Zatoichi tales written and/or directed by series star Shinatro Katsu himself (particularly the borderline nihilistic Zatoichi in Desperation) tend to be more introspective affairs, meditating on his iconic character’s flaws and shortcomings, and “A Memorial Day and the Bell of Life”, the third episode of the franchise's televised incarnation, is no exception. Because of his physical handicap, Ichi instinctively lashes out against any attacker, rarely considering the consequences—but here, he’s forced to confront the heartbroken daughter of a slain ronin who was merely honoring an obligation to a yakuza boss that provided him with food and hospitality.
This theme is reinforced by the presence of Monji, one of the franchise’s most compelling rival swordsmen (“I can be a good guy or a bad guy, depending on the situation,” he proudly proclaims). Our hero fails to recognize this enigmatic figure on two occasions, with dire repercussions. The first is when he rescues Ichi from drowning, explaining that he’s repaying a debt; it takes Ichi quite a while to remember that he spared the man’s life in the opening scene, due to a longstanding vow to never spill blood on the anniversary of his mother’s death. Monji resolves to act as his bodyguard until the day is over, and Ichi gradually grows to admire his grit and moral code. Later, however, Monji wordlessly ambushes Ichi, hoping to test his skills now that both of their oaths have been fulfilled. Ichi cuts him down without hesitation, only realizing what he’s done after finding his newfound friend’s discarded cloak.
And the end credits roll over the image of our devastated protagonist’s visage as the full weight of his violent lifestyle utterly shatters him.
[Originally written March 10, 2018.]