So Amazon is telling me that Gamera the Brave might not ship for months. Months! So while I’m waiting to finalize that particular series I thought I’d start another series I’ve been planning to review. I figured it was about time to start, and it seems the perfect follow up to Gamera. The plan is to watch the films in the Criterion Zatoichi box set. The set contains the twenty-five films making up the 1962 to 1973 run of Zatoichi films, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the titular character. The Zatoichi series is the longest running action series in Japanese film. Zatoichi is an iconic hero, one who didn’t catch on here the way that, say, Gojira did. The series makes for a nice Gamera compliment because both franchises were owned by the same company, Daiei Studios, and were made in the same period of time. Most of the Showa Gamera movies came out between 1965 and 1971 (with the weird clip film coming out in 1980). So Gamera’s timeline fits nicely into the Zatoichi one.
I don’t typically talk about this sort of thing, but I absolutely want to do a little shout out for Criterion at this point. Their Zatoichi box set is a gorgeous object. Blu-Ray’s and DVDs, an elaborate folding case, and wonderful newly commissioned illustrations from a variety of artists, including Scott Morse and Paul Pope. I’m a big Criterion fan, but this is really a next level box set.
The Zatoichi series started with 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi (also known as Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Maseur Ichi). Directed by Kenji Misumi, who would go on to direct several more entries in the series, as well as the Lone Wolf and Cub adaptations (which were produced by the Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu, and then edited into an American movie by one of Andy Warhol’s protégés). The Tale of Zatoichi is clearly a franchise starter that had no idea it was starting anything. The movie is a grim, fuliginous character study with touches of Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimbo sprinkled in for good measure. There’s a sense of finality to the film that makes it clear there weren’t any intended sequels.
The film follows Zatoichi (Ichi) himself, which hardly seems surprising. Zatoichi basically looks like a beggar when he first shows up. He’s dressed in decrepit clothes, blindly working his way through the Japanese countryside with the aid of a tall walking stick. He arrives in a small town and walks into a mafia den, where he proceeds to use his blindness and slight of hand to cheat at gambling. Just as he’s about to be attacked by the yakuza he’s ripped off, the mob boss appears, recognizing him. Zatoichi has met him before, and had been invited to visit should the opportunity arise. The mob boss talks excitedly about Ichi’s skill with a blade. It seems there’s an impending gang war between this Sasagawa yakuza and the yakuza of a neighbouring town (Lioka). The mob boss invites Zatoichi to stay as long as he would like, hoping to employ his swordsmanship when the fighting starts.
One yakuza named Tate is asked to look after Zatoichi, who takes advantage of the situation. Ichi has Tate massage him while he lies around. He refuses to demonstrate his swordsmanship when asked, choosing instead to nap. He goes fishing later, where he meets the film’s deuteragonist, the samurai Hirate (played by Shigeru Amachi, who I recognized from Jigoku). The two fish side-by-side, chatting. Hirate is fascinated by Ichi’s uncanny sensory abilities. He spots fish without eyes faster than Hirate can with eyes. At one point Zatoichi expresses concern for Hirate, asking if he’s sick.
The two connect instantly, sharing a mutual respect. The problem is that Hirate has been hired by the Lioka yakuza. The two are pretty much destined to cross blades. They both casually ignore this, choosing instead to stay friendly. Hirate is a pretty depressed dude. He spends all his time drinking and brooding, and occasionally coughing. Zatoichi was right, Hirate is sick; in fact he’s dying from consumption. Consumption, for those who don’t know, is old-timey speak for tuberculosis. His ragged breathing gave him away. This sombre note casts a definite pall over the already dreary film. It’s hard to relish the fight between two friends, especially when one is dying.
Increasingly important is the character of Tate. Tate’s sister continually pulls him aside and berates him over some transgression, occasionally within the hearing of Ichi. It seems Tate got some girl pregnant and since then has refused to call on her or acknowledge his actions. Tate’s kind of a miserable guy. Actually most of the characters in this film are pretty unlikeable. They’re morally compromised crooks and thugs. Greedy, unkind, and dishonourable. The only bright spots are Zatoichi, but he’s no saint himself, Hirate, who’s doomed to die from tuberculosis, and Tate’s sister, who yearns for a better life.
The next time Zatoichi heads out to fish he finds Hirate waiting. Seems a body has turned up in the river, and the two retire to Hirate’s home for drinks. Meanwhile Tate’s sister storms into the yakuza hideout and drags Tate out. It seems the body found in the river was Tate’s pregnant ex-lover. Of course her death was maybe an accident, maybe a suicide, maybe a murder. The movie never truly points the finger at the slimy Tate, but the impression of guilt is certainly given. Indeed the movie sees fit to ironically punish him for his apparent crime.
Hirate and Zatoichi drink sake when members of the Lioka yakuza enter Hirate’s room to go over their plan of attack. Zatoichi quickly excuses himself and Hirate politely sees him out. The yakuza instantly panic when they realize who Zatoichi is and then send a handful of men after him. Zatoichi basically uses the same technique in this fight that Ryunosuke used in Sword of Doom. It’s known as bunkai, and it’s essentially a technique designed to fell an opponent in one blow. You let them attack and get way closer then you’d normally allow and strike in the undefended space presented you. It’s an interesting choice from a cinematic standpoint, especially with so few foes. A flash of the sword and the fight is over. There’s little pacing or tension within the actual moments of combat. It’s still impressive, casting Zatoichi as the skilled fighter he is rumoured to be. It also makes a certain kind of sense. No one else in this movie has any kind of training. The yakuza in this film are just things with swords, and they have none of the skill and knowledge they would need to stand against Zatoichi or Hirate.
The story more or less heads where you’d expect it from here. Ichi killing the Lioka thugs starts the war, however neither Ichi nor Hirate are initially involved. Hirate is too ill and Zatoichi is not considered necessary if Hirate’s gone. However Hirate drags himself out of bed and he and Zatoichi get their dramatic confrontation. It’s a satisfying moment. However what comes after it is even more interesting.
Zatoichi, as I mentioned before, is the first film in a series whose initial run consists of twenty-five films. However it’s unflinchingly clear that this first film was intended as a one-and-done affair. It ends with Zatoichi trading in his cane sword for a stick. He also clambers through some trees to avoid running into Tate’s sister, who naturally has fallen in love with him and wants to go with Ichi, leaving her yakuza lifestyle. Ichi, in a pretty misanthropic move, abandons her on his way to the lifestyle she wants. He considers his blindness unworthy of her. Besides this fairly final finale the whole film is drenched in a tone that seems unlikely to inspire sequels. It a slow, sombre character piece peopled with murderers and scum.
Which is why one should never underestimate the power of well-written characters. The compelling complexities of Zatoichi make for an attention grabbing character, the kind of character you could hang a franchise on. He’s glib and cheerful. He’s roguish. He’s an underdog. He’s also a well-shaded character, who assumes some of these traits as a way of masking his honour and strength of character. He’s interesting even on paper – a blind and affable masseuse who’s also a fierce sword fighter. All this adds up to make a well rounded, imagination sparking character. All this would, naturally, be useless if the character hadn’t first appeared in a good movie. The grim character piece suits the moral complexities of its main character, and provides the perfect exploratory foil. You walk away from The Tale of Zatoichi with a crystalline image of what this character is, if not a definitive one. There’s clearly loads of room to explore the extent of Zatoichi, the extent of his morals, his roguishness, his tortured interior, his skills. Good thing there are twenty-five movies to do just that.