Monday, November 8, 2010

Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman

Not as poetic as Akira Kurosawa's samurai films. Not as savagely stylistic as the Lone Wolf & Cub series. Those are the only reasons I can give for the lack of popularity of the Zatoichi films in the U.S. In Japan, though, these films about a blind samuari were an institution, with 25 of them appearing between 1962 and 1973 (a 26th installment was made in 1989). There was also a 1976 television series that ran for four seasons.

The Tale of Zatoichi established the simple premise: Ichi (Zato is a title) is a former masseur who, tired of being treated without respect, became a master swordsman. He describes himself as a "lowly gangster" and makes a living by gambling--and with his sword. His opponents often underestimate him, not accounting for his remarkable heightened senses.

The first film finds Ichi staying as a guest at the home of Sukegoro, a gangster who runs gambling houses. Sukegoro's hospitality is not an act of kindness. He anticipates an all-out war with his rival, a fellow gambling czar named Shigezo. After learning that Shigezo has hired a samurai, Sukegoro figured he needed a samuari on his side, too.

While fishing one day, Ichi meets Hirate, an introspective soul whom Ichi senses is seriously ill. The two men become friends almost immediately, even though it's soon clear that Hirate is the samurai working for Shigezo.

Hirate and Ichi meet while fishing.
As with Kurosawa's films, there are battle scenes and a climatic showdown--but this is a character-driven drama. Ichi recognizes instantly that Sukegoro's men are common riffraff. When he enters a room where they're gambling with dice, he notes aloud that it smells like filth and sweat. Later, he refuses to give a swordplay demonstration for Sukegoro's guests, explaining flatly: "My skill is not for entertainment." Clearly, Ichi has no respect for Sukegoro--even though he accepts money and free lodging from the gangster. (His skillful negotiation with Sukegoro is one of the film's best scenes, ending with: "My life does not come cheap.")

It's easy to see why the Ichi character appealed to audiences. Here was a man who became a master swordman to gain respect--but still lacks self-respect. Yet, he always acts with honor: rescuing a young woman, showing kindness to a man he admires, treating the elderly with respect, etc.

Ichi sheaths his sword after a slicing a
burning candle in mid-air.
 As Ichi, Shintaro Katsu gives a masterful portrayal, conveying the character's cunning and physical skills with a minimum of movement. In addition to portraying Ichi in all 26 of the original films (and directing the final one), Katsu produced the Lone Wolf & Cub movies which starred his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama. They are better films, but that's taking nothing away from the Zatoichi movies.

Although you may not have experienced a Zatoichi picture, you may have seen Blind Fury (1989) with Rutger Hauer. It was a remake of Zatoichi Challenged, the 17th film in the original series.


  1. A most excellent review, Rick. The ZATOICHI films form a superb series. Ichi is such an astounding character. The fact that he is visually impaired not only more strongly expresses his skills as a swordsman, but it also shows that his blindness isn't a handicap as he is able to use it to his advantage (e.g. focus on hearing, lack of distractions within eyesight, opponents underestimating him, etc.).

    Takeshi Kitano (more popularly known as Beat Takeshi) directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in a 2003 remake, also with Tadanobu Asano. He reportedly toyed with the idea of having "white eyes" to represent his blindness, but realized that his eyes staying closed was more effective, and his performance is reminiscent of Shintaro Katsu's memorable interpretation. More recently, Takashi Miike directed a stage play with Sho Aikawa in 2007, and in 2008's ICHI, a young woman was the blind swordsman... or swordswoman.

    Again, great write-up, Rick. I hope people unfamiliar with the series will be inspired to check it out sometime.

  2. Well, as Sark said, I am one of those people inspired to check it out. My oldest son LOVES these movies, and has been on me to give them a chance. It was never an interest for me. But the idea of a more character-driven story, with such an interesting character as Ichi, does interest me. Great post, Rick!

  3. Rick, haven't seen this one. I'm a big Kurosawa fan, so I bet I'd like this series. Will look for it on Netflix.

  4. Rick, I don't recall having seen this film. However, it sounds very intersting. I know I would like this series. I have seen the remake with Rutger Hauer called Blind Fury. It was fairly good. Kim won't be the only one searching Netflix for them.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful additional background information, Sark. You know, until writing this review, I never realized that the stars of Zatoichi and Lone Wolf & Cub were brothers! For those who can handle the blood and violence, I recommend the excellent LONE WOLF & CUB series, too.

  6. Excellent tribute to both the Zatoicihi and Lone Wolf and Cub series, Rick. Working as a samurai indeed sounds challenging, with or without one's eyesight. And being the child is no picnic, either, as evidenced by the "cub" selecting his own destiny, to live or die.