After being so pleasantly surprised with The Tale of Zatoichi and in particular Shintaro Katsu’s endearing performance as the titular blind masseuse and master swordsman, I was keen to continue my “Zatoichi-gatsu” and watch the next entry in the series. I was also a little nervous: the series stretched to twenty-five films between 1962 and 1973, not counting later entries and remakes. Surely the quality would not be maintained for the duration, so it was just a question of when the drop would come. It was also not obvious whether a sequel would be an original story or merely a rehash of the first film; in watching many ongoing series from Japan’s 1960s and ‘70s like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s clear that each film in the series follows a fairly rote formula, often with the same cast returning in “new” roles. Would The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963) buck that trend, or mark the start of a more formulaic martial arts film?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
The plot picks up a year after the original film, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) resuming his role as a wandering masseuse. I was a little worried that the film entirely disregarded the symbolic act of discarding his sword cane after the denouement of The Tale of Zatoichi, but in many other ways this is a direct sequel that hinges on the events of the first film. En route to pay his respects at Miki Hirate’s grave, Ichi finds himself caught up in the chaos stemming from two separate storylines. The first sees him recruited to give a massage to a mentally incompetent lord whose retainers want to keep his condition a secret, forcing Ichi on the run. It reminded me in some ways of 13 Assassins and the machinations of various characters trying to either keep the lord’s proclivities a secret, or trying to end them. In the same way, The Tales of Zatoichi Continues presents a lord who cannot function, but whose retainers will stoop to murder to keep in good repute.
The second and more significant storyline sees Katsu playing across from his real life brother Tomisaburo Wakayama, star of the six episode Lone Wolf and Cub series of films. Wakayama, the elder of the pair, is a little more alive here than he is in the extremely wooden Lone Wolf series, but it’s interesting being able to compare him directly across from Katsu, and find him wanting. It’s really just a reminder of how much better at least the opening instalment of Zatoichi is compared to the later Lone Wolf. It would be all but impossible to discuss the twists and turns of Wakayama’s character and storyline without spoiling the film, but suffice to say it’s reasonably compelling.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is its abbreviated runtime. At only 72 minutes, it moves briskly and ends abruptly even for a film of its type.
Following so closely after the original – from April 1962 to October that same year – I think The Tale of Zatoichi Continues delivers more than I might have expected but less than I’d hoped. It would be difficult for it to hit the same high watermark as the original film, but it manages not to feel like a quick cash in or a rote retelling of the same story even if it hits some similar beats. Once again, only time will tell if the series manages to continue surprising me, but this early sequel is a positive sign.
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues / 続・座頭市物語
Director: Kazuo Mori
Japanese Release Date: 12th October 1962
Version Watched: 72 min (Criterion Collection)