Legends of Jidai-Geki: Zatoichi

Zatoichi

1: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
2: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)
Directed by Kazuo Mori
3: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)
Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka
4: Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)
Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka
5: Zatoichi on the Road (1963)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
6: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro
7: Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro
8: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
9: Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
10: Zatoichi's Revenge (1965)
Directed by Akira Inoue
11: Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)
Directed by Kazuo Mori
12: Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
13: Zatoichi's Vengeance (1966)
Directed by Tokuzo Tanaka
14: Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro
15: Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
16: Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)
Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto
17: Zatoichi Challenged (1967)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
18: Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
19: Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
20: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
21: Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
Directed by Kenji Misumi
22: Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
23: Zatoichi at Large (1972)
Directed by Kazuo Mori
24: Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Directed by Shintaro Katsu
25: Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Zatoichi (TV series, 1974-1979)
26: Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi (1989)
Directed by Shintaro Katsu

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Ichi (2008)
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
Zatoichi: The Stage Play (2010)
Directed by Takashi Miike
Zatoichi: The Last (2010)
Directed by Junji Sakamoto

Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. I remember when I first heard about these movies, seeing the AnimEigo DVDs on the new release shelf at the local video rental store, and I thought it sounded like the stupidest thing in the world. A blind guy fighting with a sword? And Japan actually made a whole ton of movies about him? Fortunately I had "Samurai Saturdays" on IFC to teach me there was more to this blind man than meets the eye. Running for 26 films and a television series from 1962 to 1989, Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi ranks as my favorite jidai-geki series, and my favorite film franchise overall aside from Star Wars.

Zatoichi So who is Zatoichi? The character was originally created by novelist Kan Shimozawa, and after actor Katsu found success playing a sinister blind masseur in The Blind Menace, he and his producers at Daiei Studios had the magical inspiration. To clear up a misconception among neophytes, Zatoichi is not a samurai. Far from it. He is a lowly masseur (anma), which along with traveling musician was the main career option available to blind men in ancient Japan.

Since he loves to gamble, Ichi is also considered a yakuza or gangster, though he is a chivalrous yakuza who protects the common good (making the Zatoichi movies fall loosely into the ninkyo-eiga genre). To fend for himself in a brutal world where blind masseurs are treated with disrespect, Ichi somehow learned to fight with a sword he carries inside his blind man's cane. His extraordinary hearing and Zen-like attentiveness enable Ichi to sense his opponents and predict their movements with deadly accuracy. Lords and samurai are at the top of the social ladder and masseurs and gamblers are at the bottom, but through the sword he has found a great equalizer.

Zato means "blind man," while Ichi is a common name for masseurs (literally meaning "one," reflecting the lowest rank in the official masseurs guild). Our hero uses "Ichi" as his given name (and who knows, it may be), while "Zatoichi" is the name by which he is known, feared and marked for death throughout the yakuza world. So in my commentaries, I always call him Ichi except when referencing his underworld persona.

The appeal of the character and the series stems from the great Shintaro Katsu, who gave Ichi his humility, his humor and his complex, conflicted humanity. Somehow Katsu-shin made us not only like and care about this killing machine, he made us believe a blind man could actually do all these things. And like any long-running series, Zatoichi also relied on its trademark plot devices and story elements that audiences come to expect. The 007 films have the spy gadgets and the Bond girls, Star Trek has the doomed redshirts and the sexy aliens. So too does Zatoichi have its essential tropes that I have used to organize my comments on each movie. You can find a more generalized summation of Zatoichi cliches at TV Tropes, and some may argue that my list should include "Ichi Loves to Eat" and "Yakuza Boss du Jour," but I decided those weren't worth documenting. Thus I present my six definitive Zatoichi trademarks:

Dice Games: Being a wandering yakuza, Ichi supplements his meager blind masseur's income by gambling, And his favorite game of choice is cho-han ("even-odd"), the traditional yakuza game where players wager whether a pair of dice rolled inside a cup come up even or odd. There's usually some kind of dice game in every Zatoichi film, and viewers come to anticipate seeing how Ichi will use his uncanny senses to hustle the gambling den this time.

Mystery Ronin: Most Zatoichi films introduce a skilled swordsman of some sort (whether samurai, ronin or yakuza) who is set up to be Ichi's rival. The swordsman may have some pertinent backstory or past relationship with Ichi that is gradually revealed. Typically Ichi encounters the mystery ronin early on in the film, sometimes on friendly terms and sometimes in a skirmish. Then the swordsman later resurfaces in the employ of the main bad guy or through some contrivance that forces him and Ichi to face off in a climactic duel. Since Ichi can dispatch average attackers with such ease, the buildup invested in the mystery ronin establishes him as a formidable opponent who might feasibly threaten our hero. I believe Patrick Galloway coined the term mystery ronin in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Zatoichi movies usually concoct some incredible stunts to demonstrate what a bad-ass swordsman Ichi is. He dislikes being goaded into doing tricks like a carnival performer, preferring only to draw his sword when real fighting is necessary, but there are times when Ichi feels the need to make a statement and remind folks who they're dealing with. His feats often involve precision slicing of lit candles, dice, flying insects or other airborne targets.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Unlike James Bond, Ichi doesn't bed the beautiful women he meets in every episode. Ichi has been known to fall in love and dally with the ladies only on rare occasions, though many more have fallen in love with him, unlikely as that may seem. He generally rebuffs any romantic overtures kindly, insisting that a lowly blind yakuza like him isn't worthy for decent women to waste their affections on.

Ichi Loves Kids: Ichi has a real soft spot for children, and many of the plotlines involve him befriending and protecting kids. He takes efforts to hide his swordsmanship and yakuza ways from the youngsters and wants them to think of him only as the harmless blind masseur. Whenever he slips and lets a child witness his flashing blade, Ichi frets over being a bad influence and corrupting the innocent to follow his ways of violence and ill repute.

Musical Interludes: Shintaro Katsu's father was a kabuki performer who trained him in singing and music, and he had a secondary career as a vocalist. So naturally Ichi exhibited musical talents from time to time, as it was perfectly logical for an itinerant blind man to do. Midway through the series is a point when Katsu's singing typically accompanied the opening titles. The character Ichi also crosses paths with singers from time to time and lets them take center stage, which allowed the producers to give guest spots to a number of Japanese pop singers.

I used to always say the Zatoichi movies were all equally great, but after reviewing them all for this survey, I find that's not the case. Although you can't go wrong with any of the Katsu originals, now I think the earlier ones tend to be the cream of the crop. I would say the consistently excellent first eight, plus Zatoichi and the Chess Expert and Zatoichi's Cane Sword, form the essential core of the series. And Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is the best of them all.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.

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