Colour in film has existed since 1895, when Thomas Edison hand painted "Anabelle’s Dance" for his Kinetoscope. Other processes quickly followed; film tinting, stencil colouring, toning, until finally we arrive at colour film. But colour never really took off until the 1950’s, when television was introduced. Like the big push to shoot films in widescreen, colour was presented to set films apart from television, to give the audience a reason to return to the cinema. In January 1953, NHK, once a radio broadcasting company, broadcast it’s first television transmission for 4 hours a day, to a mere 866 homes nationwide. While 2 years earlier, in 1951, "Kokyo Ni Kaeru" aka "Carmen Comes Home" was released on Fujifilm reversal stock, becoming the first Japanese film to be released in colour, it wasn’t until 1953 that colour film in Japanese cinema paid off with "Gate of Hell", which was Daiei’s first colour film, the first Japanese film shot on Eastman colour film, and the first Japanese colour film to be released internationally, garnering an academy award for best costume. However it wasn’t until the 1960’s that colour film really began to take off, after the introduction of Technicolor. Even great Japanese filmmakers continued to shoot using black and white for most of the decade, from Kurosawa who shot "Red Beard" in 1965, Hiroshi Teshigahara who made "Face of Another" in 1966, and Kihachi Okamoto’s "Sword of Doom", also released in 1966. But in 1963, following the immense popularity of the first two Zatoichi films, Daiei Motion Picture Company decided to shoot the third film in the series, "New Tale of Zatoichi" in colour.
"New Tale of Zatoichi" follows Ichi as he returns home. He’s tracked by the brother of Seki no Kanbei, a samurai he killed in the previous instalment, and the brother wants revenge. Upon his return home, he moves in with his deaf grandmother, and spends time visiting his sensei, a man who garners all of Ichi’s admiration. His sensei is keen on marrying his sister Yayoi off to a wealthy samurai family, but she soon proclaims her love for Ichi. His sensei has also slipped to the dark side, becoming entwined with a local gang, helping them to set up kidnappings, collecting large ransoms. Ichi is soon forced to decide between giving up the world of the yakuza to settle down with Yayoi, or to continue righting the wrongs committed by his former master.
"New Tale of Zatoichi" is the best in the series so far. Narratively, it's beautifully constructed, creating a multitude of intertwining stories that culminate in a series of fast and furious sword fights, the staple of the Zatoichi series. Ichi as a tragic and fatalistic character is also fleshed out in detail. No longer is he just a blind masseuse with a penchant for gambling and prostitutes. He is also a man desperate for love, and a man willing to give up the world he knows to find happiness in the arms of a woman. Of course its fairly obvious that he doesn`t give it all up for her, as the series continues in many more films, but it adds great depth to the Ichi character. It’s also brilliant how events from the previous films impact events in future films. Here, the brother of Kanbei demands retribution from Ichi, and its this meeting of characters that drives the tragic narrative of Ichi forward, as he refuses to fight back, giving up the sword for Yayoi. Adding to the tragedy is the impending duel between Ichi and his samurai. All of this combines to bring a great fatalistic angle to Ichi's character. And while the film is gorgeously shot in colour, instead of drawing attention to the fact that its in colour, director Takuzo Tanaka and cinematographer Chishi Makiura, both of whom would continue to work in the Zatoichi series later on in their careers, use colour to highlight the distinctiveness of the Zatoichi series. Unlike other Chanbara, which show samurai, a class who were above the common class of peasants and farmers, existing in a world unknown to most, Ichi operates in the world of the Yakuza, right wrongs against those of the common person. He is a people's hero, and the drab, dirty, earthy colours of the film help to highlight this. There is no pomp or flash. It’s down to earth, in a realm that people even in modern times can identify with, the world of the common person, which is probably why the series became so popular.