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.
Happy New Year, readers, and to kick off 2019 I present: Zatoichi-Gatsu, a terrible pun based on Criterion UK releasing the (near) complete Zatoichi Collection late last year and the Japanese word for January (ichigatsu). I’ve got twenty-five films to watch starring everyone’s favourite blind swordsman and as reviewing one a week would take us almost half the year, I’ll instead be peppering reviews throughout January as I work my way through the collection.