Zatoichi Monogatari (The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi) - here retitled The Tale of Zatoichi - is in many ways similar to Kurosawa's Yojimbo. In fact, the two films were released the same year (1962), and Mifune even reprised his role in a later Zatoichi film, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. Despite the two film's similarities, they are vastly different in tone.
The film starts as the blind masseur Ichi arrives in the town of Iioka, having been left with a standing invitation by the resident yakuza boss Sukejoro. It isn't long before Ichi discovers that Sukejoro is embroiled in a long-running feud with a neighboring yakuza boss, Shigezo. Shigezo, it seems, has hired a samurai from Edo to help turn the tables on his rival, and Sukejoro seeks to enlist the aid of Zatoichi to help offset his rival's advantage.
It's easy to see the parallels between this film and Kurosawa's; they are very similar in plot, yet very different in execution. Mifune's character is much more mercenary than Katsu's Ichi. In Yojimbo, Mifune's swordsman quicky sizes up the situation, deciding that the town would be better off with everyone dead, and that he could stand to make a pretty profit in the process. Ichi, on the other hand, is a much more compassionate soul. He is far more reluctant to become embroiled in the bitter feud between the two yakuza bosses, and would just as soon leave penniless than have blood on his hands. Alas, despite his good nature, Ichi is drawn into the conflict by his sense of duty, not by the desire to make a quick buck.
Yojimbo's antagonists were also a measly bunch of cretins, nearly without exception. Even the majority of the townsfolk were reprehensible, from the silk merchant who profited from the competition between the two criminal gangs, to the coffin maker who lamented when there was a lull in the killing. Ichi, on the other hand, finds good amongst the people of Iioka. Indeed, Hirate, the samurai from Edo whom Shigezo has employed, is played for sympathy rather than antagonism. During the final duel, the outcome of which is patently obvious (after all...the films aren't called Zatoichi because the hero dies in the first installment), Ichi's reluctance to fight his diminished foe informs his every movement. At its conclusion, Ichi weeps for his fallen opponent, mourning the senselessness of the act, rather than striding off into the sunset with a fistful of ryo.
Which is not to dismiss Yojimbo. Despite the callousness of its protagoinst (and perhaps because of it), Yojimbo is the superior film. But what The Tale of Zatoichi and its subsequent sequels deliver is a character of more superheroic proportions...not only because of his uncanny ability with a blade despite his handicap, but because of his determination to protect the common folk from their opressors and to decry injustice wherever he sees it. Shintaro Katsu's portrayal of Zatoichi, even in this first installment, is a wonder to behold, and is one of the series' main drawing points, in my opinion.
As portrayed by Katsu, Zatoichi is an affable, drunk fool, blindly (both figuratively and literally) stumbling from one bad situation to the next. Hidden behind this facade of jubilant ineptitude, however, lurks a strong soul bent pledged to the defense of honor and justice. Ichi's weapon, a razor sharp katana concealed in a blind man's walking stick, is in many ways emblematic of his charater. He uses his handicaps to mask his strengths, luring his enemies into a trap of false security. Katsu's sword work is amazing; in many instances, you find yourself rewinding sequences to see what happened because by the time you realize something's happened, Ichi's sword is back in its scabbard. I would almost say the speed with which he draws his blade is disconcerting. Katsu's technique is remarkable because it looks as if it really were developed by a blind man. He holds his sword with the blade pointing down, at times using the tip of his blade to tap the ground or to ferret out his enemie's positions. In combat, you can see Ichi using his four remaining senses to build a mental picture of his foes, and then reacting quickly and decisively. It really is an amazing sight.
For those of you expecting wall-to-wall action, the Zatoichi films, and The Tale of Zatoichi in particular, may be a little slow. The actual fighting contained in the film probably comprises six minutes of the film's ninety-six minute running time. On the other hand, the film manages to be quite entertaining even when there's no on-screen swordplay. Despite the feeling that Katsu wasn't yet completely comfortable playing Zatoichi, his performance largely carries the film. You can't help but enjoy watching Ichi take advantage of a group of Yakuza gangsters in a game of dice, using his blindness as an advantage, or stumbling onto a sexual assault and innocently offering to walk the woman home, stopping long enough to ask "Is there someone else there?" with a broad grin on his face. "Guess not..." he laughingly intones as he and the woman depart.