Today I watched Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, is one of the Japanese film industry’s most iconic characters, right up there with Godzilla. A blind masseur, outlaw mercenary, and sword master who travels Japan during the incredibly authoritarian Edo Period. This is the first film he appeared in (he was originally created by novelist Kan Shimozawa in his prose) and there are many details of the character that would change over time, for one he is an ex-masseur in this film when in later installments he would use the job as a means of travelling unprovoked.
The story here is on the more tragic end of Zatoichi movies, Ichi (as he is also referred to) finds himself enjoying the hospitality of a yakuza boss who is expecting a war with the neighboring clan. Shintaro Katsu plays our titular hero and will do so for another 25 films, he grows with the character and as the series progresses the depth of his performances becomes second to none. But that is not to say he does a bad job, no he comes to the role with an inspired spirit and energy that immediately makes the audience fall in love.The supporting cast are all great as well, especially Masayo Banri and Shigeru Amachi, who play an innocent young woman and a tragic ronin respectively. These rolls will be seen repeated again and again throughout the series, the innocent woman being the representation of those most oppressed by Edo period society, and the ronin representing those who, despite their privilege cannot find happiness or peace in this brutal culture.
This first installment, shot in stark black and white, lays down a template for the rest to follow yet does not feel like a prototype. It is a fascinating stand-alone film with more technical prowess that you can shake a stick at. The photography plays with the space and geometry of traditional Japanese construction in a way that few other film’s can manage. This geometry creates a tragic maze that our heroes cannot escape from without losing a part of themselves. The Tale of Zatoich is a sad one, but it highlights Zatoichi’s mirth in the face of such adversity and his heroic stance against the oppression of the time. I will be reviewing this entire franchise but not back to back, it is something that has been on my bucket list for far too long. 5/5
I cannot find a trailer so enjoy this piece of the spectacular soundtrack.