After being so pleasantly surprised with The Tale of Zatoichi and in particular Shintaro Katsu’s endearing performance as the titular blind masseuse and master swordsman, I was keen to continue my “Zatoichi-gatsu” and watch the next entry in the series. I was also a little nervous: the series stretched to twenty-five films between 1962 and 1973, not counting later entries and remakes. Surely the quality would not be maintained for the duration, so it was just a question of when the drop would come. It was also not obvious whether a sequel would be an original story or merely a rehash of the first film; in watching many ongoing series from Japan’s 1960s and ‘70s like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s clear that each film in the series follows a fairly rote formula, often with the same cast returning in “new” roles. Would The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963) buck that trend, or mark the start of a more formulaic martial arts film?
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.