Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Wang Yu
The twenty six films that compliled the original Zatoichi film series which starred Shintaro Katsu were among the best samurai films ever made which means they were some of the best in world cinema, period. Filled with action, biting satire and a dash of warmth when applicable, these short (by Chanbara cinema standards) epics are some of the most re watchable in the entire genre. Viewing several in a row gives off the feeling that you are watching choice pieces of an even greater whole (and of course, they are plenty enjoyable on an individual basis as well). Yet despite the greatness of nearly every entry, when it came time to team Blind Ichi with another famous sword character, I felt they came up comparitively short. The first of these, 'Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo' should have been great fun (at the very least). Instead while not a bad pic, it was arguably the weakest entry in either franchise. The second, 'Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire' was better, but still felt like a forced way to reprise Tatsuya Nakadai's 'Sword of Doom' character. Again a good film (and a bloody one, too), but I wouldn't call it one of the great ones (there are some who disagree, though). The third attempt however, was the charm as 'Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman just may be the best film in the entire series.
Directed by genre vet Kimiyoshi Yasuda, this effort imported Hong Kong's top action star Wang Yu and his very popular one armed character, Fang Kang and told a dark tale of eventual spiritual and emotional 'blindness'. At the start, we see Fang Kang (here renamed Wang Kang, perhaps due to an ongoing dispute between Wang Yu and at the time parent company Shaw Brothers who owned the rights to his films and characters) tired of a life of constant violence and bloodshed, deciding to visit a friend in Japan. On his way to a temple, he encounters and befriends a Chinese couple and young son who happen to live their as foreigners. Things almost immediately go bad when the group happen upon a local samurai procession. Not understanding the customs, the boy does something to offend the Japanese lord. Shockingly, they are about to kill the small boy right then and there, but for Fang's intervention. After cutting down the advancing samurai, Fang and his new found friends come under siege. The parents are killed and Fang and the boy both flee. Happening upon the scene is Blind Ichi who wisks the boy away while Fang awaits at the Temple for their return. Both the blind swordsman and one-armed swordsman find their individual paths dogged and through a combination of outsider treachery and a terrible misunderstanding (language barrier) our two heroes find themselves in a tragic faceoff where only one will survive.
At it's heart, this film is about cultural and language barriers and the terrible consequences that can be caused from a simple misunderstanding. It is a powerful film, perhaps the most powerful of any Zatoichi film and easily the deepest of the One-Armed series (as would be expected being a Japanese production). Katsu's blindman is at his most world weary as he pieces together the situation, only to wind up being confronted by the very man he so desperately tried to help. Wang Yu's one armed man may not seem like exactly the same character as he did in his own series, but this is likely due to an attempt to acclimate Fang Kang into a new setting. Some Shaw purists scoffed at his character's treatment here, but I think Yasuda showed a good deal of respect. The scenes with Fang are extremely well handled as it's obvious the film crew had studied the Chinese films closely what with his trademark impossibly high leaps and 'Basher' style martial arts moves well represented. Indeed there is abundant action featuring both stars and watching their distinct styles together is a real treat. If there is a disappointment to found, it's that our near supernatural duo do not fight side by side at any point. Also, Hong Kong film fans were understandably distraught over Fang ultimately dying at Ichi's hands (note: there is apparently an alternate Chinese language cut which has yet to surface that features additional Wang Yu footage that puts his character more to the forefront and shows him winning the climatic battle). Being a fan of Wang Yu and Kung Fu movies in general, I can understand this. But taken as a one-off type deal, this movie is a masterpiece. It's as good as Asian Action Cinema gets.