Judge Dan Mancini prefers his cane swords to be made of sugarcane.
This sword has reached the end of its life span. Given your skill, it's probably good for one more kill. But when you strike that last blow, the blade's going to snap.—Senzo
As with so many other blind swordsman adventures, Zatoichi's Cane Sword—the 15th entry in the series—opens with our hero stumbling upon a dying victim of an assault. This time, it's a man named Shotaro from Ashikaga. In short order, Ichi finds his way to the town in question and there meets a master blacksmith named Senzo (Eijrio Tono, Yojimbo, Pale Flower, Tora! Tora! Tora!), who informs him that his mentor, the famed swordsmith Koutatsu, forged Ichi's weapon. After a brief examination, Senzo declares Ichi's cane sword on the verge of destruction, compromised by a three-inch crack near its hilt. The wistful Ichi takes this as a sign that it's time to put his violent past behind him, and finds work as a masseur at the local Shinotsuke Inn.
At the inn he meets Miss Shizu and her brother, Sheikichi, the children of the man murdered at film's beginning. It seems Shotaro was the boss of Ashikaga, but was offed by the wicked Iwagoro clan who wanted to seize control. Shotaro's family was dispersed, but Shizu wants to curry favor with Kuwayama, the province inspector, in order to have Sheikichi installed in his father's place. Kawayama is in cahoots with the Iwagoros, but strings Shizu along because he lusts after her. It's a classic case of exploitation of the innocent by heartless yakuza, but what can our hero do when he's been relegated to a life of peaceful service as a masseur by his fast-failing blade?
Zatoichi's Cane Sword offers a radical break from the tried-and-true Zatoichi formula, and the result is a charming, novel addition to the series. The tale is driven less by the treachery of vile yakuza than it is by the failing health of Ichi's infamous sword, and his budding friendship with the blacksmith Senzo. The film plays out as a simple character melodrama, relatively free of the punctuations of swordfighting typical of the Zatoichi films. The political intrigue is given ample room to develop as the film's powerbrokers scheme and maneuver within the pleasant confines of the Shinotsuke Inn, often with Ichi on hand to dole out massages, giving our hero insight into the secret motives of all the players. Ichi's being the one character with enough plot information—usually delivered to him through the convenient coincidences of melodrama—to piece together the true motives of both good guys and bad is a regular feature of the Zatoichi films, but in Zatoichi's Cane Sword it's allowed to be the central feature as Ichi is relegated to a passive stance through much of the running time. He's like the James Bond of Goldfinger here, patiently biding his time as the action unfolds, being no more than a mild irritant to the film's villains until the time is right for a climactic deathblow.
And there is no jaded, deadly samurai waiting for his chance to duel the great Zatoichi. Here, our hero's greatest challenge is his dying sword. How can a warrior fight with a weapon destined to fail him?
Zatoichi's Cane Sword might be of interest to Ichi fans who scratched their heads over Beat Takeshi's inclusion of a musical number in his 2003 reimagining of the blind swordsman, because there are two numbers here. After his brief encounter with Shotaro, Ichi hooks up with a traveling caravan, among whom is the lovely Miss Haru, who sings a lilting travel song, accompanied by the film's score. Later, Ichi entertains the elites at the Shinotsuke Inn by performing a comic song and dance about duck hunting, a number that makes great use of Katsu's musical talent and skill with broad comedy. Both numbers add charm and distinction to a movie that's already breezier and mellower than most in the series.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Zatoichi's Cane Sword isn't quite as impressive in the video department as the two titles released alongside it, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert and Zatoichi's Vengeance. The image is clean and without dirt or major damage, but color is slightly faded in a number of scenes so that fleshtones aren't top-notch and blacks aren't quite solid. It's difficult to tell, of course, but it doesn't appear these deficiencies are the result of age or a poor job by HVE. Based on the strong detail present in even the least impressive shots, it looks like the fault may be cinematographer Senkichiro Takeda's. Sometimes color correction and digital tweakage can't fix gaffes in photography and lighting. I'm not completely certain, but it appears that's what HVE was dealing with here.
The original Japanese soundtrack has been mastered in a two-channel mono mix that delivers clear dialogue but is otherwise fairly flat and, like most Japanese optical tracks of the period, has a tendency to distort. This deficiency is more problematic in Zatoichi's Cane Sword than Chess Expert or Vengeance because Ichiro Sato's score is filled with the booming organ swells stereotypical of melodrama programmers—it's so pronounced in Sato's music, one almost expects to find a mustache-twirling villain tying a damsel to some railroad tracks. My only other complaint about the audio is that it's mixed at a significantly higher volume level than other entries in the series. I had to quickly roll back the volume control on my receiver as the opening score nearly blew my eyebrows off.
Extras on the disc include trailers for episodes 13, 15, and 17 in the series. The disc also offers a trailer for HVE's entire line of Zatoichi DVD releases, housed as an easy-to-find Easter egg. A 14x22 collectible poster and a four-page insert booklet with a brief essay by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck are also available for your enjoyment.
Zatoichi's Cane Sword isn't a good entry point for the Ichi novice, but it's a welcome change of pace for those who have been following along since the first episode.
[Note: The final three-disc wave of HVE's Zatoichi titles is due later this year and will include episodes 17, 18, and 19. For those wondering about the MIA status of episode 14, no one currently holds North American distribution rights, and I have no idea what the problem is. AnimEigo has already released episode 16, Zatoichi the Outlaw, and will continue their release of later entries in the series throughout this year. By the end of summer, 25 of the 26 Zatoichi feature films should be available in North America.]
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Insert Essay by Film Scholar Michael Jeck
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