A tale of respect and dignity between friend and foe, this influential classic birthed the legendary blind swordsman as we know it.
Dir. Kenji Misumi
1962 | Japan | Drama/Action | 96 mins | 2.35:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some sexual references and violence)
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Shigeru Amachi, Michiro Minami, Eijiro Yanagi
Plot: The adventures of a blind, gambling masseur who also happens to be a master swordsman.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
As far as cinematic tales are concerned, you won’t get a more influential one from Japan than ‘Zatoichi’. Spanning 25 features, all starring the delightful Shintaro Katsu in the eponymous role, the ‘Zatoichi’ movies were so wildly popular in the 1960s and 1970s that when Daiei, the studio responsible for it, made the first one, called The Tale of Zatoichi, they ended the film in a manner that did not suggest any sequel was underway.
They got incredibly fortunate with the ensuing success, and like an everlasting oasis springing out of the desert, Daiei tapped it for as long as they could, and mastered the art of producing sequels way before Hollywood made it their modus operandi.
25 features is an enormous feat, though each movie varies in quality, with some feeling like repetitions of older ideas. (But hey, even Iron Man or Harry Potter didn’t last this far, and perhaps only James Bond could lay any sort of legitimate claim.)
“Because to be a gangster is a foolish way to live.”
The Tale of Zatoichi is a straightforward story about Ichi, a blind masseur armed with a cane that holds a lethal sword, who comes to a town only to find that there are two warring Yakuza gangs. Despite a slight over-complication in sub-plotting, the film feels like there is something more to it despite its conventional good versus evil plotting.
In fact, while it will no doubt thrill fans looking for a sharp dose of swordfighting action, no matter how brief (as they are in any showdown of this nature), it is the mutual respect between Ichi and an ailing samurai, Hirate, that gives the film its unexpected gravitas. They may be foes (both paid to fight against each other as the Yakuza conflict reaches a boil), but they operate as dignified warriors.
In contrast, we see the lowly Yakuza members slice, stab and maim each other like animals. (The violence in this is PG13 territory, so don’t expect ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ style gore.) Incidentally, Kenji Misumi, the director of a number of ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies, helms this. He was an underrated studio director who was reliably solid for these sorts of pictures. He would go on to direct another five ‘Zatoichi’ movies.