Blind swordsman/masseur Ichi (known as Zatoichi, or "Masseur Ichi") angers a local yakuza gang when he defeats several of them in a wrestling match. When he finds that his long lost love Tane is nearby and romantically involved with a tough samurai in the employ of the gang, he remains in the village. Meanwhile, the young heir to the leadership is forced to confront his own fear and weakness when the gang insists he fight Ichi. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
MASSEUR ICHI, THE FUGITIVE - Slow and stately early Zatoichi
MASSEUR ICHI, THE FUGITIVE (1963) is the fourth in the series of Japanese swordplay films devoted to the exploits of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman whose super-hearing and sensitivity enabled him to perform impressive feats of derring-do. This entry is somewhat slower-paced and less action-packed than would become the norm in later Zatoichi films (which would continue to be produced through 1973). There is only one major swordfight, near the very end, but at least it's a spectacular one, with Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) slashing opponents right, left, front and back, although the spurting bloodshed which would soon become a distinct feature of samurai films is noticeably absent here. Zatoichi himself is also considerably less superhuman than he appears in later films.
Instead, the emphasis is Zatoichi's role as mediator in a conflict between gang bosses in a town he is visiting solely to pay respects to the mother of a gang member he'd killed who'd been seeking the ten gold coin bounty on Zatoichi's head. The complex interrelationships among the characters center chiefly around two young women, one of them a former lover of Zatoichi's who is now the wife of a sword-for-hire seeking to sell his services to one of the wily bosses. Zatoichi sides with the underdog, Sakichi, who'd reluctantly inherited his father's territory but would rather marry the other young woman, Onobu (Miwa Takada), the pretty young daughter of the innkeeper, a once-powerful gang boss bearing a powerful grudge because he'd lost his territory to Sakichi's father. The gang bosses pressure the vulnerable Sakichi to use Zatoichi's trust to set a trap for him. The stage is then set for a series of confrontations that culminate in the final battle.
It may be slow going for most action and swordplay buffs, but it has a formal beauty that later films in the series dispensed with in favor of more visceral thrills. The polished camerawork, largely on location, gives us stately compositions focused on the characters and their relationships. A sparing score by venerated composer Akira Ifukube adds a touch of class. Samurai films of the time routinely boasted such visual and aural elegance long before the audience demanded more bloodshed and a more excessive approach in later films (see, especially, the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series).
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