The Tale of Zatoichi
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Although the sword-wielding exploits of the amoral, sardonic anti-hero, played by the great Toshiro Mifune, from Yojimbo (1961) may be more familiar to Western audiences, the blind bulldog-looking assassin/masseur Zatoichi, who can strike down an opponent with his trusty shikomi-zue (cane sword), using hearing alone to find his target, is by far the most popular Japanese movie hero ever. Beginning in 1962 with The Tale of Zatoichi (a.k.a. Zatoichi Story and Zatoichi: The Life and Opinions of Masseur Ichi among other titles), the stoic yet violent swordsman starred in 25 films in just 11 years. But then after a 15 year sabbatical from the character, star Shintaro Katsu returned to write, produce and direct the final chapter in the series, simply entitled Zatoichi (1988). The series also spawned numerous imitators, most notably the short-lived Crimson Bat films from Shochiku Studios, which featured the very popular actress Yoko Matsuyama as the fearless blind swordswoman. There was also an American remake from 1990 starring Rutger Hauer as the fabled swordsman, but the less said about it the better.

Despite the competition, Zatoichi remains the king of chambara (swordfighting/Samurai film) styled heroics. Along the way our intrepid hero has battled numerous thugs, thieves, and various other gangsters, among them that other titan of the silver screen Yojimbo. Zatoichi has been bruised, maimed, pierced, and ultimately defeated (though only in the Chinese version) in Zatoichi Meets His Match (1971). By the end of the initial series in 1973 with Zatoichi in Desperation, Zatoichi's hands are destroyed and he is unable to wield his cane sword for the final duel. All we are left with is the haunting image of Zatoichi wandering along a barren expanse of beach while the waves crash against the shore.

Like the American Western film, the Japanese Samurai film is pure myth-making. But despite some obvious similarities between the two genres, they couldn't be farther apart, especially when you factor in the many cultural differences as well as the wildly different settings and terrain. The American Western of the classic period (roughly the 1930s through the 1960s) tended to have individualistic cowboys riding or subsisting in the wastelands of the Old West; in the Samurai films, the lone swordsman is alone not by choice, but because there are no longer any battles to be fought.

Usually set during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868), the Samurai film (like the Western) focuses on the end of an entire way of life. During this highly repressive time period, wherein Japan underwent a long period of perpetual peace after three hundred years of Civil War, the samurai in essence became obsolete as members of the bakufu (military government). Instead, under the weight of an ever-oppressive bureaucracy, the samurai became ronin (man on the wave) and roamed the countryside looking for legitimate employment or just getting into trouble. And by 1868, with the beginnings of the Meiji restoration, the days of the samurai were numbered. Their legacy undoubtedly lives on, but as a tangible force to be reckoned with the samurai were done for. It would now be in the realm of the imagination where these dejected ronin would ultimately find a home.

The Zatoichi series, like most all chambara films, are set during the Tokugawa period. These jidai-geki (period drama) films usually have simple, straight-forward plots and rarely stray from the conventions of the action genre. The main character is usually struggling between a sense of giri (sense of duty) and ninjo (human feelings), resulting in a serious conflict between what he perceives as his moral obligation to bushido (way of the warrior) and his sense of sympathy toward humanity (which usually comes in the form of a woman or a child). The films always end with bloodshed. More so than not, our hero must battle it out with an equally skilled opponent, though ultimately one who isn't that equal.

Both The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues follow the conventions religiously. But that's not to say that because these films are firmly rooted in the genre of chambara that they lack imagination, style, or originality. Anything but. A lot of what makes these films work so well, not taking into account actor Shintaro Katsu's fantastic interpretation of the role of Zatoichi (it is impossible to imagine anyone but him playing the character), is their solid sense of narrative, melodrama, and love of pure action set pieces. Although the Zatoichi universe is heavy in melancholy and a pervasive sense of doom, they are ultimately crowd-pleasing escapist fantasies.

The Tale of Zatoichi introduces us to the blind masseur as he finds himself in the middle of a cantankerous Yakuza feud between two rival clans. The leader of one of the clans, Shigezo Sasagawa, tries to hire Zatoichi to basically single-handedly fight the other clan. But the opposing gang also hires a swordsman to do their dirty work, Miki Hirate, a mysterious ronin who is dying of consumption. Zatoichi and Miki Hirate befriend one another, although neither man holds any illusions as to what must ultimately be the outcome of their brief encounter. The final duel between the two men is emotionally stirring and perfectly sets the tone for episodes to come. Zatoichi may be quick with the sword, but the giri/ninjo conflict brewing within him is a slow death that he may never be able to conquer.

Taking place roughly a year after the first film, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is shorter, more action packed, and even more melodramatic than its predecessor. Employed as the masseur to a lord suffering from madness (whose illness is being kept secret from his vassals), Zatoichi is considered too much of a risk after he finds out about the lord's ailment and is subsequently given a death sentence. A group of samurai gangsters are sent to dispose of the blind swordsman. However, killing him is easier said than done. And if that wasn't bad enough, a strange and deadly one-armed samurai (Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu's real-life brother) also wants to track down Zatoichi, although his reason for doing so is far more personal. The film's climax, which nicely wraps up some dramatic loose ends from the first installment, is bold, bloody, and sudden.

Both of these Zatoichi films should serve as a perfect introduction for anyone even mildly interested in the samurai genre. They may not have the weight of a Kurosawa epic, the anti-heroic bloodshed and nihilism of films such as Sword of Doom or Samurai Assassin, or the surrealistic ultra-violence of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, but the Zatoichi saga, without a doubt, achieves a greatness that only a few films ever attain.

Released by Home Vision Entertainment, the first two episodes in the series are presented in their proper 2.35:1 aspect ratios and contain mono Japanese soundtracks with optional English subtitles. Production stills and liner notes are also included. But the coolest thing of all is that each Zatoichi disc comes with four trading cards showing our favorite blind swordsman in all his various guises.

Home Vision Entertainment plans on releasing three more Zatoichi movies in October 2002. Eventually, the series will include a total of 17 DVDs, so we can look forward to seeing much more from this enigmatic and ever-popular character.

The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. Each disc includes a small stills gallery and an essay about the Zatoichi series. Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.


Photos courtesy of Home Vision Entertainment.