by Jerry A. Sierra
He’s name is Ichi, but he’s known to most as Zatoichi; the “Zato” denotes his profession as masseur. He’s a blind man from Kasana, in Japan’s Joshu Province, near the end of the Edo period. He makes his living as a masseur and gambler traveling the countryside from town to town. Along the way he meets the locals, some of whom he’s met before; some try to cheat him, others want to kill him. And some are friendly and welcoming.
All the movies in this series are based on the short story by Kan Shimozawa, which is included in the book. The story can be seen as a prequel to the movies, which are basic western-type dramas with a humanist/leftist perspective and action scenes; the rich having their way with the poor, the strong having their way with the weak, land grabs and corrupt leaders, poor laborers and innocent women forced into prostitution… At one point they all try to take advantage of Ichi (the sighted having their way with the blind) or they need his help. In the end, Ichi walks off into the distance, like Randolph Scott or Batman… his integrity intact, his heart of gold perhaps broken but still beating, until the next round of human encounters.
“It is a world in which the worthy are powerless and the powerful are worthless,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien in the book’s essay, “and in this world, Zatoichi occupies the bottom rung.”
Ichi doesn’t have the benefit of dark sunglasses and assistive technologies. His face, in fact his whole body, reveals how he interprets the world. Some moments are difficult to watch, and Katzu doesn’t spare us the details.
He stoops a little as he walks, with his cane becoming not just an extension of his eyes, but almost a third leg. His eyes are never fully opened, and never fully closed, though thoughts do tend to appear across his face.
Though dramatic in nature, the films have many comedic moments, often at Ichi’s expense.
In one story, after taking back a large sum of money extorted from poor villagers, and warning the bullies to change their evil ways, Ichi slips and falls on his butt as he exits. It is a humorous moment, but only us in the audience and Ichi himself laugh; his surviving foes are too frightened by his visit and don’t dare.
In another movie, when told that a mysterious stranger has paid for his medical care and lodgings, his response is genuine and optimistic; “I guess the world isn’t only filled with demons.” But shortly thereafter he shows his difficulty trusting people; some kids try to warn him about a hole on the road, but he purposefully ignores their advice, thinking they’re just laughing at him, and falls right in.
The stories “morph from dark fables to light popular entertainment and back again,” writes Wendell Jamieson in the New York Times. But one thing remains, the odds always seem to be against Ichi.
And don’t watch him eat; it’s not a pretty picture.
Ichi doesn’t practice a particular religion, but he’s often seen near temples, or on his way to or from a temple, and he welcomes those who seek to gain knowledge. At times he seems to reach out to the “glorious sunshine” that he can feel on his face. In “Zatoichi’s Revenge” (#10) he prays for those he loves, “Oh glorious sunshine, I pray you fill their lives with happiness.”
In order to survive in his world, Ichi must live somewhat of a contradiction; he’s a gambler, not above scamming other gamblers with clever dice tricks, and he consorts with thieves and prostitutes. But he does live by a code… and he regrets having taken human life, though he admits having no choice.
Before undertaking a pilgrimage to the 88 temples of Shikoku, he prays; “I ask you, O Konpira to keep me from having to kill anyone on my journey.”
It only takes a few minutes for this prayer to go unanswered, but Ichi proceeds on his journey.
An encounter with a Biwa Priest (#13) compels him to examine his actions and how they may inspire a young boy… and he takes a beating so as not to use his sword in front of the child. A bit later he gives up his cane sword altogether, rationalizing that “without the hidden sword, I don’t have to kill.”
In the 25th film he returns home to learn that he no longer belongs there. The very last scene shows him walking away forever. As his body grows smaller in the distance, the frame shows an inordinate amount of foreground and very little sky. It’s not a picture of hope and optimism; a field of brown dirt and dead grass, with little color even in the sky before him, and no visible pathway for him to follow.
Where can Ichi go in this world? The image contrasts the John Ford ideal of large blue skies and low horizons, giving us instead a very Japanese point of view on the tragic hero.
In spite of the persistent harshness of his world, Ichi finds moments of peace and joy, though perhaps not many. When a group of singing children dance around him, he experiences genuine delight and we see it on his face.
Forget those long, ridiculous fight scenes that go on and on until your pizza arrives. As a rule, the action scenes in Zatoichi don’t last long and they’re not what the movies are about. But it should not be surprising that the violence and gore is more pronounced in the later movies.
Most of the Zatoichi films are short by today’s standards, with many running under 90 minutes and the longest (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo) running 115 minutes. That may be why 3 films fit so well on one Blu-ray. This is a nice change of pace from today’s movie-reality in which stretched out action scenes try to justify millions spent in production and high admission prices. These stories fit beautifully into their tailor-made time jackets.
The shortest movie in the set (The Tale of Zatoichi Continues) runs only 72 minutes and it doesn’t feel rushed. This was the sequel nobody expected to make and picks up where the first movie ended. It was also the last Zatoichi film made in black and white.
A 26th Zatoichi film was released in 1989, but it is suspiciously missing from this collection, with no word anywhere in the materials about why it was not included. During filmmaking, an accident on the set lead to a death for which Katsu’s son, in the role of a villain, was tried and found not guilty.