The Zatoichi series was one of the longest-running in cinema history, and one of the most well-known film franchises from Japan that isn’t Godzilla. Depicting the adventures of a blind swordsman/gambler/masseur, the series ran for 25 films between 1962 and 1973, had a television show 100 episodes long that aired between 1974 and 1979, and then concluded in 1989 with a 26th film. That one brought the series to a close in the sense that it was the last to star Shintaro Katsu in the titular role, with the actor passing away in 1997 at the age of 65.
The series had further films in 2003 and 2010, but the following ranking is concerned only with the 26 Zatoichi films featuring Katsu (and not including any of the TV episodes). It’s an overall fantastic samurai series, set during the 1800s and usually having films that are episodic in nature, with the title character tending to meet new characters – and face different enemies – in each movie. It’s a very consistent series, though the formula many of the films adhere to can make ranking them tricky, not to mention potentially divisive. Nevertheless, here are the main films in the legendary film series, shown below from worst to best.
26 ‘Zatoichi in Desperation’ (1972)
Whenever a series gets ranked, something has to go last, and in Zatoichi’s case, it’s easy to pick Zatoichi in Desperation. This was the 24th film in the series, and ultimately made it look as though the entire thing was running out of steam, with the plot here involving Zatoichi trying to save a young woman from working in a brothel.
Not that the series is known for being family-friendly, but this entry takes things into dark and uncomfortable areas, having unpleasant sequences and disturbing sexual scenes that just feel off, and not well-handled. Some may appreciate Zatoichi in Desperation (potentially appropriately) taking some desperate risks by pushing boundaries, but others will dislike how feel-bad it all is.
25 ‘Zatoichi and the Doomed Man’ (1965)
The 11th Zatoichi film in the series was 1965’s Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, and at least it’s not bad. Within the series, it’s really only film #24 that’s classifiable as not good, at which point there are then a handful of decent – if somewhat unremarkable – films, and then a large number of good to great ones.
Zatoichi and the Doomed Man falls into the decent but slightly forgettable zone, with the story here seeing Zatoichi helping a prisoner prove his innocence. Given it only runs for 77 minutes, one can look on the bright side and know that it doesn’t waste time, and delivers a serviceable amount of fun action (the title character wields two samurai swords during the climax, which is kind of neat).
24 ‘Adventures of Zatoichi’ (1964)
Honestly, just about every movie in the Zatoichi series could be called Adventures of Zatoichi. He’s always going on adventures, helping those who need assistance, and standing up against villainous samurai or criminal gangs. How is 1964’s Adventures of Zatoichi going to stand out with such a name?
Maybe this 9th film in the series would stand out if it had a little more going for it, but it’s not one of the franchise’s finest hours. It’s about Zatoichi investigating the disappearance of a village leader, and the startling discoveries that end up being uncovered. It was also one of four Zatoichi movies released in 1964, showing they were really pumping them out at this point.
23 ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ (1963)
Just a year and a half after the first Zatoichi movie came out, the series was already at film #5: Zatoichi on the Road. The series began in April 1962, with this film getting released in Japan in November 1963, and having a plot centered around Zatoichi finding himself in the middle of a violent gang war.
Despite its simple premise, it gets quite complicated with the number of characters it has, and it’s also overwhelming owing to the fact that this is the first Zatoichi movie to not have any connection to the first four, narratively. Still, all the core ingredients are more or less contained within Zatoichi on the Road, with Shintaro Katsu as good as ever, and the film containing some solid sword-fighting action.
22 ‘Zatoichi and the Chess Expert’ (1965)
Film #12 in the series was Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, and it ranks as another decent film overall. As the title implies, everyone’s favorite blind wanderer/hero meets a chess player, all the while contending with various other threats and concerns, including yakuza members who want him dead.
It’s notable for being one of six Zatoichi movies directed by the great Kenji Misumi, who would later become further acclaimed for directing entries in another great samurai film series, Lone Wolf and Cub. Zatoichi and the Chess Expert isn’t one of Misumi’s finest directorial efforts, but it’s solid enough for a twelfth entry in a series.
21 ‘Zatoichi at Large’ (1972)
Though it differentiates itself from Zatoichi #24 by not resorting to shock value, the 23rd Zatoichi film, Zatoichi at Large, still gives a mild impression of fatigue setting in. There isn’t a great deal about it that truly stands out, with perhaps its most memorable aspect being a child side character who follows Zatoichi around for much of the film, constantly throwing rocks at him.
The story revolves around Zatoichi helping out a family going through hard times, and though it’s not terribly told, the film’s unlikely to rank among 1972’s greatest films, even for those who adore the Zatoichi series. But it’s not offensive, and it’s not terrible, meaning that those in the mood for some competent adventuring/action may find enough to be entertained by here.
20 ‘Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword’ (1964)
At this point in the Zatoichi ranking, things start to move out of the realm of being merely decent, and the quality starts to step up into rock-solid territory (and beyond). Signifying this new stage is film #7, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, which sees the title character finding himself wanting to repay a young woman and her family after she nurses him back to health following a gunshot wound.
It does what it needs to, and doesn’t waste a good amount of time doing it, putting Zatoichi in a familiar situation (another struggling family needing his help), but the formula works. By this point in the series, the cast and crew knew they were onto a good thing, and given almost 20 more sequels followed this one, they were right to have faith in what they’d started.
19 ‘Zatoichi’s Cane Sword’ (1967)
Eight movies after he had a flashing sword, Zatoichi had a cane sword, in film #15: Zatoichi’s Cane Sword. Well, that’s not technically true, given his cane sword is something he has throughout the series, meaning that no, it doesn’t actually take him until the 15th film to get a cane sword, despite what the title may imply.
The title instead refers to how said cane sword plays a direct role in the plot this time around, with a blacksmith identifying the sword as made by his own mentor, which then leads Zatoichi to discover the sword may soon break for good. Things feel a little more personal, as a result, and there are numerous quiet moments by the series’ standard. It works pretty well, though isn’t quite a series highlight or anything, at the end of the day.
18 ‘Zatoichi and the Fugitives’ (1968)
Film #18 in the Zatoichi series was 1968’s Zatoichi and the Fugitives, and it was released less than six-and-a-half years after the first movie in the series hit theaters. At a rate of three movies a year on average, up until this point, it once again has to be emphasized just how quickly these often very intricate action movies were made, and how impressive such an achievement was.
That being said, Zatoichi and the Fugitives doesn’t reinvent the playbook or anything, and won’t blow the minds of anyone who’s already seen the first 17 Zatoichi movies. But in depicting a solidly told story surrounding Zatoichi taking down a corrupt law official and his lackeys, it still makes for a pretty fun watch.
17 ‘The Tale of Zatoichi Continues’ (1962)
With a runtime of just 72 minutes, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is about as short as these Zatoichi movies get. It could signify that it was made fairly quickly, after the success of the first movie, as this one’s only the second in the series, and alongside that first movie (also released in 1962), they’re the only two filmed in black and white.
It follows on from the first movie quite directly, taking place in the same town a year after the events of the original film, and seeing Zatoichi clash with characters both old and new. It’s a tiny bit “been there, done that,” but in replicating the strong first movie quite well, in look and feel, it definitely satisfies, also benefiting from the fast pace afforded by the short runtime.
16 ‘New Tale of Zatoichi’ (1963)
Film #1 in the Zatoichi series saw Zatoichi leaving his old village at the end. He returns in film #2, and then leaves again at that film’s conclusion. Then film #3, New Tale of Zatoichi, came around, and once again, Zatoichi sees himself returning to his old village and finding new challenges there.
Perhaps this repetition shows why it was necessary for the series to become more episodic after the first several films, or else risk frustrating audiences through things being too samey. Still, this third movie has a certain novelty by being the first Zatoichi movie shot in color, and continues to tell something of an extended and tragic origin story for the title character that shapes his personality across future, more episodic movies in the series.
15 ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’ (1963)
Zatoichi the Fugitive is the fourth film in the series, and feels like the last one that in some way focuses on the storylines/characters explored in the series’ initial entries. Zatoichi’s mission in this one becomes very personal, as he seeks revenge for the murder of a woman he once loved, battling a large yakuza gang just to take down the man who’s said to have killed her.
It’s fresh enough not to feel too repetitive, and also benefits by having some of the best action seen in the series up until this point. The film is overall a little slow at times, but given the stakes are personal and the violence is quite ferocious, the downtime ends up being mitigated effectively by the more exciting stuff.
14 ‘Zatoichi Challenged’ (1967)
Film #17 in the series is Zatoichi Challenged, and it’s yet another Zatoichi movie where things are kick-started by a tragic death, which then gets the title character involved with helping a family. This feels like it might be the basic set-up for about half the films in the series, with Zatoichi getting involved with new people in a new town each time.
Yet Zatoichi Challenged showed that at least during this point in the series, it still worked. As mentioned before, it wasn’t until the series was in its 20s (so to speak) that some amount of fatigue was setting in. This one’s also home to a particularly good one-on-one showdown, cinematically depicted in a snowy setting (films like Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill Vol. 1 also show that snow plus samurai swords pair together well).
13 ‘Zatoichi’s Conspiracy’ (1973)
The 25th film in the series overall, and for a good 16 years (between 1973 and 1989), Zatoichi’s Conspiracy was effectively the final movie in the series. A TV show running for four seasons did air in the interim, but with a reduced TV budget and naturally shorter stories, TV Zatoichi couldn’t ever be quite as epic.
And if this had been the end of the series, it would have made for a pretty good finale. It sees Zatoichi returning to his home village, and clashing in a dramatic fashion with an old friend who doesn’t seem to remember him. Things are appropriately personal and action-packed, making this film pack a little more of an emotional punch than the standard Zatoichi film.
12 ‘Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally’ (1989)
While Zatoichi’s Conspiracy was almost a finale for the Zatoichi film series, 1989’s Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally was the actual finale, at least for Shintaro Katsu’s take on the character. The title character is older here, and is introduced to viewers trying to live a more peaceful life than he’d been shown living during the other movies in the series.
Yet as this is an action movie, conflict rears its ugly head, and Zatoichi needs to pick up his sword one more time and battle two warring yakuza clans. At 116 minutes, it feels a tiny bit bloated, but the fight sequences are spectacular, and there are some serious stakes this time around, given that as the final movie, it’s the only one where the title character could feasibly be dead by the end.
11 ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’ (1965)
The Zatoichi series celebrated the milestone of getting to 10 movies, in a way, with an above-average entry. That entry in question was Zatoichi’s Revenge, and it sees Zatoichi learning about the murder of his old teacher, which leads to him confronting the various forces who had a hand in killing him, uncovering a small army of evildoers in the process.
As a character, Zatoichi seems to face tragedy after tragedy, and even at this stage in the series, it may seem beyond unlucky that yet another person who was once important to him is dead. But it motivates some great action sequences here, and the premise is an overall simple and remarkably well-executed one.
10 ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ (1966)
Zatoichi got revenge in 1965, with Zatoichi’s Revenge, and then in 1966 (during the 13th movie), he decided he wanted to get some vengeance as well. He did just that, and as such, the movie in question was called Zatoichi’s Vengeance.
It can’t be easy having to name more than two-dozen samurai movies that all have to feature the word “Zatoichi” in there somewhere, so maybe some slack should be cut. In any event, this is a really good samurai movie, with Zatoichi struggling with his morality and penchant for violence, and the film also featuring one of the series’ overall best action sequences: an extended fight scene on a bridge, with all the participants shown in silhouette.
9 ‘Samaritan Zatoichi’ (1968)
Samaritan Zatoichi was the 19th movie in the series, and was the final Zatoichi film released in the 1960s. The series took a long hiatus by its standards after the release of this film, seeing as no Zatoichi film came out in 1969, and audiences had to wait until 1970 for the 20th entry in the series.
That kind of gap between sequels is normal for most film franchises, but not Zatoichi, considering the series saw 19 films released between 1962 and 1968. Anyway, all that’s to say that it’s amazing Samaritan Zatoichi is as good as it is, considering it’s the 19th one of the lot, showing Zatoichi make a rare mistake that hurts innocent lives, with the film then following him as he attempts to atone for the errors of his ways.
8 ‘Zatoichi the Outlaw’ (1967)
The Zatoichi series slowly got more violent as it went along, with Zatoichi the Outlaw representing a step-up in the blood department. It was the 16th film in the series, and maybe there was a desire to push things a little further at such a point… though it should be noted that things were never quite as bloody as some other samurai movies from around the same time as the Zatoichi series, like the Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Plot-wise, this one’s about a conflict in a town revolving around a gambling house kidnapping peasants who didn’t pay their debts on time, which Zatoichi ends up getting entangled in. He once again fights for the downtrodden, but as is usually the case, he does so in an entertaining way, and the action’s as good as it always is.
7 ‘Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo’ (1970)
Yojimbo is one of the most well-known Akira Kurosawa samurai films, perhaps ranked only behind movies like Seven Samurai, Ran, and Rashomon. The original 1961 film gave Toshiro Mifune one of his most iconic roles, and as the title of Zatoichi’s 20th film implies, the two get to cross paths in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.
The resulting movie may feel a little gimmicky to some, but it’s also a ton of fun, with the dynamic between Mifune and Katsu being dynamite overall. You get two super cool and rebellious samurai heroes for the price of one here, making the slightly-too-long runtime of just under two hours feel fairly easy to forgive.