Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)


Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman Storyline

While traveling the Japanese countryside the blind masseur Zatoichi comes across the One Armed Swordsman, Wang Kang, who is in hiding and protecting a child from a corrupt Japanese priest and a group of yakuza. Zatoichi and Wang Kang, each from very different worlds yet heroic swordsman in their own right, at first seem to get along but a language barrier and a series of misunderstanding leads Kang to distrust Ichi. Soon the two heroes are at each other throats while each attempts to stop the true villains from taking the child.—Daniel Jos. Leary

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Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman Movie Reviews

Chinese and Japanese steel plus drama

Katsu’s sword work is very good in this film. This is especially true in the scene where he rescues one of the characters on the road and also in the fights he has against the boss’s minions. Katsu’s sword work is especially tight, direct, and brutal.

But most viewers will be more interested in the meeting of two cinema worlds, Chinese kung fu meets Japanese chambara. The story can be seen as being very symbolic if you think of the complex and tragic recent history between Japan and China.

Zatoichi and Yasuda (the director) could be making a political and/or cultural statement here. In this story a Chinese man is good, a Japanese priest is very bad, and the Shogun’s laws are shown to be absolutely absurd. In the end, the confrontation between Zatoichi and Wang comes about because of a series of misunderstandings caused by their inability to communicate with one another. The real tragedy in this tale is that Zatoichi and Wang have very similar characters. They are both honorable men who defend the weak and the poor against the strong and the wealthy. It’s a tragedy that they end up confronting one another.

I have heard that there is an alternative version of the film with a different ending. I can imagine how it would end, but would very much like to see it. Hopefully someday it will become available.

There is some good action in this entry in the series by both Katsu Shintaro and Jimmy Wang. Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman is good entertainment for the fan of martial arts films.

Japan’s Top Action Character meets Hong Kong’s Top Action Character

An interesting meeting of action film genres at a time when one was ebbing into the twilight and the other just starting to go. It would be only a few more years before the chambara genre peters out (but not before some more great films are made) and mostly moves to television. The wuxia (swordplay) genre (where the One Armed Swordsman comes from) split off into the kung fu genre which hits it’s stride with the coming of Bruce Lee’s “Big Boss” and Wang Yu’s self-directed “One Armed Boxer” (no relation to the swordsman), the same year this Zatoichi film is released. The great years of kung fu cinema were just around the corner.

Wang Kong (the One-Armed Swordsman) arrives in Japan to find a temple where a Japanese monk has invited Wang Kong to live. Unable to speak Japanese at all, Wang Kong chances upon a traveling Chinese family of entertainers who have made Japan their home. A husband, wife and young boy, they like Japan better then China. Accompanying Wang Kong to the temple the four encounter a procession of samurai transporting specially prepared abalone destined for the Shogun. Everyone must get off the road and let the procession pass or suffer dire consequences. Unfortunately, the little Chinese boy runs after a kite and is set upon by a sword swinging samurai. The mother protects her child but at the cost of her life, the father is killed too. Agast at the cruelty of the samurai, Wang Kong jumps in and kills a number of them. The little boy runs off and is separated from Wang Kong who retreats from further battle. The samurai decide to kill all the innocent people who witnessed the scene and blame the carnage on the “crazed Chinaman”. Zatoichi comes upon the frightened child and decides to take care of him. Later the fugitive Wang Kong meets Zatoichi but the two have a really hard time communicating and Wang Kong is very suspicious of Zatoichi’s motives. Of course this being a Zatoichi film, an evil yakuza gang gets involved and you know what’s going to happen to them.

The first thing that strikes me is how different the One-Armed Swordman films were from the Zatoichi films in terms of sophistication. The HK films of the time were still very stagy in look and acting where the Japanese films were well versed in film techniques and acted in a more natural manner. I am not a great fan of Chang Cheh’s “One Armed Swordsman” but many people really like it and it deserves it’s significance in film history. It was also apparently very popular in Japan.

This particular outing with the character is arguably the best produced One-Armed Swordsman film with actor Wang Yu as the character. There are a few issues with the film, the most serious is that the producers assumed that you already know Wang Kong is missing an arm and fights with a broken sword. Anyone unfamiliar with the backstory is going to be confused but the film will still be watchable. Second, the highly refined and excellent sword choreography for Zatoichi really makes the faithful but stagy non-weapon kung fu for Wang Kong look not so good. The kung fu sword work comes off fine however. The Japanese producers were very respectful to the One-Armed Swordman mythos and kept the character true to the original film.

The film, while not the absolute best of the Zatoichi series, is very good and touches on a number of issues. There are colorful characters the liven up the film and you will not be wasting your time watching. Recommended.

Zatoichi films? This is a good place to start…

One of the more accessible films in the series due to its simpler story (two heroes ally themselves against an evil but then find themselves on different sides due to a mis-understanding). Though the Zatoichi films often vary in style and in tone, the themes (treat others as you would wish to be treated, be true to your word, gamble within your means, etc), remain constant. Here, the language barrier between Zatoichi and The One-Armed Swordsman (one is Chinese, the other Japanese), is a theme that will have had a greater resonance for its native audience rather than those in the west, but the story works well just as a straight-forward adventure yarn. Shintarô Katsu is as reliably great as ever. By turns dynamic and exacting with the sword, warm of heart with the just and needy, steely and unmerciful of the greedy and vindictive. Zatoichi is one of the great movie heroes. Shintarô Katsu, one of the great heroic actors. If you haven’t seen these films then you could do worse than start here.