for this Japanese beverage. Nonetheless, Yasuda only uses these scenes for as long as is absolutely necessary. He always makes sure the action is never too far away, partly as a result of his work on the script (alongside Takayuki Yamada).
Each character gets their fair share of individual action. As always, Ichi is seen fighting of yakuza before the credits roll (and does several times throughout the film, in an effort to stop both yakuza and samurai chasing after Wang Kang). But it is not long before we see the one-armed warrior displaying his kung fu skills, and then his acrobatics and swordsmanship when he is cornered at a quarry. The main difference between the two character’s scenes is the acrobatics and the spurts of blood (which only Ichi causes with his wounds). This implies that the final duel will be an impressive clash of styles, and it does not disappoint.
Anyone who is afraid the film may re-tread Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo can lay their doubts to rest. It is nowhere near as long; the pace zips along excellently; and the final fight is a long and drawn-out affair with a great outcome. There was always going to be danger of a stalemate occurring when bringing together two established character, but the balance found in the ending is the exact one that was needed (as neither character goes unscathed, and they are both tragically aware of their inability to communicate with one another). There are rumours that there are different cuts of the film (and even one version where Ichi dies). But we all know that there were more Zatoichi films, and Wang’s career has continued up until today. Furthermore, this version of the film is the only one known to exist. That is all I will say about the end – as it makes this entry is one of the must-see instalments in the whole franchise.
Another reason to see it is that because of its co-production status, the film had not been seen on video anywhere until after the year 2000. Now the film has been fully restored, in terms of visuals and subtitles, and it means every moment of it can be fully enjoyed – in addition to all the other Zatoichi films.
There are other subplots and characters that become significant at different points, but the makers of this film knew they had two top action-stars leading their cast, and they are used to great effect. Each plot point that is developed is used to hurtle the film towards the vicious final fight, and a lot of the film’s qualities (including all its other battle scenes) arise from this simple premise. It has to be said again – this is a great movie and it is a must-see.