After the success of the speedily produced sequel to The Tale of Zatoichi, Daiei realized what they had on their hands – the makings of a proper franchise. If The Tale of Zatoichi Continues was a success then maybe this character, and their compelling star, could anchor a proper series. So that meant more sequels needed to be made. Continuing the studio’s trend they released The New Tale of Zatoichi in the spring immediately following the release of The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. Which meant that Daiei Studios managed to release the first three Zatoichi films in under a year, a pretty remarkable turn around.
In order to direct this third entry, the studio turned to a relatively minor director Tokuzô Tanaka. Tanaka had been a second-unit director on an Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon, and a second-unit director on two Kenji Mizoguchi films: Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu. The renowned projects mark Tanaka as a fair talent. Tokuzô Tanaka would go on to become a key member of the core group of directors responsible for the brunt of the Zatoichi franchise. Tanaka had a unique opportunity with his first entry in the series, it was the first full colour film in the Zatoichi franchise.
Keeping the surprisingly interconnected continuity of the first two films, this movie sees Zatoichi facing off against the brother of the crime boss he killed in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. Effectively this entry in the series completes a trilogy nested within the Zatoichi series. Starting with Ichi working for Kanbei and ending with Ichi fighting Kanbei’s vengeful brother. This film, like the last, finds a lot of pathos by exploring Zatoichi’s life before his wanderings.
The movie starts with Zatoichi travelling through some fields, where he comes across some fellow travellers he recognizes. One traveller is a childhood friend named Tamekichi, who’s now a poor travelling musician traversing the countryside with his wife and child. Ichi and Tamekichi immediately start catching up, and the four retire to a rural inn to catch up further. Zatoichi sits with the family, singing a dreary song the inn rather enjoys. Suddenly four masked thieves interrupt their moment. They rob the customers in the inn. Tamekichi takes notice of one robber, the leader who takes pleasure in robbing Zatoichi, with a tattoo of a die on his palm.
The next day Zatoichi attacks the local gang, using Tamekichi’s sight to confirm the identity of the main robber. Ichi explains that he didn’t want to risk any innocent bystanders getting hurt the night before, but now is ready to confront these crooks. The local mob boss arrives. He recognizes Ichi and, fearing the masseuse’s reputation, pays back all the robbers’ victims threefold.
Zatoichi travels on, resting for a while at a hot spring. While there he is suddenly accosted by some men who have been pursuing him. The leader of the men is Kanbei’s (the mob boss Zatoichi killed last film) brother. The men prepare to fight when a figure emerges from the trees and drives the crooks back. It’s a man named Banno, apparently Zatoichi’s old master. In The Tale of Zatoichi, Ichi claims to be self-taught in the ways of the sword, however now that doesn’t seem to be the case. The gangsters set on killing Zatoichi allow the two to leave unharmed. Kanbei’s brother is willing to wait to get his revenge.
Zatoichi is taken back to Banno’s home, where he reconnects with Banno’s eighteen-year-old sister. Banno’s sister, Yayoi, is in an arranged marriage with a local samurai, but unsurprisingly she quickly falls for Zatoichi. This rather distresses Banno, who’s struggling with severe financial difficulty that he hopes the marriage will alleviate. In fact it quickly becomes clear he’s fallen in with a local gang, known as the Tengu Gang.
Yayoi proposes to Zatoichi. Much like in the past films, Zatoichi is reticent. He doesn’t believe himself worthy, worries about his handicap, his murderous history, and his frequent hiring of prostitutes. Yayoi insists, telling Zatoichi he can become a new, better person now. Ichi agrees, deciding to hang up his sword-cane for good. Even as Zatoichi plans to settle into this new way of life, Kanbei’s brother makes his return. Ichi refuses to fight, asking for forgiveness instead. He explains his promise to his betrothed and the new life he plans to lead. Kanbei’s brother decides they should roll a die to decide Zatoichi’s punishment. If Zatoichi wins the roll he goes un-harmed, if he loses he will lose an arm. The die roll is a losing one, but before anyone says anything Kanbei’s brother, seemingly struck by Zatoichi’s reform, tips the die over so Ichi wins. Ichi admits afterwards that he knew he’d lost.
Banno angrily throws Ichi out of his house upon learning of the imminent marriage. Zatoichi goes to thank Kanbei’s sibling for his kindness, but Banno beats him there. Banno is meeting with the Tengu gang and ends up stabbing Kanbei’s brother in the back. Banno has found out about a kidnapping and plans to steal the ransom for himself. He accompanies the kidnapped man’s father to collect the ransom, but then kills the unarmed man, which Yayoi sees. Ichi comes across the Tengu gang kidnappers in the forest, and fights and kills them. Banno then arrives and insists on fighting Ichi. They do, and Yayoi watches as her betrothed kills her brother. Zatoichi leaves her and the town as the movie ends.
The New Tale of Zatoichi sees the series settle into a format of sorts. Much like a Western, the movie once again sees the brooding loner Zatoichi wander into a new town, come across some sort of unfair or criminal situation, meet a woman, and eventually leave. It seemed to be working for the series. Of course the sequels both explored aspects of Zatoichi’s past, an element with inevitable diminishing returns. The New Tale of Zatoichi’s chilly tone and grim final fight make a considerable impression, and greatly complement the developed format. Shintaro Katsu, as always, is wonderful. The whole film is a sombre addition to the series.