I’ve been aware of, though not necessarily a fan of, the character Zatoichi for years. Traveling masseur, blind Yakuza, compulsive gambler, master swordsman. He was created in a popular short story by Kan Shimozawa in 1948. In 1962, the samurai flick was undergoing a renaissance – this is the time of Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hara-Kiri. Daiei Studio wants in on this, and brings the short story to the screen, developed by a young actor named Shintaro Katsu, and what was once an incidental character becomes the linchpin of one of the longest-running film series in the world.
In late November, Criterion released a massive box set of 25 of the 26 Katsu movies (lacking only Katsu’s swan song, the 1989 Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman), and the fates were exceedingly kind on its timing, as the street date was during the Barnes & Noble regular Criterion 50% off sale, rendering the set affordable by mere mortals like myself (if you ignored every other Criterion title during that sale, anyway). Reproduced in the lovely illustrated book that comes with the set, is that original Shimozawa short story, allowing the viewer to start off where the Japanese public did, almost tabula rasa, knowing of the character, but not much.
The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
Ichi (the zato is a prefix meaning, among other things, “blind”) travels into town to accept the invitation of yakuza boss Sukegoro (Elijiro Yanagi), who once saw Ichi’s impressive swordplay. Sukegoro is counting on Ichi’s skill for an upcoming war with rival boss Shigezo, mainly because his opponent has hired an itinerant ronin, the tubercular Hirate (Shigeru Amachi) as his muscle. Unfortunately for both bosses, Hirate and Ichi meet while fishing at a nearby lake, and the two warriors immediately recognize each other’s weary dignity and honor, and they become drinking buddies. Hirate’s illness reaches a crisis, and Sukegoro seizes the opportunity to attack, insulting Ichi and throwing him out as “useless”.
Too bad that Shigezo has appealed to Hirate’s respect for Ichi on the samurai’s sickbed; the boss sighs that without Hirate, he’ll have to dispatch the blind man from a distance, with his secret weapon, a rifle. Hirate rises, calling for his kimono and sword, rather than let his friend die by such cowardly means. Which means that Ichi, on his way out of town, finds out the ailing Hirate is at the battle, cutting a swatch through Sukegoro’s men even while coughing up blood, and hastens to join. He and the samurai have a final, frenetic battle on a bridge, and Hirate gets what he had wanted: death at the hands of a respected foe, not some weasel with a gun. Sukegoro is victorious over the demoralized clan, but Ichi, enraged that a good man died to no fitting purpose, tells off the boss, arranges for Hirate’s funeral, and leaves his sword cane at his graveside.
Ichi giving up his signature weapon at the end is the surest signal that Daiei had no idea what they were unleashing upon the Japanese movie scene. Make no mistake, this is the Dr. No of Zatoichi movies; the character, not yet fully formed, is still compelling, though there are times he seems to be a guest star in his own movie. The Japanese love to root for the underdog… who doesn’t? … and Ichi’s willingness to endure abuse until the time is right casts him in this light until he reveals he has the power to put down bullies quite permanently. In addition to his dazzling swordplay, we are introduced to his acute hearing (and gambling compulsion) when he opens the picture by running a nice scam on some low-level yakuza who think they can cheat a blind man at dice.
The swordplay is at a minimum in this entry, and might not be the ideal entry point for a casual viewer looking to get into the Zatoichi series. But the time put into establishing the Hirate/Ichi friendship is well spent, and we are introduced to the fact that Ichi is a powerful chick magnet. Women – never the most respected people in any culture, certainly not in Edo-era Japan – sense his common decency, despite the fact he considers himself wicked and beyond redemption; a result of the many people he’s cut down in his career, some of which he regrets. This is the first time we will see him walk away from the love of a good woman, the waitress Otane (Masayo Banri, taking a break from her usual sex kitten roles) – but certainly not the last. Overall, it feels a lot more like the previous year’s Yojimbo than a Zatoichi movie – but that will change.
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)
Surprised by the success of Tale of Zatoichi, Daiei rushed out this sequel, which only runs a trim 72 minutes. One of the benefits of such a short length is the story moves forward briskly, and if there were not so many plot points carried over from the first movie, I would almost recommend it as an entry point into the series.
Ichi – who has procured another sword-cane – is journeying back to the temple of the first movie to fulfill his promise to visit Hirate’s grave after a year. Along the way, he’s spared the trouble of dealing with some thugs who try to ambush him by the intervention of a one-armed ronin, Yoshiro (Tomisaburo Wakayama, moonlighting as Kenzaburo Jo). Trying to earn some money, Ichi is called upon to massage a Lord, who misbehaves in a most unLordly manner – turns out the Lord is insane, and in order to keep Ichi from telling anyone, his retainers sends out a couple of men to kill the blind man. This goes about as well for the killers as would be expected.
So the retainer hires the yakuza Boss Kambei (Sonosuke Sawamura) to track down and kill Ichi. Meantime, Boss Sukegoro, hearing that Ichi is returning, is also plotting his death. While the retainers are searching every inn for Ichi, he falls in with a prostitute named Osetsu (Yoshie Mizutani), who is a dead ringer for Ichi’s former love – and also the former love of that mysterious Ronin, Yoshiro. To cut to the chase, Yoshiro is Ichi’s brother, only pretending to be a samurai, and he lost his arm in a fight with Ichi over that very same long-lost love. Yoshiro is on the lam for robbery and murder, and Kambei and Sukegoro join forces to take down both men. On top of all that, the pretty Otane is back, scheduled to marry an honest, nondescript carpenter, a match of which Ichi heartily approves.
Even at this truncated length, the pacing is much more even in this entry, even as the complexity of plot that will be a trademark through the series surfaces, and there is much more swordplay. Tomisaburo Wakayama was Katsu’s brother in real life, and it’s not the last time he’ll crop up in the Zatoichi series. There’s a bit of eerieness whenever he does, since I know him best from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. Crossovers with other film heroes is still in Zatoichi’s future; but it’s hard to not get all tingly at the prospect of a Zatoichi/Itto Ogami team-up.
New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)
Ichi, sick of all the killing, travels back to his old territory. On his trail, though, is the brother of Boss Kambei, Yasuhiko (Fujio Suga), seeking revenge. This vendetta is put on hold by Ichi’s sword mentor, the fallen samurai Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu). Banno runs a fencing school, and laments the fact that none of his students ever practice with Ichi’s passion or precision. At one point, Banno overcomes Ichi’s aversion to showing off his skills by pressuring the masseur into a dazzling display of his draw, slicing through four candles in one move.
Banno is, however, involved with a group of anti-Shogunate samurai called the Mito Tengu (who might as well have saved their time, the Shogunate s going to collapse all by itself in twenty years or so). Needing money to fund their crusade, they plot to kidnap one of Banno’s wealthy students for ransom – Ichi’s demonstration is only the device to get the student out of his house at night.
Further complicating matters is Banno’s little sister Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who has blossomed into a young woman during Ichi’s absence. Banno hopes to marry her to a wealthy samurai, which would be his ticket back to the capital city of Edo, and the high life. Yayoi resists this idea, and in fact proposes to Ichi, a man she has known almost her entire life, and whom she knows to be good. This leads to perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the series, as Ichi swears off the sword forever, only to be confronted by the vengeful Yasuhiko. When Ichi refuses to duel him, they proceed to play dice for the masseur’s fate: if Ichi wins, Yasuhiko will forswear his vendetta and leave the two to their lives together. If Ichi loses, Yasuhiko will take his right arm.
Yasuhiko, however, seeing the genuine love between the two, flips over one of the dice, announces he’s lost, and leaves the compound.
Banno, however, will not agree to the marriage, because Ichi is a mere lowlife yakuza and Yayoi, is after all, samurai. Banno has, in fact, decided to betray the Mito Tengu and take the ransom for his own use, to fund Yayoi’s wedding to that wealthy samurai. Just in case we haven’t figured out Banno is a heel, yet, he also kills the unarmed Yasuhiko because the man drunkenly insults him.
It’s that murder that causes Ichi to follow Banno, free the hostage from the Mito Tengu, and waste all the bad guys, including his dismissory mentor, all before the shocked Yayoi. Ichi sighs that he just seems to be That Sort of Person Anyway, and walks off into the night.
This is apparently the last time we are going to get such a concentrated dose of Ichi’s backstory; Daiei realized that if they were going to milk this franchise for all it was worth, they were going to have to be much more parsimonious with such details. The fact that Ichi is ready to give up his itinerant existence is something of a shock in only the third movie of the series. This still isn’t an ideal entry point for those reasons. The color photography, though, is sumptuous.
Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)
New Tale seems a bit studio bound, especially in contrast to Fugitive, which finds Ichi on the road, even participating in a village Sumo competition, which he wins, because he’s Zatoichi, after all. While he’s relaxing by a riverside, Ichi is forced to kill a shabby yakuza trying to ambush him; he finds out from the dying man that there is a bounty on his head.
Ichi seeks out the gangster’s mother to apologize for his death, and, as usual, this act of kindness will land him in the middle of a conflict between a thuggish Yakuza Boss and a more ethical one, made even more complicated by the return of Otane from the first two movies. Seems she didn’t marry that nice carpenter after all, but has fallen in with a brutish, hard-drinking ronin who is going to be very interested in that ever- escalating bounty. It’s also going to get personal as the ronin realizes that Otane still has feelings for Ichi, and vice versa. This leads up to one of the largest final fights yet, as a small army of Yakuza makes the mistake of putting itself between the ronin and a very pissed-off Ichi.
This is the best Zatoichi flick yet, with our hero’s character fully developed, the trademark tangled plot and personal interactions are in place, and the location shooting opening up the frame nicely. The return of Otane is about the only thing that keeps me from recommending this as the entry film; overall, this feels like the first Zatoichi movie that actually is a Zatoichi movie, if you know what I mean.
Zatoichi On The Road (1963)
When I’m asked what is a good entry point to the series, I’m probably going to go with this one; not only does the typically byzantine storyline show off Zatoichi’s altruism and sense of honor, it also is the first to start with a James Bond-style vignette (just to overwork that comparison) to let us know that we are entering the world of the blind swordsman.
A representative of a yakuza gang has been sent to fetch Ichi, though he is under orders to not tell the masseur any details; instead, he continues to ply Ichi with good food and drink as they travel to their destination, which is just fine with Ichi. A rival gang member recognizes the representative, though, and hires three traveling ronin to kill both men. Too bad for the rep, who dies, and for the ronin, who follow suit quickly at Ichi’s blade. The wife of one of the ronins, while casually gathering what money she can off the corpses, reveals the source of the attempted assassination. Ichi wearily continues on the road, duty-bound to tell the Boss what happened to his man.
It is on the way there that Ichi stumbles, almost literally, on a dying man, who asks him to “protect Omitsu”. Ichi has been crossing paths all night with samurai looking for a girl, and he finds her, hiding in a nearby shack. Omitsu (Shiho Fujimara, who still has a busy career to this day) is the daughter of a rich Edo merchant who made the mistake of resisting the advances of a nearby Lord, hence the murderous samurai, as she apparently scarred the rutting Lord’s face. Ichi spends a goodly portion of the movie trying to get the girl back to her father, only to have her kidnapped – twice – by that ronin’s widow, seeking revenge as she best can. Ichi, thinking he has gotten the girl safe passage to Edo, reluctantly agrees to take part in the yakuza Boss’ war, but at a steep fee – only to find that the opposing Boss is prepared to use Omitsu as a bargaining chip.
The story has plenty of opportunities to show off Ichi’s quick wits and basic goodness. He gets deep into a yakuza hideout by simply walking in the front door and asking for the boss – no one gives a blind masseur a second look. As he waits for the final battle to start, he says to the young yakuza assigned to be his dogsbody, “Stay in the back when the fighting starts. You don’t want to be killed in a stupid fight.” Not only does On The Road provide all these Ichi basics, as well as a wistful examination of the growing affection between Ichi and Omitsu – it also does it with a rousing good story, a collection of bad guys you can’t wait to see get their final comeuppance, and, once more, nicely expansive cinematography.
So, I recommend it as the entry point of the Zatoichi series for the complete virgin. If you like it, you can feel safe going back to the first one and then making your way through the series – especially if the idea of an actual story that requires attention does not frighten you.