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Friday, December 9, 2011

At the Movies With Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman



"I was so absorbed in drawing swords and killing people that I entered the Yakuza. This is my punishment. I did some things I shouldn't have done...cut those I shouldn't have...killed those I shouldn't have. The grudges against me are piling up. It's time I started regretting things."

To fully enjoy the life and times of Zatoichi, the blind traveling masseur par swordplay excellence featuring one of cinemas most enduring characters, one needs to embrace two important facts. Samurai films differ greatly from their Hong Kong counterparts in that they are not generally built around intricately choreographed action sequences. Also, the bulk of Chambara movies do not feature the spectacular displays of sanguinary arterial emissions made internationally famous in the six pack of LONE WOLF & CUB films. If you can come to grips with those two statements, you should do just fine here. Granted, it took me a long time to finally break down and enjoy Samurai movies outside of the LONE WOLF spectrum and I'm so glad I did as I would be missing out on a lot of great entertainment. This article is an introduction to the character (as well as a precursor to the upcoming reviews of the entire series) for those either unfamiliar, or new to the series, or simply curious about what one of Japan's most famous exports has to offer.



The character of Zatoichi, the Blind Masseur (his name references the lowest rank among the blind academy of civic duty and entertainers) is a household name in his native Japan, but has an immense popularity all around the world including a healthy following in America. The utterly brilliant acting ability of Shintaro Katsu owes to the lingering popularity the character continues to enjoy some 50+ years later. One could write a cinematic dissertation on Katsu's performance alone what with the realism he brought to this iconic persona amidst the low social status such individuals had during the time period. Ichi's personality spoke volumes to the common man, or anyone who had been oppressed or vilified by a stronger force. This no doubt delighted thousands of filmgoers who flocked to the theaters to see the new adventure of Ichi.


Over the course of the 26 film series (from 1962 to 1973 then a stand alone feature in 1989 not counting a few remakes in recent years), we learn many things about the character--he's a low level yakuza, an adept gambler, an undefeated swordsman, his heartwarming comprehension of humility and dignity, his unlucky relationships and many other details that are revealed from one film to the next. The first few movies follow some form of chronology with overlapping characters while the remainder aren't necessarily connected to a previous movie, but sometimes do reference characters from films past. It's not necessary to watch the films in order as there are several fabulous films that make good starting points for the curiosity seekers.



A number of plot devices would crop up from one film to the next that would sometimes feel a bit monotonous. More times than not, though, the filmmakers are able to put a fresh spin on these familiar trappings. A prime example of commercialization in a cinematic film series, if many of these movies lacked their most prime ingredients, they'd be far less tasty. Many times Zatoichi is tasked with protecting a small child or fragile female while en route to a far off location. One near constant is the onslaught of punishment, both verbal and physical the blind masseur would take in any given movie. This would only enhance the payback that comes during the conclusion. Gambling sequences are also a recurring bit of business and fluctuate between being comedic in nature or suspenseful in execution. Another classic Ichi ingredient is the 'Zato Sword Draw' wherein Ichi is pressed into giving a demonstration of his sword skills. Sometimes he's forced into it, paid for it, or does so to strike fear into some slimy yakuza boss.


Comedic touches are also a welcome and lively addition to any number of Zato productions. Some films are far more humorous than others. One of the most lively and emotionally charged entries is ZATOICHI'S FLASHING SWORD (1964). It's generously peppered with numerous touches of Katsu's comic timing as well as his unique ability to instill an incredible amount of heartbreaking pathos in his performance. It's one of the joys of there being so many of the movies in that you get to take the journey with this fascinating character who is essentially the thoughtfulness, the naivety, the anger, the sadness and the joyousness of society all rolled up into one.



The key ingredient to falling in love with these pictures is Shintaro Katsu himself. Even if you don't find yourself attracted to the less outrageous examples of the genre, the allure and likability of Katsu as the sword wielding anti hero is undeniable. He says and does things we all would love to do and his ability to ultimately come out on top is a satisfying feeling even if the endings are sometimes somber ones. While he's a strong individual, Ichi represents the common man and his uncanny abilities are one of his attributes that's most appealing to audiences. Katsu IS the series. Without him, the films would be nothing.


The ZATOICHI movies were so popular, the line was also spun off into a successful 100 episode television series that also starred Katsu as the eponymous blind masseur cum swordsman. He was an incredibly busy man during the 60s and 70s displaying a frenetic, conveyor belt pace on both the big and small screens. Up to ten productions a year wasn't out of the question for the popular, and controversial actor. The ZAT character will always be his most successful. In addition to Katsu's own media blitz, the blind masseur was everywhere. Comic books and various merchandising soon followed as well as numerous copycats and other movies capitalizing on the popularity of the franchise.



For anyone who is serious about delving into one of cinemas most celebrated string of films, starting at the beginning would be choice in terms of being able to grow with the character over the course of the series. Still, one need not start at the beginning to become immersed in all that the ZAT films have to offer. Thankfully, many of them (particularly early in the series) have a fine balance of drama, action, suspense and comedy.

Katsu and his real life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama (left) in THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962)

These are all formula productions and despite that, they're very good at maintaining viewer interest even when some of the episodes are nearly identical from what you may have seen in the previous picture. The script, direction and music play a key role in whether a ZATOICHI film lives or dies. For the benefit of those who love the series, the filmmakers were far more successful than not. Action scenes may be limited, but some films have more action than others. Most have at least two major action sequences and maybe one or two minor sword scuffles. Furthermore, this series is all about the character as opposed to oodles of swordplay. Below is a small, random list of titles that make for essential Blind Swordsman viewing for anyone new to the films or a casual fan.

ZATOICHI 3-NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI (1963)--Very little action, but one of the most exemplar samurai films period. Extremely dramatic, the performances are all top notch as is every other aspect of the production. This is the first entry in color and also lays down a lot of what defined the character for the remainder of the films.

ZATOICHI 6-ZATOICHI & THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964)--With the level of violence steadily increasing in ZATO 5, this one features the first blood spray. It's also one of the more linear of the series and features Katsu's real life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama (LONE WOLF himself) as one of the most formidable of Ichi's foes.

ZATOICHI 7-ZATOICHI'S FLASHING SWORD (1964)--Near perfect all around, this film goes the distance in audience identification with Ichi. The lovable, low level gangster gets numerous chances to show off his playfully sarcastic demeanor. The villains are suitably sadistic and as weasely as they come.

ZATOICHI 8-FIGHT, ZATOICHI, FIGHT (1964)--One of many examples where Ichi is the walking representation of 'Murphy's Law'. Also, this is the first of a few films where the blind masseur is tasked with returning a child to his home battling enemies along the way. The finale is extraordinary.

ZATOICHI 14-ZATOICHI'S PILGRIMAGE (1966)--The holy grail of ZATO fans, this is the only movie of the run not available legitimately in America on DVD. Unusual in that it's incredibly gloomy throughout. Also, a horse has a major role! Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong somewhat remade the film as THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN in 1968.

ZATOICHI 15-ZATOICHI'S CANE SWORD (1967)--A thoroughly unique entry in that Zatoichi gives up his sword upon the discovery that his legendary blade has but one strike left before it breaks. Of course, Ichi doesn't stay swordless for too long. A dream sequence wherein Ichi dreams of his death is a memorable moment.

ZATOICHI 18-ZATOICHI & THE FUGITIVES (1968)--This is one of the most violent of the ZATO run and easily one of the bloodiest. Ichi takes a bullet, fights while losing a massive amount of blood and even becomes 'Evil Ichi' during the conclusion. Takeshi Shimura (GODZILLA) has a role here, too.



The series, in an apparent bid to keep things fresh, would follow suit with what Universal had done with their lucrative monster franchises from the 1940s. The studios had Ichi 'Meet' other popular swordsman characters such as 1970s ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO (costarring Toshiro Mifune) and 1971s ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (costarring Jimmy Wang Yu). Incidentally, another famous Japanese star, Tatsuya Nakadai (GOYOKIN [1968]), costarred with Katsu in the unusual series entry ZATOICHI & THE FESTIVAL OF FIRE from 1970.

The familiar Daiei company logo

One of Japan's biggest production companies, Daiei (who were also famous for the GAMERA Kaiju series) produced 22 of the original movies distributing the bulk of them. The last three of those 22 (not counting ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW from 1967; the first such co-pro between Katsu and Daiei) were co-production deals with Shintaro Katsu's own company, Katsu Productions. When Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, Toho stepped in and acquired the series and produced the remaining three entries in a partnership with Katsu Productions. The two companies also produced the world renowned LONE WOLF & CUB series.



Evidence to its popularity, there were also spin offs such as the late 60s CRIMSON BAT series that showcased a blind swordsWOMAN. The character would also be featured in at least two painfully low budgeted Chinese productions including the beyond obscure ZATOICHI & THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976?) and the beyond wacky THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN (1977). Incidentally, the Shaw Brothers and Cheng Kang incorporated much of the Zatoichi mythos for a 1968 production, the ultra violent THE SWORD OF SWORDS starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Indonesia also got in on the act with THE WARRIOR & THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (1983) combining the personification of the Katsu character with the locally popular Jaka Sebung character essayed by international star Barry Prima in the popular THE WARRIOR series.


Italy also got in on the act with 1971s BLINDMAN, a spaghetti western starring Tony Anthony as the lead and featured Ringo Starr as one of the main villains. Highly regarded in America, too, the United States adapted the blind swordsman archetype for the 1989 fan favorite BLIND FURY starring Rutger Hauer; a movie that also featured a late appearance by 80s action star Sho Kosugi. Katsu himself returned to the role that made him world famous in the troubled production of the simply titled ZATOICHI THE BLIND SWORDSMAN also in 1989.

Katsu (left) once more shares the screen with his brother, Wakayama (right) in ZATOICHI & THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964)

Over a decade later, popular Japanese icon Takeshi Kitano did his own interpretation of the irreplaceable Katsu character with the self titled ZATOICHI, a version that divided many fans with its preponderance of CGI blood and a final scene that plays an ambiguous card in reference to the chief selling point of the character. In 2008 another version was released to Japanese theaters entitled ICHI. This time the legendary blind masseur takes a lesser role and plays the teacher to a likewise blind female student. Most recently, ZATOICHI THE LAST (2010) emerged and was heralded as a return to the essence of the original series, but it wasn't well received and will likely be THE LAST for some time.



Even with all the flash and CGI enhanced action of the newer productions, nothing quite replicates the quaint and more down to earth humanistic approach that Katsu brought to this critically lauded and audience cherished character. Focusing far more on story and character arcs, the ZATOICHI series (and other Chambara films in general) are a natural progression for kung fu fans and those seeking something decidedly different from the more fast paced cinematic candy the mainstream craves today. If you're willing and have the patience required, this is one series of motion pictures that rewards the viewer some 26 times over.


Samuel Wilson said...

I miss the days -- it was just a couple of years ago -- that you could watch Zatoichi every Saturday on IFC. My first experience of him was Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, at a time when Toshiro Mifune was my main interest. When the early films started coming out, I bought Chest of Gold at random and enjoyed it. Katsu maintained a high standard of character-driven entertainment for a remarkably long period, and I actually prefer the violence level of the Daiei films to the manga-inspired excess of Seventies swordplay films. Zatoichi is great stuff and I'm glad to see him recognized here.

venoms5 said...

Thanks so much Sam. You were one of the main ones I knew appreciated the films and I'm glad you found the time to read it. My first experience with Ichi was around 2003 or 2004.

I was aware of the movies, but was so stuck in the HK mode of action cinema and anything Japanese had to have the Lone Wolf style for me to maintain my attention span. Finally, I "matured" enough to be more open towards something different and it was like a whole new world. I was literally blown away by how well made those films were. I started with three of the Home Vision releases--FLASHING SWORD, CHEST OF GOLD and FIGHT ZATOICHI FIGHT.

I eventually had all but three of the films within a few months time and have since gotten them all (including the 14th film) as well as one of the DVDs of the TV series.

I do remember them coming on IFC not too long ago. They seemed to show ZATOICHI CHALLENGED quite a bit from what I remember. These movies definitely deserve a wider berth in terms of exposure. They have a respectable fan following, but deserving of far better in my opinion.

A hero never dies said...

Great post Brian, I've seen the odd film here and there and have wanted to delve deeper into the series. Your post has rekindled my interest.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Martin, and thanks for the kind words. These movies are definitely worth revisiting multiple times over. I'm revisiting them all myself including the few I hadn't yet opened.

Pinecone Stew said...

Have a SUPER week !

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