Updated: Aug 10, 2020
5. Wang Kang, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman
Forget Batman v Superman. In the world of martial arts cinema, this is the gladiator match to end all others: Shintaro Katsu’s lightning-fast reverse cut pitted against Jimmy Wang Yu’s iconic broken blade. Beyond the obvious marketing gimmick (the film was released just a few years before Zatoichi transitioned to the small screen), however, the climactic confrontation between these two titans resonates because it carries genuine thematic weight. The narrative is built around a series of misunderstandings: Wang Kang, a Chinese man in an unfamiliar and hostile country, finds himself on the wrong side of the corrupt local authorities. Ichi desperately tries to lend the wrongfully accused man his aid, but the language barrier between them hinders him at every turn. Finally, convinced that the blind man has betrayed him and caused the deaths of innocent bystanders, Wang Kang turns his sword against his would-be benefactor. The fast-paced and ferocious fight leaves the combatants drenched in sweat and nursing multiple wounds, and when the final blow is struck, both men lament that their inability to communicate has led to such senseless violence.
4. Yasaburo, Samaritan Zatoichi
As far as the rival ronin archetype goes, Yasaburo is a bit bland: he lusts after the innocent woman Ichi spends the film attempting to rescue, throws in with the yakuza thugs pursuing the pair, and eventually turns on his allies after deciding that only he is worthy of slaying the blind swordsman. He makes up for any shortcomings in characterization by giving Ichi one of the toughest fights of his career. Cleverly using the thundering beat of distant festival drums to cover his footsteps, he lashes out relentlessly, confusing his sightless opponent’s keen senses and keeping him constantly off balance—even knocking him flat on his back at one point! Just as Yasaburo’s victory seems imminent, however, the drums abruptly stop, and the sound of his sandals rustling through the dry leaves gives away his position. He screams as Ichi’s blade bites into his abdomen—and, in a display of pure badassery, stuffs a rag into his bleeding mouth to muffle his cries of pain before attempting one last futile attack. While he may not be quite as memorable as most of the other antagonists in the series, his massive cojones earn him a spot on this list.
3. Akazuka, Zatoichi Challenged
Unlike most of the opponents Ichi faces—raggedy ronin selling their skills for gold and glory—Akazuka is, in fact, a loyal servant of the government, assassinating black market pornographers and destroying any evidence that might cause a scandal. Unfortunately, even though he respects Ichi as both a swordsman and a human being, Akazuka comes into conflict with the blind warrior when he sets his sights Shokichi, the artist that was coerced into producing the contraband material—a victim of the conspiracy, rather than a willing participant. Because he has just liberated Shokichi and reunited him with his long-lost son, Ichi has no intention of allowing the samurai to accomplish his mission. Akazuka, meanwhile, insists that the law can show no mercy, and he will therefore not hesitate to kill both Ichi and the child to reach his target. This philosophical disagreement inevitably erupts into violence, with Ichi literally rolling and flailing through the freshly-fallen snow to evade his foe’s expert parries. After he’s forced to throw his sword to kill an unexpected second opponent, Ichi even resorts to tackling and biting Akazuka. The proud samurai, fed up with his enemy’s tenacity, throws him to the ground, raises his katana to deliver the final blow—and stays his hand, at long last touched by the remarkable blind man’s selflessness and compassion. Sheathing his sword, he concedes defeat and walks away, becoming one of a lucky few to survive an encounter with Zatoichi.
2. Tanakura, Zatoichi the Fugitive
A brutish, sneering mercenary who follows his own inscrutable code of honor, Tanakura arguably paved the way for nearly every subsequent rival ronin. From the moment Ichi humiliates him in front of a room full of high-ranking yakuza, much of the film’s plot revolves around building up to their epic, one-on-one showdown. Beyond their constant attempts at one-upmanship, though, their bitter rivalry is deeply personal: Tanakura is currently married to Tane, a young woman Ichi once loved (previously seen in The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues), but ultimately left behind, hoping to protect her from his violent, aimless lifestyle. In many ways, Tane is the Zatoichi franchise’s answer to Vesper Lynd—and, like Vesper, she eventually loses her life after betraying our hero’s trust, struck down by her own husband as she desperately urges him to flee after they’ve lured Ichi into a trap. Enraged by her death, Ichi abandons his usual defensive fighting style and rushes to meet Tanakura head on. Sadly, his newfound aggression is no match for his opponent’s pure savagery, and the blind swordsman soon finds himself kneeling in the mud, his blade shattered, completely at the madman’s mercy. Fortunately, Ichi is more than willing to play dirty when his back is against a wall: he simply unsheathes the second blade hidden in the hilt of his cane sword and plunges it into his enemy’s stomach. Even fatally wounded, however, Tanakura manages to land one final low blow, using his last breath to forever tarnish Ichi’s idealized memories of Tane, taunting him with just how far she’d fallen. This leads to one of the most haunting images in the entire series: Ichi dancing down the road, pretending to cheerfully laugh as he reflects on just how blind he’s been.
1. Jushiro, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold
Like Yasaburo, this scarred, bullwhip-weilding ronin’s motivations are somewhat shallow: he comes into conflict with Ichi because, more or less, he just plain doesn’t like him, viewing the blind swordsman as little more than an insect that deserves to be crushed underfoot. Here, however, the performer elevates the material. Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu’s older brother, sinks his teeth into both the role and the scenery, essentially playing the character as an overgrown bully, snarling and cackling as he revels in causing pain and suffering. Appropriately, his climactic duel with Ichi is the ultimate expression of this sadistic attitude. Arriving at the appointed location riding a horse at full gallop, he quickly ensnares Ichi with his whip and drags him along the rough, dusty road, taunting him all the while. Fumbling to unsheathe his weapon, Ichi finally manages to knock his opponent off his mount. From here, the fight is realistically abrupt, yet elegant in its simplicity: the dazed combatants charge, cross swords two or three times, lock blades, and somehow end up back-to-back. They hesitate, neither willing to make the first move for fear of inviting the decisive counterattack. At last, Jushiro spins, raising his katana high for the killing stroke—leaving himself wide open for Ichi’s low thrust. The villain falls to his knees. A moment later, so does Ichi, feeling the grief of his accumulated cuts and bruises as the adrenaline rush fades. This wouldn’t be the last time our normally invulnerable hero was forced to fight after enduring a severe beating (from performing self-surgery in Zatoichi and the Fugitives to having his hands pierced with a harpoon in Zatoichi in Desperation), but few of the other examples carry the visceral punch of this brutal and beautiful ballet of swordsmanship.
[Originally written February 14, 2016.]