The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) was the beginning of one of the most successful franchises in Asian cinema. After watching Zatoichi episode one, I am now only 25 films away from being a fully certified Ichi-Freak! 26 feature length episodes of Zatoichi have been made between 1962 and 1989, plus over 100 television episodes.
Fortunately Home Vision Entertainment has decided to re-master 17 titles and release them on DVD in their Blind Swordsman series. Zatoichi is played by the late Shintaro Katsu, who carved out a highly successful career on both the screen and television in many other yakuza productions. However, he will always remain synonymous with the wandering blind swordsman that he portrays here. The director Kenji Misumi, arguably lacks the international recognition of Akira Kurosawa, but is held in high regard by those knowledgeful of Japanese cinema. He not only has Zatoichi on his résumé, but also the Lone Wolf and Cub series.
Ichi arrives in Iioka
Ichi and Hirate go fishing
Ichi prepares to demonstrate his skill
Hirate receives a massage
The blind masseur Zatoichi is hired by yakuza gang-leader Sukejoro Iioka (Eijiro Yanagi) as he thinks that war is inevitable with the rival yakuza Shigezo Sasagawa (Ryuzo Shimada). Zatoichi has a distinguished reputation as a swordsman and Sukejoro thinks he is money well spent. Shigezo responds by hiring a swordsman of similar repute, Ronin Miki Hirate (Shigeru Amachi). Ichi is a meek and humble man who is commonly underestimated by common men, and looked upon suspiciously. He being a masseur, which was a position of low regard in feudal Japan, merely increases the hostility that is shown towards him. They even try to take advantage of his blindness in a gambling den, but from early on it is clear that Zatoichi draws strength from his disability.
The only person who respects him is a fellow warrior who has a similar code of practice (Hirate). The tragedy is that the two warriors know they must fight when the war begins, but this does not stop them developing a strong bond throughout the earlier stages of the film. Hirate is eager to fight Zatoichi, as he is terminally is with consumption. Unfortunately for Hirate, as he becomes increasingly sick, Sukejoro decides to attack Shigezo. He also tells Ichi that he is no longer needed. However, as the war begins, Hirate drags himself from his bed to fight Zatoichi, and word gets to Ichi that Hirate will be fighting and that Sukejoro intends to shoot him with his rifle. Zatoichi travels to the battle to duel with his fellow dying Samurai. After the tense final fight, Zatoichi leaves Iioka and rejects the advances of Otane (Masayo Banri), who has become disillusioned with the yakuza lifestyle, to continue as a solitary wandering swordsman.
The fighting in this movie is light and infrequent; however it is entirely fitting with the mood and tone of the film. The first time Ichi draws his sword is to do a reluctant exhibition to Sukejoro's men, to show that he is indeed a master swordsman. He manages to cut a candle vertically in half and leave both sides lit. It is only in the second half of the film that Ichi is required to use his sword for more deadly purposes. When pursued into the woods at night by some of Shigezo's swordsmen, Zatoichi puts his lantern out so that everyone is fighting in darkness and then despatches them rapidly with his cane sword (Dosu). The next time Ichi fights it is in the climactic duel with Hirate, where Zatoichi demonstrates his 'lai' technique. This fight is also brief encounter and like most of the film, relies on tension rather than explosive action. Hirate declares how happy he is to have died at Ichi's hands rather than suffer the ignominy of dying through consumption. After Hirate falls, so do Shigezo's men, as their hired Samurai is no longer.
Otane reveals her affections for Ichi
Misumi directing shows a masterful approach in creating an unassuming hero, who personifies calmness and serenity, when he is surrounded by violence and treachery. Katsu plays a man who only respects the honourable, not the powerful. He plays Zatoichi with a subtle and deft touch that leaves viewers wanting to see more of the blind masseur and his travels.
This was originally released as Zatoichi Monogatari in Japan, and The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi in the West. Home Vision's renaming of the film may create an element of confusion, but equally so the re-branding may help bring Zatoichi to a new audience. The disc has been superbly re-mastered and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of a print that is 40 years old. The film is shown in a letterboxed widescreen format and the disc includes newly translated subtitles. The extras are a gallery of stills from the movie, a foreword by Tatsu Aoki in the inlay card and a set of four collecting cards. The overall look of the disc shows a commitment to producing a professional and stylish package, which does credit to Home Vision's work on the series.
The Tale of Zatoichi is widely regarded as the best Zatoichi installment. It is not a film for those hunting a Samurai slasher movie. This film will probably appeal more to fans of Hitchcock, than Chang Cheh. Misumi directs a powerful tale of the classic anti-hero, plus Katsu's performance is engaging and utterly convincing as a blind masseur. After watching films such as these, it is not surprising to note that much of the Jedi was built around the way of the honourable Samurai. This film will also hold appeal with those far detached from the martial arts fan-base, it is a landmark work in Japanese cinema and Home Vision have shown the respect that such a title deserves, with a elegantly re-mastered package.
Sukejoro vs. Sasagawa
Ichi and Hirate prepare to duel
Hirate's last moments with Ichi