TALE OF ZATOICHI

(Aka: Zatoichi; The Life and Opinions of Master Ichi; Blind Swordsman; Zatoichi 1)
(Japanese Title: Zatoichi Monogatari)

(1962 - Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura
Directed by
Kenji Misumi
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

"I smell bacon!"     The title character of TALE OF ZATOICHI, a blind masseuse who is also a master swordsman, became one of the most beloved fictional characters of Japan, inspiring 24 more films from 1963 through 1973, a television series, a comeback film in the 1980s and a reinvention in 2003.  Except for that reinvention, Master Ichi was always played by Shintaro Katsu, who, before you even ask, was not blind.  He was a Japanese actor with more than 90 films under his belt before starring in this film, yet it was the Zatoichi series, and Katsu's always-superb portrayal of the blind swordsman, that made him a superstar in Japan and a cult figure abroad.  Shintaro Katsu was the Blind Swordsman as much as Sean Connery was James Bond in the early 007 films.  There is something to be said about the actor, know as "Katsu-shin" to the adoring Japanese public, when you consider it took fourteen years after the last Katsu Zatoichi (1989's simply-tiled ZATOICHI)  before somebody else (actor-director Takeshi Kitano) plucked up the courage to portray the character again.  

     Zatoichi films often had the same plot: the masseuse wanders into a town looking for some rest, finds some wrongs that need to be righted, and next thing you know, his reluctant sword goes a-flyin' everywhere until hacked-up bad guys everywhere have learned their lesson. Then, like Chaplin with a saber hidden in his cane, Master Ichi journeys on down the road to the next town.

     But fans of bloodshed and extreme violence of later '60s chambara (swordplay) films are bound to be disappointed by this first film, as there is little real swordplay until the climax and none of it features blood or dismemberment.  Instead, the film concentrates on the character of Zatoichi himself, brilliantly portrayed by Katsu.  Zatoichi is essentially a man of morals, yet he is not above using his own handicap to cheat at the local gambling house.  When asked by his gang leader host to perform some sword tricks for entertainment, he refuses, yet when belittled by some local men, he displays his enormous skill to show them he is not a man to be trifled with.  He is humble yet is quick to assert his superiority towards those men who may be in a higher station but do not share his code of ethics.  Although he has no real interest in which group of thugs wins the coming war, he is still happy to sell himself to one of them for the right price and a nice down payment.  In short, Zatoichi is not a superhero, but a flawed, fallible human being who may look out for others, but also looks out for number one.

     The first of only two Zatoichi films shot in black and white, TALE OF ZATOICHI is beautifully photographed, and directed with style by Kenji Misumi.  It is not a fast-moving film, but the emotional underpinnings of the friendship that develops between the wandering masseuse and a dying samurai (excellently portrayed by Shigeru Amachi) keeps things from ever getting too dull, especially when it is evident early that both men know they will be facing each other in a battle to the death sometime soon.

     TALE OF ZATOICHI may be the first of a long series, but like DR. NO, the first James Bond movie, TALE OF ZATOICHI is an excellent genre film that stands on its own.   - JB

Zatoichi: Blind Swordsman     The Stuff You Gotta Watch


Remakes, Quasi-Homages

Zatoichi (2003)

Stuff You Gotta Watch
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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee