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March 25, 2008

DVD of the Week – Review of The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)



The Zatoichi character is the most famous Japanese representative of the “crippled master warrior” sub-genre of the martial arts movie. Ichi is a poor blind man (the word “Zatoichi” loosely translates as “an itinerant blind man named Ichi”), one social step above a beggar, who wanders from place to place working as a masseur. That’s when he isn’t gambling, or fighting the local yakuza (or bandits, or corrupt feudal lord).

Ichi is a master swordsman whose senses other than sight are preternaturally sharp. The cane he uses to find his way turns into a cane sword when he’s forced to fight. Mirroring its owner, the cane’s mundane and homely exterior sheathes a deadly weapon.

Zatoichi is practically a one man institution. The character was originated by Katsu Shintaro in 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari). Shintaro would go on to reprise the character in 25 film sequels and a four season television series. With such a long series, variation in quality is inevitable and some entries are unduly repetitive, but many of the films are entertaining and the Zatoichi character’s appeal is remarkably durable.

Tale is the best of the Shintaro film series and a fine film in its own right. The story established the template for a Zatoichi film: Ichi wanders into a town beset by violence; defends the villagers against the brutality and intimidation of the local strongman; astonishes everyone with his uncanny sword fighting and gambling prowess; and at the end, resumes the lonely and unending journey of his life. It is a formula of lasting and universal appeal, and one not limited to either this series or this national cinema.

The Tale of Zatoichi has other strengths that were diluted or lost in the later films. Principal among them is the freshness and spontaneity of the character’s first appearance, a quality that is not lost even on repeated viewings or by the overlay of the many sequels. Another of its strengths is the really excellent black and white cinematography; Tale has the visual beauty that is one of the great pleasures offered by samurai films of the 1960s.

It also boasts one of the best antagonists of the series, a tubercular ronin living out his final days in ignominy as a hired sword for the yakuza. The ronin and Zatoichi feel a spiritual bond as outcasts in a rigidly stratified society, as swordsmen whose skill sets them apart, and as men who live according to a personal code. Their emotional connection imbues their final duel- and the film as a whole- with real and unexpected dramatic weight.

New relases this week: Control, Jimmy Carter Man From the Plains, The Kite Runner, The Mist, Steal a Pencil for Me, Wristcutters: A Love Story