I’ve been too distracted to continue with the Zatoichi series that I started watching a little while ago, but I’ve hit it back up with my short night and found myself into the rapidly produced sequel to the original. How rapidly? Six months to the day after the original was released. Dang. I’m not sure whether that means getting the original cast back seems more or less reasonable. All depends on how busy they were, I suppose.
Zatoichi (the returning and forever Shintaro Katsu) is hired as the traveling masseur he is to work on a Lord from Edo of the House of Kuroda (Fujio Harumoto), and discovers that he is…not quite all there. The Lord’s retainers fear that Zatoichi will inform others and destroy the house’s reputation in the process, and so attempt to kill him, eventually making a deal with yakuza boss Kanbei (Sonosuke Sawamura), broadening it when he returns to Sasagawa to visit the grave of Miki Hirate from the first film, as this involves the territory of yakuza boss Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi), also from the previous tale. Slipping in alongside all of this is a one-armed criminal, Yoshiro (Tomisaburō Wakayama, actually the older brother of actor Katsu) and his associate Sanzo (Yutaka Nakamura — he calls Yoshiro “Aniki” all the time, but I think that’s not literal here, but it’s not addressed regardless), whose attitude toward Zatoichi seems mercurial and firmly opaque.
This movie’s about 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor under the direction of newcomer (to the series) Kazuo Mori, though still written by originator Kan Shimozawa. Interestingly, despite the rapid turnaround, this is no kind of cookie cutter “word swap” plot. Sure, we’ve still got Zatoichi being, well, Zatoichi–badass blind man who responds to violence effciently, but does not seek it out–and we’ve even got some other familiar faces (Otane, still played by Masayo Banri, reappears, too, since we’re in Sasagawa again), but it’s such an emphatic continuation (as that first word in the title translates so directly!) that it feels plenty fresh. Some apparently applaud the tighter pacing, whilst feeling the story was weaker. Honestly, I was more into this story than the first one. Maybe that’s just my affection for it being such a build on the first, without just being “Sukegoro feels shamed by Zatoichi’s single-handed performance, and sends men after him” or something that would have been a cookie cutter or quick copy-paste of some kind. Still, Yoshiro, even with his single-armed “gimmick”¹ feels fresh and interesting. He seems momentarily like an insert for Hirate–another flawed, noble Samurai for Zatoichi to admire–but is quickly, clearly something and someone other than that.
Shimozawa even manages to work in some more backstory for Zatoichi, some beats for our returning cast that aren’t expected or obvious ways to continue the story, and other little interesting tweaks that keep this from feeling at all like a re-tread. Quite a feet in a mere six months–perhaps Shimozawa already had a script, but, still…!
¹This isn’t to suggest that losing an arm is a “gimmick”, but rather that, at least now, “the one-armed man” is a kind of trope. Or maybe not a trope, but I know The Mask made a joke about it back when…uh, it was released.