The Tale of Zatoichi
Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, is as much as staple in chambara cinema as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name is in
spaghetti westerns. However, Clint's character
was derived from Toshiro Mifune's portrayal of the mysterious ronin in Kurosawa's Yojimbo (who was in
turn adapted from the mysterious protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest). Strangely, though, the blind swordsman is
the least familiar of the three to western viewers, despite having made far more appearances (26 feature films and 100 television
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.