Zatoichi - The First Five Films

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) – 7/10

Director: Kenji Misumi

Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman was for many years one of the most beloved film characters ever in Japan. So much so that film studio Daiei produced 19 of them and Toho 6 between 1962 until 1973, when it morphed into a TV show for 4 years with 100 episodes. One later film was made in 1989. All of these starred Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi. Shintaro was a legend both on and off the screen. For 20 years, he was one of the top pulp actors of his time generally showing up in both Samurai and Yakuza films – many times playing the bad guy which his rough looks made him a natural for. He was notorious for his life off the screen as well with numerous run ins with drinking, drugs, women and general mayhem. He was also a brilliant swordsman and much of what you see is Shintaro doing all his own swordplay. Another series he was in later on was the amazing Hanzo the Razor that was only three films but are well worth watching if only for the penis exercises such as lifting a load of bricks with said instrument. I would guess that wasn’t really Shintaro doing that. And I would not try it at home.

Zatoichi takes place in the Edo period – I would guess in the early 1800’s - guns had been invented but are very rare – thus nearly all the action is with sword. He is an itinerant blind masseur travelling from small town to small town all over Japan. He is part of what they called the Gangster class or Yakuza but not affiliated with any particular group. His status was at the very bottom. A Ronin of sorts but he was never a Samurai. Due to his blindness, he has gained astonishing sensory and perceptive abilities – sort of like Daredevil who possibly was modeled on Zatoichi. He loves to gamble, sleep, drink, indulge in prostitutes and prefers staying out of trouble when he can. He is also an expert swordsman who fights with all his senses but sight of course.

But trouble is one thing Zatoichi cannot stay out of – it follows him like his own bad luck shadow. Wherever he goes he finds trouble – either in the touch of a beautiful woman, the anger of the gamblers who lost to him (his ears are so sharp they give him an advantage in dice games), the entreaty of a friend in need or simply because someone wants him dead. By the time he leaves town there is usually a swath of dead bodies left behind and a woman waving goodbye. Though a self-confessed gangster Zatoichi lives by a strict and honorable code of ethics in which he will side with the downtrodden, respect his friends, honor tradition and exact revenge if needed of those who break the code of the Yakuza or mess with him. Because of his blindness, he is constantly underestimated and scorned by many until they are on the wrong end of a sharp sword.

Many of the films have this same general narrative but within all the films is woven other dramatic stories of personal conflicts, conspiracies, ambitions, love and murder that eventually entangles Zatoichi and forces him to reluctantly pull out his sword again. The production values in the films are terrific with the first two shot in black and white before they turned to color and the historical settings and designs feel authentic. I watched a bunch of them years ago, but am planning to slowly watch them all in order. A tall order. I have gotten through the first two and they reminded me just how much I liked these films.

In The Tale of Zatoichi (1962), he stops in a village because someone who had witnessed his sword prowess told him that he could come visit any time he wants. Turns out his host is a gambler boss who wants to use Zatoichi in an attempt to destroy another gambling syndicate. Zatoichi isn’t so eager especially after he meets an honorable Samurai dying of consumption who is fighting on the other side. Fate brings them inevitably together in battle.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962) – 7/10

Director: Kazuo Mori

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues – second in the series - brings Zatoichi back to the same village one year later to pay his respects to the dead. Trouble follows him again as the old gang leader feels he has unfinished business with Zatoichi – killing him. Zatoichi has other ideas but finds more trouble when he runs into his brigand brother who wants to kill him also. His brother in the film is played by his real-life brother Tomisaburo Wakayama who was also a renowned action actor of the time starring in two future series that are terrific – The Wicked Priest and the classic Lone Wolf and Cub series that was produced by Shintaro. As the series progresses so does the body count and there are action set pieces in which Zatoichi takes on dozens of men and dispatches them with his cane sword and unorthodox style in such swift movements that the blade is but a blur.

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963) – 7/10

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

This third film in the series bursts into color (the first 2 are in black and white), but it sinks into gloom and darkness as Zatoichi faces his toughest challenge yet - not men with swords - but who does he want to be. Fate of course settles that question.

He returns to his home town after 4 years of being on the road. Tagging along on his tracks are a group of men who want to avenge someone that Zatoichi killed in the prior film. This plays out quite nicely and honorably.

He visits his sensei, the man who taught him swordsmanship, and his sensei's sister Yayoi who clearly has a soft spot for Zatoichi. Much of the film almost plays out like a Ozu family drama of manners and societal prejudices - Zatoichi as a blind masseur has no status at all in the hierarchy of either the Yakuza or of society in general - his standing in life denotes who he is and who he can be and even his sword can't change this equation - but it can mete out justice. Not a lot of action in this one till near the end, but an interesting addition to the series in showing some of his background and character.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963) – 8/10

Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

Zatoichi really hits its stride in this fourth film in the series. Perhaps the popularity of the series allowed them to have a much bigger budget and they use it for a film that just feels bigger and more colorful.

As usual Zatoichi is in another town but it is the same story - trouble follows him like a shrouded ghost of fallen victims. It is festival time and Zatoichi gleefully enters into a sumo wrestling match that he wins - but then someone comes to kill him for the reward that has been put on his head. Zatoichi almost regretfully kills him because he realizes the man has no sword skills. In his honorable way he makes his way to the man's mother to apologize and by doing so he enters into a convoluted story of numerous narrative threads that all lead to Zatoichi.

Into this mix is a sort of Romeo and Juliet angle, a large gang of Yakuza that want revenge for the man that Zatoichi killed and a brutish Ronin who wants Zatoichi dead for reasons of his own. Zatoichi also meets up with Tane (Masayo Banri) who he had met in the first two films of the film but had left her behind to marry a good man. The film makes it seem as if a fair amount of time has passed since then as she has fallen on bad times - as she says like a kite with no string going from man to man. Zatoichi replies "life's dirt sticks to all of us". Tension slowly builds until it is released in a torrent of blood at the end as Zatoichi takes it on his own to settle everything - and as many of these films end - he wanders down the road with a wave of goodbye, a sense of never belonging and dead bodies littering the landscape.

Zatoichi on the Road (1963) – 6/10

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

If I lived in a town back in Japan at this time and I heard Zatoichi was in town, I would immediately pack a small bag and go visit relatives far far away because you know by the time Zatoichi leaves town it will be covered in corpses. Once again Zatoichi is minding his own business happily eating well and traveling as usual when first three samurais try and kill him much to their bad luck - then a dying old man pleads with Zatoichi to take care of Mitsui. Ok - sure why not - except Mitsui just stabbed some big lord when he tried to rape her and his whole kingdom is out to kill her. Throw in two warring Yakuza gangs who both want to draft Zatoichi to their side and you have lots of opportunities for mayhem and you get plenty here.

By the fifth film this theme is starting to get a bit formulaic and certainly the rate of the production of the films doesn’t help - but there is a certain undeniable pleasure in watching Zatoichi cut his way through armies of men and in the end waving good bye to the girl.