The Z-man is blind, and yet he sees, in a manner of speaking. “Move the air,” he growls in one movie, “and I will end your life.” And he means it too. Over the course of the series, back in the Sixties and Seventies, he ended enough lives to empty a mid-sized city. But, as the Arnold character says in “True Lies,” they were all bad.
This is a tale from the blade-ridden history of Japan, a Samurai movie, a sword flick. This is an eccentric entry in the series: no one dies in the credit sequence. No one dies, in fact, for the first hour of the movie, at least at the hands of Zatoichi. A woman does die in childbirth early on, with Z serving as her excellent paramedic. She’d been badly cut up by a bad guy, so it was all that our hero could do to save the baby. He takes the baby to the woman’s family, and inevitably takes them under his wing, to the fatal misfortune of their tormentors.
Zatoichi walks into these movies, and he walks out again at the end, on missions that start out as visits to old friends, or the delivery of messages, or, as here, visits to the graves of guys that he killed long ago, to say a prayer and make amends. Along the way he earns a living gambling. Not gambling, actually, because he can hear, sense the position of the dice inside the cup. He always cleans up, he’s always flush with gold. It’s not cheating, though, because he’s really just taking crooked gamblers to the cleaners. Here he catches a he/she(?) dealer hiding dice in her mouth. Why they continue to let him play is a mystery to me, he’s the most famous gambler in Japan.
The no-dying thing is a great innovation, and sets this movie apart from the other Zatoichi movies. Sure, he has minor confrontations, he cuts a guy’s sword in half before he can get it out of the scabbard, he smacks some guys around, another guy tries to show some class by cutting his water bottle in half only to find out that the Z-man has simultaneously cut HIS water bottle in half, little things like that. But no killing for an hour, more than an hour. He makes up for it at the end though, the ending is more typical.
No, in “Zatoichi at Large” our hero passes a quiet first hour meeting a bunch of gangsters who mark themselves for death by placing innocent women and children in jeopardy, beating up straightos, and generally being arrogant shits.
Also uncharacteristically, Zatoichi allows himself to be captured, and badly beaten up. He may have done this to establish the worth of one of the bad guys, who does in fact cut his ropes and facilitate his escape. It was hard to tell, the movie was in Japanese after all.
Finally, the patriarch of the family being helped gets killed, and the daughter is put in extreme jeopardy. This is the cue to strike up the band: it’s payback time! For about twenty minutes it’s all Gangsters In A Cuisinart with the top off, featuring:
1. The misguided son of the patriarch, who thinks the Z-man killed his dad. He lamely tries to kill the Z-man while the big fight is going on. Zatoichi has to dance with him while fighting off the gangster army, to comical effect;
2. Zatoichi hides inside a Dragon Dance costume, and when the gangsters come sniffing around he kills one with a thrust through the cloth mouth of the mask. He then wears the costume while killing a further half-a-dozen or ten gangsters; and
3. They try to kill Zatoichi with fire, burning oil, and he is momentarily disoriented. He rapidly regains his bearings, though, and partly on fire, with a background of fire, he stalks and kills the rest of them.
The ending? The baby is happy, and the family is content with the vengeance wreaked by Zatoichi and the four hundred pieces of gold that he has given them to help them rebuild their lives. In the last scene, it’s a beautiful day and Z walks off into the sunset, seeking more adventures, wanting only to make us happy, to entertain us. Thanks, Z-man!