This is one of the franchise’s most daring entries—bloodier, gorier and more morally ambiguous.
Dir. Satsuo Yamamoto
1967 | Japan | Action/Adventure/Drama | 96 mins | 2.35:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be NC16 for sexual references and violence)
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Rentaro Mikuni, Ko Nishimura
Plot: In a town where debt-ridden peasants are being ruthlessly exploited, Zatoichi is forced to take sides between a cruel yakuza boss and his seemingly altruistic rival.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
One of the best in the series, Zatoichi the Outlaw, is a blast. The 16th instalment is the only ‘Zatoichi’ movie directed by Satsuo Yamamoto (whom frankly I haven’t heard of before), and coincidentally also the first-ever film in the franchise to be produced by Shintaro Katsu’s own production company called Katsu Production.
Hardworking peasants are being exploited in a town as vices like gambling and prostitution tempt them, making them poor and subservient to the nefarious, controlling boss.
A caring yakuza hopes to change things for the better, befriending Zatoichi in the process. But things are not what they seem, as the blind swordsman would find out when the situation is at its nadir, enraging and forcing him to seek violent justice.
“No gambling. No whoring or fighting. It seems I’ve wound up in a peculiar village.”
Outlaw is bloodier, gorier and a more daring work than all of its predecessors, perhaps due to changing times and a public desiring for more than just safe, family-friendly fare. As a result, it is also a more morally ambiguous work, as violence—and sometimes lust—takes precedence.
The tones are constantly shifting from serious action to riotous moments, the latter best exemplified by a sequence featuring several blind folks making sexual remarks and lusting over women who cross their paths.
Some might find Outlaw messy or over-the-top, but I find its enthusiasm and ‘dark’ energy compelling. Shot by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, several action scenes occur in the thick of rain and mud, with Katsu delivering a more physical performance than usual.