A terrific Zatoichi flick and one of the series’ very best, Misumi’s focus on story and characterisation is the real sleight-of-hand here in this slower but well-paced movie.
Dir. Kenji Misumi
1967 | Japan | Action/Adventure/Drama | 86 mins | 2.35:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some violence and sexual references)
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Jushiro Konoe, Miwa Takada
Plot: After an artist is threatened by the yakuza into creating valuable but highly illegal pornography, the law aims to execute him. Zatoichi, having been honor bound to protect the man and his family, must now run against the law.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Kenji Misumi returns with Zatoichi Challenged, already the 17th in the series, and his fourth outing as director. It is a terrific flick, as good as Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964), which is one of the series’ best.
There’s always something special about a Zatoichi picture directed by Misumi, a still underappreciated director-for-hire whose strong sense of story and characterisation often elevated his work above some of the more run-of-the-mill offerings in the action, swordfighting genre.
Here we have Shintaro Katsu embodying the titular character like hand-to-glove, as he is faced with the task (from a dying woman) of reuniting her young son with his father whom he has never met.
The problem is that the father is held captive by a yakuza boss who takes advantage of his painting skills to create erotica on artefacts to sell them for a premium to rich lords.
“I never imagined you knew tricks like that.”
The best parts of Misumi’s work are not the scenes of action (though they are of course great) but the portrayal of the relationship between Zatoichi and the boy.
With Zatoichi acting almost like a surrogate father, we see him exuding his softer, emotional side as caregiver and protector. At the same time, we also see how Misumi employs physical humour as the boy plays sight-related tricks on the blind swordsman.
One of the most well-paced films in the series, Zatoichi Challenged features a tense and unforgettable climactic action duel, shot as heavy snow falls delicately from the sky.