The Blind Menace (1960)
Directed by Kazuo Mori

The Blind Menace
Shiranui Kengyo
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Suganoichi), Tamao Nakamura (Namie Imai), Fujio Suga ("Severed Head" Kurakichi), Mieko Kondo (O-Han), Toru Abe (Tobaya), Mayumi Kurata, Joji Tsurumi, Yoko Wakasugi

Daiei Studios, 91 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

The Blind Menace is a fine and memorable film in its own right, though its true historic significance in Japanese cinema is that it formed the foundation for Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi. The story goes that Katsu's budding career as a young star for Daiei Studios was struggling through the late 1950s. He lacked the handsome matinee idol appeal of his contemporary Raizo Ichikawa, and audiences weren't loving his efforts to play the heroic leading man. Then Katsu discovered an offbeat script about a wily blind masseur, adapted from a stage production, and somehow he knew this was the role for him.

But this is by no means the long-lost first introduction of our beloved Zatoichi. Fans expecting to see Katsu here as the humble and kind-hearted sightless physical therapist will be in for a major shock. This character is Ichi's evil twin, a complete and utter bastard. Suganoichi is a con artist, thief, extortionist, loan shark, murderer and rapist, thoroughly remorseless and despicable. Further diverging from Zatoichi, this character lacks the amazing sword skills, more realistically relying solely on his wits and deception to make his way through a society where the blind were among the lowest outcasts.

Whereas Zatoichi was a traveling masseur working on his own, Suganoichi belongs to a regimented order of blind servants. His master is the Kengyo, an official who's sort of the Pope of the masseurs. Seriously, he has fancy white robes and a pointy pontiff hat and everything. The Kengyo leads the ranks of blind masseurs and musicians, and serves as the personal masseur to the nobility. In an opening sequence showing the young Suganoichi as a rotten delinquent, his prostitute mother expresses her far-fetched dream of her son growing up to be a Kengyo. Even though such a high post demands noble birth and wealth well beyond his meager station, Suganoichi takes this ambition to heart and directs all his conniving and chicanery into making it come true.

We see Suganoichi commit a series of atrocities, and I'll just describe one of the darkest. Kengyos served as moneylenders, and Suganoichi's master sends him to decline a loan request from a local noblewoman. Lady Namie Imai needs to borrow 50 ryo to help her brother get out of debt and spare his clan from being banished, but she doesn't want her husband to know about it. Suganoichi tells Namie that he'll be happy to lend her the money himself. She accepts, and in implied exchange, Suganoichi forces himself on her and rapes her. But wait, it gets worse. The next day, in front of Lord Imai, Suganoichi asks Namie to give back the 50 ryo that she had agreed to hold in "safekeeping" for him. Utterly humiliated but having no other recourse, Namie later comes crawling back to Suganoichi asking for the money again. This time he offers to pay her for sleeping with him -- but only 5 ryo at a time. Truly, this scumbucket is a poor excuse for a human being. It's fascinating to note that the actress portraying Namie, Tamao Nakamura, was in a relationship with Shintaro Katsu at the time and they were married shortly afterward. The couple remained together for 35 years.

Through a brutal string of self-serving deceit and assistance from a gang of criminals, Suganoichi ultimately engineers the ousting of his master and installs himself as the new Kengyo. He adopts the new alias of Shiranui, hence the film's Japanese title of Shiranui Kengyo. Ridiculously against the odds, this depraved and formerly penniless son of a whore has risen to the most prestigious post in society for a blind man. He has acculumated money beyond imagining and taken a famous beauty as his trophy wife. But how long can it last before the enormous sins of his past will finally catch up with him?

Despite the star being such a deplorable villain, The Blind Menace proved to be Shintaro Katsu's breakthrough hit. Kazuo Mori did a fantastic job of painting the dark tale in crisp black and white cinematography, capturing the magic that Katsu was tapping into. The actor would soon thereafter adopt these same blind man mannerisms, rolled-back eye twitches and husky-throated chuckles in the creation of a far more genial and legendary character.

The Jidai-Geki Knights