One of the longest-running film series in the world was Daiei Studios’ Zatoichi. They starred Shintaro Katsu as the titular blind samurai-turned-masseuse, and ran for 26 feature films and 100 episodes on television. It has been revived and adapted since – even transformed into an American action comedy starring Rutger Hauer (1989’s Blind Fury). So much is celebrated about the franchise in general that it is easy to overlook the individual films. The first, 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi, is a brilliantly made and hugely effective chanbara movie.
The film begins with Zatoichi (Katsu) arriving in a small town overrun by yakuza. Inter-gang warfare seems inevitable between two neighbouring communities, and so crime boss Sukeguro (Eijiro Yanagi) – hearing of Zatoichi’s reputation – hires him to fight on his side. Before long Zatoichi meets and befriends Hirate (Shigeru Amachi ), a samurai hired to fight for the other town.
The Tale of Zatoichi effectively works at three levels at the same time. While the plot is driven by the growing rivalry between two yakuza clans, it also showcases the decaying moral value of the community. Finally there is the friendship between its two leads: both skilled fighters, both honourable men, and both willing to appreciate each other despite their impending fight to the death. This contemplative, zen-like core is what makes the film transcend its genre. It is not simply samurai action cinema, but a well-considered character drama too.
It is a tremendously restrained film. From his initial introduction Zatoichi is shadowed by his own reputation. He is reputed to be a master swordsman despite his disability, and his martial skill is widely discussed and build up well into the film. When the master finally draws his sword to fight, there is an expectation of a lengthy and vigorous duel between Zatoichi and two bandits in the middle of the night. Instead their combat lasts less than two-and-a-half seconds. Zatoichi’s reputation turns out to be well-deserved, and there is immense dramatic power in just how abrupt and lethal his talents are.
There is a great efficiency in storytelling, with the whole film running to a tight 95 minutes. It fits in the yakuza war, Ichi and Hirate’s friendship, and a subplot about an abused woman (Masayo Banri) wanting Ichi’s help along the way. It is thoughtfully directed by Kenji Misumi and beautifully shot by Chishi Makiura. The narrative is clearly borrowing somewhat from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which was released the previous year, but it also takes time and effort to find its own specific threads and characters.
Shintaro Katsu is tremendous as Ichi (the ‘Zato’ refers to his blindess). His round face and kindly demeanor disguise his lethality, but also give him an immensely likeable and charming presentation. It is a remarkable achievement for him to play the role as many times as he did; he makes a wonderful start here. His understated, subtle manner places him within a specific echelon of constantly underestimated heroes. The best part? He does it another 25 times.