The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

The Tale of Zatoichi
Zatoichi monogatari
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Masayo Banri (Tane), Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro), Ryuzo Shimada (Shigezo), Hajime Mitamura (Hanji), Shigeru Amachi (Miki Harate), Chitose Maki (Yoshi), Ikuko Mori (Yutaka), Michiro Minami (Tatekichi), Toshio Chiba (Masakichi), Manabu Morita (Seisuke), Yoichi Funaki (Yogoro), Kinya Ichikawa (Mokichi), Eigoro Onoe (Rihei), Yoshito Yamaji (Yahei)
Music by Akira Ifukube

Daiei Studios, 96 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

The landmark first Zatoichi film doesn't offer much in the way of an origin story. The blind traveling masseur Ichi has already established his reputation in the yakuza community as the fearsome swordsman called Zatoichi. At one point Ichi explains that he was an ordinary masseur until three years ago, when he took up sword training as a means to gain respect in a society that has always regarded him as a lowly outcast. "A blind man can achieve some status as an acupuncture master or a musician," he says. "But that wasn't what I wanted."

The plot revolves around Ichi paying a visit to his acquaintance Sukegoro, a yakuza boss who has witnessed the amazing swordsmanship of Zatoichi and hopes to exploit his skills for personal gain. It's significant that we don't witness Ichi in action until about half hour into the film, so for the first act all we have to go on is Sukegoro vouching for Ichi's skills. Like Sukegoro's men, the audience is skeptical that a blind man could seriously be a deadly warrior. This anticipation makes for a more powerful payoff than it would have been to see Ichi slicing and dicing from the first scene.

Ichi gets drawn into a yakuza war between Sukegoro and his rival, Boss Shigezo. Sukegoro and Shigezo are actual 19th century figures whose story is familiar to Japanese viewers and common fodder for chambara films, such as Yasushi Sasaki's A Spectacular Showdown. With Ichi being enlisted as muscle in a craven dispute between yakuza gangs, the first Zatoichi also bears the influence of Yojimbo, which was released just the previous year.

Mystery Ronin: Our inaugural mystery ronin is Miki Harate, an strong and honorable swordsman stricken with tuberculosis. Harate is another actual historical figure associated with the feud between Sukegoro and Shigezo. Ichi meets Harate when the two are peacefully fishing and they become fast friends, bound by philosophical and spiritual kinship. When it turns out that Harate is employed by Boss Shigezo as a sword for hire, the pair of noble but physically impaired martial artists are on a reluctant collision course.

Dice Game: Arriving at Boss Sukegoro's place, Ichi finds a dice game in progress and asks permission to be the dealer. He intentionally rolls the dice outside the cup and lets the gamblers think they can take advantage of the blind fool's clumsiness. Once he's got them to place huge bets on the exposed dice, Ichi pretends to catch his mistake and then rolls properly, raking in the winnings for himself. This is one of Ichi's favorite scams and he repeats it with clever variations numerous times over the course of the series.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi declines Boss Sukegoro's request to entertain his men with sword tricks, protesting that his skills are not to be trivialized for amusement. But when the men doubt his abilities, Ichi decides to shut them up by slicing the tip off a burning candle. And here's the kicker: the two chunks of candle that fall to the ground are both still burning. Yes, he cuts the wick clean down the middle.

Ichi Loves Kids: The only child character in this first movies is an unnamed young priest who doesn't get much screen time, but returns with a larger role in the next movie.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Here Ichi meets Tane, arguably his most prominent love interest, who returns in two subsequent movies. She is the sister of Tate, a Sukegoro henchman who gets hustled in Ichi's dice scam and then ends up as Ichi's manservant on his boss's orders. Tane is fighting off a reconciliation with her ex, an abusive yakuza named Seisuke who wants her back. After Ichi defends her from Seisuke, Tane abruptly falls in love with him. But Ichi refuses to return her affections, and the relationship doesn't really get going until the next episode, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues.

The Zatoichi Series • Next: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

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