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The Tales of the Blind Swordsman - Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi
Japanese Movie Review
Written by: Japan-101 Community Member BakaSensei
The tales of Zatoichi are not entirely foreign to Americans. VHS and DVD's such as this boxed set from Amazon (original version by Kastu Shintaro) have been popular for years in certain circles in the US.

 

In modern times, the persona of the “anti-hero” has almost become passé. From comics characters such as the Punisher and Wolverine to pro wrestling superstars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the story of the moral less “good” guy has certainly been told many times over. Although there are few examples of this from our own “Old West” genre, not many leap from the screen in such an impressive manner as Japan’s own blind swordsman, Zatoichi.

The first impressions of any Zatoichi film are from an historical perspective. Set in the Edo period, also known as the “Tokugawa Era” (1603 – 1868), each installment in the Zatoichi series presents a realistic portrait of samurai history. Foremost noted is the detail of the landscapes and architectures. Less than ten years removed from the Toho classic “Shichinin no Samurai” (Seven Samurai) and only a year past “Yojimbo,” 1962’s “Zatoichi Monogatari” paints a similar scene of the Edo period. Instead of the sterile, beautifully recreated villages, we are treated to dirty towns with buildings somewhat slapped together to serve a purpose. Imagine the difference between the safety of sets on the series “Gunsmoke” with the realism of the current HBO production “Deadwood.”

Also on display are other historical details such as the hierarchy of the era, specifically from local townsleaders, “bosses,” ronin (masterless samurai), and of course samurai. The reverence for the title samurai is duly noted, as opposed to thugs who pretend to emulate the warrior class by hacking and slashing. Even lacking an in-depth knowledge of the language, the casual viewer can note the “tough guy” status of characters by their word endings, often utilizing conjugations ending in –zo, -ze, or –ro. One should also be on the lookout for the continued use of the “rolled R,” accompanied by an almost guttural tone. As a side note, this is also common in any of today’s Japanese movies, dramas, or anime featuring yakuza or “tough” characters.

The character of Zatoichi was quite cleverly conceived for the day. Although there are some references to blind heroes in various world mythologies, including pre-dating Marvel Comic’s “Daredevil” by a few years, Zatoichi is truly the first to mainstream the idea. The name Zatoichi, despite many numerous internet misinterpretations, is broken down as follows:

• Shortened form of “zato no ichi” • Character’s name is “Ichi” (one) • “zato” is the lowest rank in the “todo-za”, the guild of the blind (the other 3 are koto, betto, and kengyo)

With that information in mind, the nickname “Zatoichi” literally refers to the “one who is the lowliest of the blind,” which is a perfect oppositional for someone trying to conceal incredible prowess, such as our title character. Zatoichi also employs himself frequently as a masseur, a common profession of the blind in that era.

New version of Zatoichi by a famous Japanese movie director, Takeshi Kitano. Takeshi directed and starred in the film.

Other character traits of the “anti – hero” include an incredible affection for sake (warm wine) and an amazing talent for gambling. Utilizing his acute sense of hearing, Ichi can predict the outcome of dice games ad nauseum. Swordplay, however, is his greatest skill. Using a blade hidden inside a blind man’s staff, Zatoichi is very deadly. It is not uncommon to see five, ten, even twenty thug samurai downed in a single battle. Even in one-on-one battles, Zatoichi rarely breaks a sweat. Zatoichi’s fighting style is oddly different than most samurai, due in part to his grip. He continues to hold the blade during battle as if he were still using it as a walking stick, thumb near the top.

Some of the more memorable moments in each film come from sword “tricks” pulled by Ichi, as he strikes quickly with his blade, leaving the viewer believing that he missed. The big reveal is always entertaining, as you find he has accomplished a miraculous feat such as splitting a spinning top in two or relieving a novice samurai of his “topknot.”

After initially being set up as the “master assassin” in the first two films, the plot devices used in within the rest of the series all have common threads. Given up the career of assassin, Ichi stumbles into a small village, looking for nothing more than warm sake, food, a good dice game, and some entertaining company. Inevitably, the title character makes the acquaintance of someone in a bad set of circumstances, commonly a wronged female. Relenting to the bids for help, Zatoichi crosses paths with two important characters: the “boss” (evil yakuza head) and the “rival” (exemplary swordsman, employed by the “boss”). The “rival” is usually secretly bored, yearning for the opportunity to prove himself in a truly great duel.

After trying to avoid major conflict at all costs, sometimes involving somewhat humorous scams and trickery, Ichi is forced into battle. After systematically taking down the henchmen and then the boss, Masseur Ichi moves toward the final showdown with his rival. Unfortunately for the rival, it is commonly a short battle. In some films, portions of the gang, and sometimes the boss, make it to the end of the film still among the living, which wonderfully sets up the next installment. If not, each movie always has the running threads of “surviving bandits looking for revenge” or even the fact that everyone has heard the tales of the famous “blind swordsman.”

Shintaro Katsu, the actor most associated with the character, began his film career in 1955’s “A Girl Isn’t Allowed to Love.” After the success of the first Zatoichi film, Katsu returned to the role 25 more times in film and 4 seasons of the Zatoichi television series. Off screen, Katsu was well known for enjoying many of the poor habits of his on screen person, such as drinking and gambling. Although a pop icon, some incidents echoed through Japan with shame, such as being refused entrance into the US due to carrying drugs. His excuse? “Someone must have put them in my underwear while I was using the bathroom.”

Katsu also experienced heartache during the filming of the series’ final film “Zatoichi’ in 1989. In this picture, the role of “rival” was played by his son. During the filming of one scene, Katsu’s son used a real blade instead of a prop, and accidentally killed a stuntman. Although he remained in the movie, most all of his fight scenes were deleted from the film, and both suffered national disgrace.

Despite some rough seas, Shintaro Katsu, and his on screen persona Zatoichi, have maintained their cult status, even after Katsu’s death in 1997. Today, the films are honored and revered as they receive great attention worldwide. Currently (2005 – 2006), the film series is featured on the Independent Film Channel’s “Samurai Saturdays” and copies of the DVDs can regularly be found in locations such as Best Buy and on amazon.com.

Facts:

  • The popular Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano made a respectable new entry in the film series in 2003, entitled “Zatoichi.” This was shown across the US in wide release in Japanese with English sub-titles.
  • Zatoichi is the only film character to appear in more full length features that Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
  • Mimicking the popular crossovers of Toho’s “Godzilla” series, Zatoichi crossed paths with two other famous Japanese samurai characters: “Yojimbo” (1970) and “The One-Armed Swordsman” (1971)
 
 
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