Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) review


Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Masayo Mari (Tane), Ryuzo Shimada (Shigezo Sasagawa), Gen Mitamura (Hanji), Shigero Amachi (Hirate Miki), Chitose Maki (Yoshi), Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro Lioka), Michiro Minami (Tatekichi)

Directed by Kenji Misumi

" said it would be a sight to see a match between me and Sasagawa's samurai. But let me tell life doesn't come cheap."

The Short Version: Kenji Misumi, one of Chambara cinemas finest directorial hands got this vastly celebrated series off and running with this B/W entry that introduced us all to the wonders of Zatoichi. This gritty, yet dramatic feature is light on fights, but strong on characterization that makes what little action there is all the more poignant and powerful. The building of one of cinemas finest creations was a work in progress and would blossom and bloom for years to come. Misumi's milestone is an auspicious beginning and one of many amazing performances by the one and only Shintaro Katsu.

Zatoichi prepares to demonstrate his lightning fast sword draw

Zatoichi, a blind and wandering, low ranking yakuza stumbles upon a gang war between two rival syndicates in the province of Sasagawa. After moving in on his gambling rackets, Sukegoro decides a bloody all out battle is the only way to settle things. The smaller of the two factions led by Shigezo, has master ronin, Hirate Miki under his employ. The lowly blind swordsman is courted to side with Sukegoro, but refuses and instead strikes up a friendship with Hirate, who turns out to not only be a heavy drinker, but also seriously ill. As the turf war heats up between the two gangsters, both Ichi and Hirate know they will have to inevitably fight one another.

Kenji Misumi, most famous here in America for his spectacularly gory LONE WOLF & CUB series, took the reigns of this first film in the wildly popular and classic Japanese samurai series. Spanning 26 official pictures between 1962 and 1973 and one last entry in 1989 directed by lead star Katsu himself (Katsu would also direct 1972's ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION), all of the stories are the work of novelist, Kan Shimosawa. The name Zatoichi has arguably accrued a popularity unlike any cinematic character before or since anywhere in the world.

Aside from the movies, there was also a 100 episode television series that also featured Katsu as the title blind swordsman. Interestingly enough, Katsu wasn't deemed leading man material and it wasn't until his lead as the sadistic and murderous blind masseur in THE BLIND MENACE (1960) that the blueprint for Zatoichi was ironically laid down.

The first and only time in the series where Ichi looks intently at another person with his eyes wide open.

Some of that character is ported over to this new, kinder incarnation. Katsu kept the clean cut lack of facial hair (for the first and only time, we see Ichi getting a shave) and crew cut as well as a nuance or two, but jettisoned the duplicitous cruelty of what could be classified as "Zatoichi's evil alter ego". The biggest difference between Ichi and Suginoichi, the Menace of the earlier picture, is that the former is a superlative and undefeated swords master.

The first of many gambling sequences.

The mannerisms of this soon to be famous film character were in the infant stages here, but would be quickly augmented by the time the third film rolled around. For instance, Ichi shows no reluctance in showing off his sword skills as he would in many later films. From the very beginning, we see Ichi's excellence as a gambler--just one of many skills where his handicap heightens instead of hinders his capabilities. Incidentally, the gambling trick Ichi pulls off here would crop up two more times--again in the elusive and excellent ZATOICHI'S PILGRIMAGE (1966) and once more in the gloomy ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972).

Hirate (Shigero Amachi at left) and Zatoichi (Katsu at right) meet for the first time while fishing.

While the level of action varies from one entry to the next, this inaugural production saves the bulk of it for the fairly brutal and moderately bloody finale. The accent here is on the dramatics of the characters. A good deal of time is spent between Ichi and Miki, the top fighter whom has been hired by rival boss, Shigezo. They become fast friends as they both enjoy fishing. The two formidable sword slashers also acquire a great deal of respect for one another. This integrity shines on more than one occasion such as when Hirate, bedridden from his illness, decides to join the fight when he learns Shigezo is planning on using a rifle to oust Ichi, even though the sightless, and at this time, former masseur (former as stated by Ichi in this film) has no plans of partaking in the skirmish. Of major interest to Spanish horror fans, Shigero Amachi (who plays Hirate) would later co-star with Paul Naschy in the amazing THE BEAST & THE MAGIC SWORD (1983).

Masayo Mari as Tane. She would return for parts 2 and 3. There will be a shocking reveal about her character in the color third entry, NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI (1963).

This picture plants the popular seed of our lovable anti hero having to eventually duel with an unlikely opponent, or one that Ichi doesn't wish to do battle with. This would reach an emotional apex by the third film and would become a frequent plot device from here on out. There's also a subplot about a woman named Tane (Masayo Mari who reprised the role for a few more entries) and Tatekichi, her gangster brother who contributed to a local girls suicide after he had taken advantage of her. The ZATOICHI series is often one about poetic justice and this film concludes with a bit of it in regards to Tane's less than honorable sibling. Also of note, the character of Tane (pronounced Tah-nay) falls in love with Ichi; this, too, is a recurring theme in many of the movies that our blind anti-hero has no shortage of suitors.

The ten minute action sequence that closes the film is ferocious in its violence and brutal for its time.

The film was a sizable success for Daiei and a sequel was ordered. Misumi didn't return for the sequel, but did direct Katsu in a few other ZAT movies and also in the outrageous first entry of the HANZO, THE RAZOR trilogy which was produced between 1972 and 1974. Misumi was one of the greatest filmmakers the Chambara and Jidageki genre ever had lording over it. Having guided the two titans of Chambara, Shintaro Katsu and his real life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Misumi also worked with another Jidageki swordplay giant, Raizo Ichikawa famous for the long running SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series and also such films as KENKI (1965) and THE BETRAYAL (1966).

Ichi uses his almost superhuman skill level to slice a candlestick in two halves. This would be the first of dozens of similar stunts, with each one frequently more spectacular than the last.

Misumi dabbled briefly in the supernatural genre with his own interpretation of the oft filmed 'Yotsuya Kaidan' tale in 1959 (not to be confused with Nobuo Nakagawa's version from the same year) and also combined samurai cinema with the supernatural by way of the Kaiju style with the second film in the somber DAIMAJIN trilogy; released as RETURN OF MONSTER MAJIN (1966) here in America. Misumi's last directorial effort before his death in 1975 was the epic and aptly titled THE LAST SAMURAI (1974).

At 96 minutes, TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962) is one of the longest films in the original 60s-70s run. It benefits from a fine script by writer Minoru Inuzuka who contributed his pen to a quarter of the films in the series mostly during the Daiei years. The score by Akira Ifukube is a magnificent composition and his majestically melancholic themes would grace nearly half the films in this iconic series. Ifukube's signature style would inarguably be most famously recognized in Toho's GODZILLA series as well as other movies dealing with giant, rampaging monsters. Ifukube's musical styling was pure sonic brilliance and of a distinct quality not unlike that of Italian composer Ennio Moriconne. Just like Kenji Misumi, Ifukube said 'Sayonara' to Chambara cinema with Misumi's THE LAST SAMURAI in 1974.

While it's not the best film in the long running and wildly popular series, it's still a great samurai picture rife with compelling characters and situations. TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962) got the kindly champion of the poor, the abused and the oppressed started on his long journey of discovery emblazoning an odyssey of indelible entertainment for fans of Japanese cinema all around the world.


1. Ichi's gambling skills are introduced here although his super-hearing that enables him to win much of the time would be displayed in later entries.

2. For the first and only time, Ichi is seen receiving a full massage of his own.

3. It's stated by Ichi that he was a legitimate masseur three years prior to when the film takes place. He also states he took up sword training so that he would be treated with respect.

4. Shigero Amachi would return to the series for episode #13 as another nemesis for Ichi. Throughout the series many other actors would return in varying capacity.

5. The popular plot device of introducing a powerful samurai that, despite befriending the blind man, is destined to duel with him by films end begins here.

6. The recurring plot point of gang warfare seen here involves two gangs vying for control of gambling rackets with each side attempting to steal customers from one another. Future films would generally feature two yakuza factions battling for various reasons.

7. The first two sequels maintain a link with this first film, but after that, there's no discernible continuity.

8. Throughout the series, Ichi is given assorted love interests. The young girl, Tane professes her love for the blind swordsman in this series opener. Her character returns for the next two pictures.

9. For the first and only time, you actually see Ichi's eyes during the closing moments as he lashes out at boss Sukegoro for his disrespectful nature. From here on out, you only see the whites of his eyes when he happens to crack open his eyelids.

Running Time: 1:36:05

This review is representative of the Home Vision DVD

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