“He is an itinerant hero, a lone samurai whose mask is his blindness, a mask that hides his many strengths.
I am always looking for new cinematic vistas. New directors, like Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Jarhead), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), and Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins), have interested me, and I eagerly await their subsequent new releases. Likewise, a new director of the last ten years from Japan, Takeshi Kitano, has won many awards at film festivals with films like Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonachine, Kikujiro, and Fireworks. His recent film was Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman (2003), a remake, a homage, and a wry take on one of the most popular series of films from Japan in the 1960s and 1970s.
Seeing Kitano’s film, I was only aware of one other Zatoichi film, not the series. Surprisingly, I found out there were twenty-five more Zatoichi films, all starring Shintaro Katsu. The first in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi (1962), introduces Ichi, who makes a living as a masseur. He has been blind since age eight but has mastered the sword and once worked in the Yakuza. Many of the plots revolve around his criminal past. In Zatoichi and the Fugitives, #18 (1968), a doctor (Takashi Shimura), at first friendly to Ichi, shuns him for awhile because the masseur is identified as a gangster. The entire Zatoichi and the Festival of Fire, #21 (1970), deals with Ichi’s past and present relations with his Yakuza background.
“Strange” as a hero because one might not find Ichi’s antics pleasing or, to put it another way, he advances through his adventures artlessly. For example, he’s a degenerate gambler. While he never seems to lose unless someone cheats him, neither has he enough money to settle in one place. He is an itinerant hero, a lone samurai whose mask is his blindness, a mask that hides his many strengths.
Ichi is also the humblest hero to come across the movie screen. His humility stems from his blindness, causing him to accept his limitations absolutely, yet it serves to mask his superhuman sword skills. Blindness has made his hearing and smelling sharper, such that he knows what is around him. One of the humorous images throughout the series occurs when we see a closeup of Ichi’s ears moving while picking up an approaching sound. In one attempt to defeat him in a fight, a bunch of gangsters disorient Ichi for a few moments by clanging bells. Unfortunately for them, this did not neutralize his incredibly swift sword. And if he doesn’t hear you, he probably can smell you!
Like many western heroes always on the move, he rarely romances women, but when one initiates a fascination for him, he evades physical contact. Occasionally, responding to the most persistent female admirers, he will set up a rendezvous at the movie’s end and then fail to show up, heading in the opposite direction. Festival of Fire includes his greatest desire for a woman, ending as does all his romances, by his denying himself the most meager pleasures, despite the woman’s desperate declaration to be with him.
Again, this is part of his strength: namely, to limit the number of distractions. It has already been established in The Tale of Zatoichi that his extraordinary powers are well known, and he is a marked man. The Japanese criminals, outlaws, samurai, and many other men who posture as fighters cannot accept the fact that a blind man is able to defeat any opponent. This is a major conceit of many of the adventures, so much so that the films begin with Ichi confronted by one to five men on a road or path and he must cut them down. Subsequently, he not only has to beware of the relatives of those he has slain (we will soon deal with the deaths dealt out in this series), but handle the haphazard menace of ruffled warrior egos.
The default calmness of his character and the greatness of his heart make up a vast portion of the Blind Swordsman movies. He cannot say no to any request for help. InZatoichi Challenged, # 17, (1967), he takes care of a baby whose mother’s last request is that he take the child to a father who lives hundreds of miles away. He does so always at great risk. He will not be easily provoked. In Zatoichi and the Fugitives, he sits to eat a rice cake when two passersby drop dirt and grit into it. Ichi takes a bite, munches on the mix, shows some consternation at having been duped but does nothing for a moment. The outlaws have a laugh. Suddenly, Ichi spits the rice into their faces as he simultaneously takes his sword and cuts the men down.
Why can’t he just be left alone? Ichi often wonders this very thought. He would prefer an easy life, gambling, meeting travelers, having conversations, and giving occasional massages to earn his passage. However, he knows, from his gangster background, that the world is a cruel, hellish place.
His occupation as a masseur, like his deep sense of duty and responsibility, also involve him in many predicaments. Same with his gambling – throwing dice and betting on odds and even. Few times does he leave a gambling parlor without his sword being raised to collect his winnings. These are generally episodes with much humor, because he seems such an easy mark for the others. Either that or he has won so many times – his acute hearing allows him to guess dice throws successfully – the other gamblers, usually connected to criminal gangs, have to cheat to get their money back. My favorite instance has him lose twice when his dice throws become visible to the other players. They bet one way, and he must take the other. On the third throw, the dice appear again. Everyone bets. Then he discovers the uncovered dice that had apparently fallen from his head band! The actual dice are still under the cup. The gamblers are caught in a catch -22. Nobody can say anything and change their bets, after having cheated him on the two earlier throws. He uncovers the cup and he wins. Some of them believe he had set them up and unwisely challenge him.
Ichi gets around well for a blind man. He is fond of saying that on dark nights he will have an advantage against his foe. He may say this nearly every movie, just as he always jokes about his blindness. One of the middle episodes, Zatoichi’s Vengeance, #13 (1966), he meets a blind priest who seems just a bit more wise than our hero and who tempts Ichi to put down his sword forever. Indeed, the backbone of these movies are situations like this but repeated with minor variations. Our familiarity with them becomes one of the series’ great pleasures, as we would relish the subtle variations of a favorite dish. In the dice games, in confrontations when he is severely outnumbered, in his relationships with women.
The basic paradox of the Blind Swordsman series is the placidity of Ichi’s nature matched to the incredible violence that he attracts. An average body count for the films might run from thirty to fifty. Often, Ichi will have incidental brushups that leave seven to ten men dead. Twenty or more sword waving Ichi antagonists dropping to the ground in the last fifteen minutes of the film is routine. It is as if his peacefulness itself attracts the violence. The world cannot tolerate a vacuum. Human history and progress is sustained by hostility, mania, obsession, single- and small-mindedness. Who stands in the way of the “gangs” – be they communist, democratic, monarchic, aristocratic – must be brushed aside. Preferably, these individual antagonists, like Ichi, can be laughed away or intimidated. His fighting back is most unexpected and in the violent world of mid-19th century Japan, the powers-that-be rage against the Blind Swordsman.
His victories, in one sense, embody the mythical wishful-thinking of the working class (he is often referred to as a “working class” or “common man’s” hero), and many of the plots feature various bosses and corrupt officials exploiting the masses. Honest workers and artisans are constantly harassed by the hirelings of capitalist managers and bosses, with little difference made between the gang boss and the wealthy land baron. But to keep the myth honest, the series seldom allows its hero to revel over a victory. The cost, thirty to forty slain, is too great for his own soul. He triumphs if only to be able to continue his wanderings, which will only lead him into another fix.
The James Bond series has hit twenty films. The change of lead actors, despite initiating a crisis or two, kept it alive creatively and generated new interest. Few series have similar luck. Abbott and Costello movies lose their flavor after three or four. The Friday the Thirteenth, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween films became repetitious and nearly indistinct early in the series. Thus, I began watching the Zatoichi Series skeptically. The formula did not seem possible to sustain itself, I thought, or the filmmaking would get lazy, and, surely, the writing could not hold up. And there were simply too many Zatoichis coming too fast – five were made in the first two years, then five came out in 1964! Ultimately, they would have to cannibalize the plots from the previous movies.
None of these pitfalls happened.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the 1970 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, #20. The great Toshiro Mifune ostensibly appears as the character he played in Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro(1962), except that his name is Sassa. What amazes me is that so late in the Zatoichi series, the producers tap a legendary star and attempt to upgrade the quality. Mifune spends much of the film drunk as he works as a spy for the government and tries to infiltrate a gang to find the gold. His relationship to Ichi is sly and mischievous, but they eventually join forces by film’s end and slay dozens of their adversaries.
Most importantly for the Zatoichi series, you give yourself to their pace, a pace strictly defined by the movements of the main character. Ichi moves along but not swiftly. He is never hurried unless under extreme duress. The twenty-six plots unfold at a similar pace and usually there are many subplots alongside the main one. The films run from seventy-five to ninety minutes but never seem to go speedily. In part, this is due to the unfolding of the stories. Yes, they are formulaic but not terribly predictable. The boss will eventually be rundown by Zatoichi’s blade. A friendly fellow traveler will eventually cross swords with our hero – one of the best of these in Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, #12 (1965). They meet and play a game. The expert’s flaw is that he cannot handle defeat, which he suffers at Ichi’s hands, followed by the usual quick death of the blind man’s sword.
The most thrilling aspect of the films is his sword play. How does he wield it so fast? In a few seconds he can cut down five men. I have slowed the DVD to try to catch the actions, especially his greatest move: unsheathing the sword from his cane, but still can barely see his raising it, cutting and ripping the men apart, then returning the sword to the cane. However, nothing I had ever seen in a movie compared with Zatoichi’s singular battles against fifty, one hundred, and more samurai. One gets the feeling that the plots are created to see how deeply he can get into trouble and then how he will manage to fight his way out. Rarely, do any of the films save him with a deus ex machina. When his enemies keep coming, he slaughters them all.
The qualities that had initially spawned my skepticism about being able to sit through twenty-six films dealing with a single character have ultimately reinforced my interest in and love for the Blind Swordsman. Inevitably, I reached the end, Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi, #26 (1989). The film itself was darker (its U.S. tagline is “Darkness is his ally”) and, if possible, more violent, or, at least, the productions values made it seem more violent. And by the end of the series, I seemed to have nothing left. An emptiness settled in me, as happens when we pursue something we desire so rigorously, not realizing that we don’t want to reach the end. Except, I may have found a way to revive the series.
Its marathon length enables me to return to the past episodes. After twenty-six movies, I could not tell them apart. I would need to see them again to remember that I saw them. Only now, I can watch them in order this time. Then I can watch them through again when Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, #14 (1966), the only one not on VHS or DVD, is released. I can pick out the episodes with the Chess Expert, the blind monk trying to change his ways, the impossible fight against an army of one hundred or more, the meeting with Mifune, and more, and enjoy them individually. I can also watch Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi again with a finer eye to its homages and meaning. Finally, when I enter senility, I can watch them not having remembered that I watched and re-watched them many years before.
Postscript: A television series, The Tales of Zatoichi, running from 1974 to 1979, provides one hundred more episodes, truly providing a form of entertainment eternity that I will dutifully pursue. Prior to my discovering the television episodes, I vicariously pursued Zatoichi through two series of movies produced by Shintaro Katsu. The first, Lone Wolf and Cub, (1972 to 1974), starred his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, who appeared as Ichi’s brother in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, #2 (1962), as well as the villain in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, #6 (1964). A disgraced executioner, Ogami Itto flees with his infant son, pushing him in a large, and lethal, wooden cart around the countryside. To survive Ogami sells his services as an executioner. He is pursued relentlessly in each film by the Yagyu clan who framed Ogami for treason and murdered his wife. Shintaro Katsu himself starred in the second series of three films, Hanzo the Razor (1972-1974). If this series is remembered for anything, it will be for his politically incorrect, if not morally repugnant, interrogation methods. Honzo is a policeman in Tokyo who is incredibly sexual endowed and, through rigorous exercise, marathon sexual performance. In each film, to extract information from unwilling women (they are usually the villain’s mistresses), Honzo elaborately binds the women and then rapes them until they actually crave more intercourse! At this point, he holds back, and the real torture for the women begins. Then, once they have talked, he satisfies their desires – indeed the women want to stay with him!
Post Postscript: For a rigorous, movie-by-movie follow-up and assessment of the Zatoichi series, go to Kung Fu Cinema.