Shintaro Katsu returns as the sword-wielding, blind masseur Zatoichi, in this, the fourth film of the Zatoichi series. Having defeated a sizeable portion of the yakuza gangs in Japan, you would think that Zatoichi would be allowed to enjoy a well-earned rest, but alas, this is not to be. Ichi finds another bounty on his head and, as if that’s not bad enough, Zatoichi finds that the village he’s arrived in is swarming with Yakuza and a ronin in a permanent bad mood.
Zatoichi: The Fugitive doesn’t spend much time on character development, preferring instead to focus upon some incredibly memorable fight scenes. However, this is not to the detriment of the film. If anything, it adds to the series by showing us a side of Zatoichi he tries so hard to keep hidden: enraged Zatoichi!
When compared with the previous films the sword fights have improved significantly. Whilst a one-slash kill is expected from a swordsman as capable as Ichi, it does lead for some very short and uninspiring fight scenes. This, in turn, leads to a need to increase the number of foes Zatoichi faces, in order to lengthen the scene and thus keep the audience interested. The other option, as achieved in this film, is to increase the complexity of the scenes themselves, especially those scenes in which Ichi faces an opponent of equal skill. The final battle is particularly memorable as Zatoichi’s rage boils over and he begins slicing and dicing his way through a throng of thugs.
The only problem with Zatoichi: The Fugitive is that, as with the previous Zatoichi film, Zatoichi: New Tale of Zatoichi, there is the assumption that the audience is familiar with the Zatoichi character. However, this is only a problem when Ichi is reunited with a lost love from the first film.
The failure to properly introduce the Zatoichi character is made up for by a plot that is far easier to understand than the one found in New Tale of Zatoichi, yet just as intriguing.
As more of a comment of the Zatoichi series to date than anything else, I would really like to know how much sway Katsu has over script writing and character development for the Zatoichi films. The reason is that I can’t get over the number of romantic attachments Zatoichi can acquire over the span of four films. For a blind guy with fairly average looks and a stomach that could do with some sit-ups, he’s doing quite well. So far there’s been a marriage proposal, an offer to run away with him, a free night with a prostitute and a multitude of flirtatious moments with bar staff. Perhaps he gets them with sympathy, or his sword skills, or maybe it just pays to be a good masseur.
Overall, the Zatoichi series seems to be improving with each film released. Zatoichi: The Fugitive is a prime example of this, combining an interesting story with terrific fight scenes.