Welcome backZATOICHI

(Aka:  Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi; Zatoichi 26; Zatoichi: Darkness is His Ally; Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman)
(1989 - Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Kanako Higuchi, Takanori Jinnai, Ryuutaro Gan (aka Takehiro Okumura), Yuya Uchida, Ken Ogata, Toyomi Kusano
Directed by Shintaro Katsu

Reviewed by JB

     Welcome Back, Katsu.

     One of the many wise and funny things film historian Joe Adamson once said was "God never meant for sixty-two-year-old Marx Brothers to make movies."  Upon first sight of a 58-year-old Shintaro Katsu in this 1989 comeback film, you may wonder if God had the same feeling about Katsu playing Zatoichi after a decade and a half absence.  If you watch the films in order, it is initially a shock to see an older Ichi, with graying hair and a few more years of wear and tear on his otherwise well-tanned face.  But after the first few minutes, it is apparent that whatever His feeling about the aging Marx Brothers of LOVE HAPPY, God was good to Katsu, because in this film, he is as spry as ever, not having lost any of his talent, charm or ability to convincingly slice down seven assassins in the space of three seconds. 

     If you are expecting this to be the be-all and end-all of all Zatoichi films, you will be disappointed.  Although more introspective than any film in the series save TALE OF ZATOICHI, ZATOICHI '89 is a typical Ichi film with late '80s touches.  So along with everything you would expect in an Ichi film, you'll also find female nudity, Ichi having sex in a Japanese bath, more blood than any other previous adventure, and even an embarrassing montage featuring an eighties' power ballad sung in English.  Rather than capping off a remarkable series, ZAT '89 ends like all other Ichi films, with Master Ichi walking down the road to his next adventure.  That's the way it should be - like James Bond, Zatoichi's story should never really end, which is one of the reasons that Takeshi Kitano's 2003 homage film is such a treat.

     Don't ask about the story.  It's all about rival gangs, corrupt official and a price on Ichi's head.  What make Katsu's new version of an old tale special is Katsu himself.  More than a decade after last playing the character, he still nails it as much as Sean Connery nails James Bond in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.  This old dog doesn't trot out many new tricks, but the old tricks, done by a master, are still entertaining.  If the later mass-slaughter scenes are edited in a more kinetic style, possibly to cover for Katsu's age, the scenes still work as Katsu reprises several classic fight gags and polishes them up with some fun twists.  Remember the film where he had to fight while carrying a baby?  Here, he throws the baby up in the air, slice down a gangster and catches the baby again.  Classic stuff.

     The supporting cast is excellent, starting with Ryuutaro Gan as a young local crime boss.  If you think he looks suspiciously like Katsu, you'd be right - he is Katsu's son.  If you think that Yuya Uchida, as another crime boss, looks like Keith Richard... well, there's really no explanation for that.  The cast of characters are typical, and include a pretty teen girl who is forced into being an official's concubine, and a wandering samurai who befriends Ichi even though a duel to the death is inevitable.  The story is not as tight as it could be, and Katsu's direction is less imaginative than what he displayed in ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION, but he gets the job done.

     Perhaps the highest compliment that can be given to ZATOICHI '89, the movie in which we welcome Zatoichi back and bid him goodbye simultaneously, is that, like the best Ichi films, it makes for a perfect introduction to the series. 3½ - JB

Zatoichi: Blind Swordsman     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

NOTE: After ZATOICHI, Shintaro Katsu played a major part in 1990's RONIN GAI as a disheveled bull of a samurai.  It proved to be his last film.  A large man who lived large and loved food and cigars, Katsu died In 1997 of throat cancer.

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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee