Cast & Crew
Blind swordsman/masseur Ichi (known as Zatoichi, or "Masseur Ichi") angers a local yakuza gang when he defeats several of them in a wrestling match. When he finds that his long lost love Tane is nearby and romantically involved with a tough samurai in the employ of the gang, he remains in the village. Meanwhile, the young heir to the leadership is forced to confront his own fear and weakness when the gang insists he fight Ichi.
Zatoichi Vol. 1-5
It begins with Blind Swordsman: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962), directed by Kenji Misumi (1921-1975), who is well-known for his Lone Wolf and Cub films. The premise here finds Zatoichi getting caught in the middle of a Yakuza turf war (based on actual historic elements), he also meets a formidable opponent who is dying of consumption, and it all leads up to big battles and a face-off on a bridge. In a time where swords are the norm there is pivotal use made of an emerging new weapon; the rifle. Feuding Yakuza gangs, a scruffy Samurai playing both sides against each other, the introduction of gun power amidst a sea of swords, the wide-screen panoramas shot in crisp black-and-white, it all plays out with echoes of the same era release of Yojimbo (1961) by Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). But, as Tatsu Aoki notes in his informative introduction to the Zatoichi dvd series, "Yojimbo walked on the sunny side of the road establishing a new image of the loud, out-spoken good-bad guy, while our hero Zatoichi walked on the shady side carrying quietly the cultural legacy of the low ranking blind man. In the west, the proverbial squeaky wheel may get the grease, but in the Japanese tradition the squeaky wheel only gets the cold shoulder; and as the 60's continued to see Japanese cinema lean toward the truly anti-heroic, it was Zatoichi, the unlikely soft-spoken hero, who earned many more sequels than the flamboyant Yojimbo."
Next up: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962) directed by Kazuo Mori (1911-1989). As hooligans bully folks off a small boat they notice Zatoichi snoozing through the whole thing. The irate leader tosses Zatoichi into the water and in seamless motion also has his face sliced by the blind swordsman, who swims away to safety. Whereas the first Zatoichi film took a slower pace to building up its drama, this particular film really gets cooking fast and Zatoichi is kept busy by murderous swordsmen, solicitous prostitutes, a great graveyard scene, tales of long lost love, mad siblings, love triangles and lots of climactic face-offs (including one with "the infamous one-armed samurai" played out by Katsu's real brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama).
With the third installment, New Tale of Zatoichi (1963), directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, Zatoichi comes alive for the first time in color! Right off the bat murderous assassins try to kill Zatoichi, but he shreds them all with lightning-fast strokes of his blade. As he continues along the road he bumps into an old friend, his wife, and their kid. They go to grab a bite, Zatoichi sings a song, and as the appreciative audience is clapping bandits storm in and steal the valuables from everyone in attendance. Zatoichi sets things right, but also earns the wrath of the bandits. Thankfully, Zatoichi's sword-fighting teacher intervenes. Things start to look up for Zatoichi, and he is even honored with a marriage proposal by his teacher's sister. In her own humble way, she adds that "I'm a poor 's daughter with one kimono to my name." Hardly dissuaded, he replies with "Miss, I am blind, a cripple, I'm crippled, very crippled!...It's not just that. I'm a gambler, shunned from the world. And not just that. I've killed people. You could say I¿m a criminal. And there's more, I've known women. These women I've bought with money, and not just 5 or 10 of them! My body is already withered, rotten!" Despite all these disclosures, they are both ecstatic to have found each other and Zatoichi even promises to put aside his blade and never kill again. Unfortunately, Zatoichi is not meant for wedded bliss and things, as usual, get very messy before he can be on his way.
The fourth film for Zatoichi is The Fugitive (1963), directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, and it starts out with a sunny and crowded scene as onlookers marvel at Zatoichi getting the upper hand of a one-on-one refereed fight. Later, as Zatoichi goes by the water to rest, he is attacked by a man trying to collect on a bounty that has been put on Zatoichi's head, and Zatoichi kills him in self-defense. This leads to a magnificent scene in a cemetery that is covered in lush, tall green grass where Zatoichi is accosted by a gang that sprouts from the tall grass in a truly eye-catching scene that is exemplary of the thoughtful widescreen composition throughout. But it's not just about action, and soon Zatoichi is, fluttering his eyelids, twitching his eyebrows, cocking his ears at every sound and stuffing his cheeks with rice balls while in the company of another beautiful woman that can't keep her eyes of him. Pastoral beauty, humor, maybe even romance? The picnic, however, is quickly cut short by Zatoichi's hearing prowess, and it goes from hearing a dragonfly land on a blade of grass to the swords unsheathing nearby. Hordes of Yakuza (not to mention some sake bottles) get sliced-and-diced, before our hero finds himself alone, again, and....
On the Road (1963), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, starts out gangbusters with a pre-credit sequence that shows Zatoichi gambling at night, getting in trouble, and then slicing candles that leave everyone in the dark and gasping with the realization that they are up against the fabled Zatoichi himself. Given how Zatoichi occupies a similar role in Japan to the Lone Ranger in the U.S., it's not entirely surprising to see the line "Who is that blind man?" translated into the subtitles of this particular entry. But the Lone Ranger would never think of making a living giving out massages. Zatoichi does just that and even gives out painfully bad massages on purpose (to bad guys, at least) while still insisting on payment. Fans of femme fatales will find On the Road of special interest since Zatoichi meets one here that has the blind swordsman himself wishing he could see so that he could have run away in the opposite direction.
Home Vision Entertainment's dvd releases of Zatoichi feature all the films in their original widescreen aspect ratios (2.35:1) with newly translated subtitles, and galleries of original theatrical stills. The classic compositions, full of long-shots that emphasize stunning landscapes, wind-swept lakes, moonlit bamboo thickets, misting waterfalls, and much more, all help to balance the samurai action of the Zatoichi films with a grander eloquence whose power resides in the visual poetry afforded by the great locations.
For more information about the Zatoichi films, visit Home Vision Entertainment. HVe has been instrumental in re-introducing this cult figure from Japanese cinema to American audiences through their dedicated DVD release campaign, helped in part by IFC which has been programming the films on their channel. Good timing is also playing a part in getting the word out - Miramax is set to release Beat Takeshi's new version of Zatoichi this fall. From all advance reports, it sounds as dazzling and frenetic as Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. But in the meantime, familiarize yourself with the original Zatoichi, available in 16 episodes. Home Vision also has an excellent selection of other Asian cult titles such as Seiju Suzuki's Underworld Beauty and Kinji Fukasaku's Blackmail is My Life. And their new release schedule includes Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter and other eccentric delights.
by Pablo Kjolseth