I feel like I took a gamble on Zatoichi. It’s an old series whose legacy reaches far past the actual films, so I knew the basic premise of this blind swordsman from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even before the remake starring Beat Takeshi back in the early 2000s. I was hesitant to give the series a try, though, after struggling through six films of the seemingly similar Lone Wolf and Cub – and here was a series with twenty-five entries (and that’s just in the Criterion Collection, which sadly excludes the 1989 film also starring Shintaro Katsu, never mind the hundred-episode television show!). More or less totally unavailable in the UK, it was a moot point until Criterion brought their US collection over, and I finally rolled the dice.
Whether or not the rest of the series maintains the same level of craftsmanship is uncertain – or even unlikely – but the first film, Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is a brilliant and surprisingly introspective drama rather than the schlocky martial arts exploitation film I expected. This is all the more surprising considering Misumi actually directed several of the Lone Wolf films that I disliked so intensely – and that Shintaro Katsu, who stars as the titular Zatoichi, is the younger brother of Tomisaburo Wakayama, most famous for his portrayal of Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub.
Another thing I hadn’t realised, though admittedly a much more minor point, is that “Zatoichi” isn’t even the protagonist’s name – at least not exactly. “Zatou” is Japanese for a travelling masseuse, a profession typically performed by the blind. “Ichi” is his name. He’s changeably referred to as just “Ichi” or with the diminutive “Icchan”, “Zatou no Ichi” (Ichi the Masseuse) or compounded together as “Zatoichi”. This first film in the series see Ichi in a scenario not unlike Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, caught between two warring yakuza factions in a dusty provincial town. From the outset Katsu plays Ichi as warm and affable, imbuing most scenes with some gentle good humour. Apparently Katsu, the son of a famous shamisen player, had a blind shamisen teacher as a child, and perhaps this is what he draws on in his portrayal of the blind masseuse who is also a master swordsman.
The bulk of the film is made up by Ichi’s striking friendship with the ronin, or masterless samurai, Miki Hirate (Shigeru Amachi). A skilled swordsman himself, he’s been employed by the rival yakuza group to the one hosting Ichi. This doesn’t stop them bonding over river fishing and their positions in life – Ichi, blind, Hirate, with terminal consumption (entire essays can be written on tuberculosis and Japan – it casts an extremely heavy shadow over the country and remains a medical boogeyman). The Tale of Zatoichi is a largely bloodless film anyway, but being shot in black and white always distances or diminishes bloodletting – that makes it all the more dramatic when Hirate coughs of blood.
Thoughtful and slow-burning, The Tale of Zatoichi far exceeded my expectations. Highly recommended.
The Tale of Zatoichi / 座頭市物語
Director: Kenji Misumi
Japanese Release Date: 12th April 1962
Version Watched: 95 min (Criterion Collection)