Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman

by Jerry A. Sierra

Zatoichi

Shintaro Katsu

Aside from Ichi being the most independent blind man you ever saw on screen, Katzu is the most hypnotic actor that ever portrayed a blind man at the movies; with or without a sword.

Katsu’s expressive face is a major part of each film, bringing us into the blind man’s realm in a disarming way. Throughout the 25-film series we see him age, become more cynical… more threatening to predators… less trustful of government types and a little more willing to dish out his brand of individualized justice, but never losing his humanity.

Sometimes Ichi says something meaningful to someone who has walked away and can’t hear it… and then the wrong person responds. Ichi’s humility seems to splash across his face in these moments, first a little embarrassed by the situation, then a little unsure about how to explain himself, and suddenly becoming aware that such explanations are unnecessary.

Sometimes he grunts, as if to us watching him… and most of the time we know exactly what he’s aware of and not, a testament not just to the cinematic integrity of the films but to Katsu’s performance.

“What holds it together is this amazing performance by Katsu,” says Criterion producer Curtis Tsui. (NYT)

Ichi's face

Prior to the Zatoichi series, Katsu appeared in various successful movies, including “Samurai Vendetta” (1959) and “Blind Menace” (1960). The later marked the first time he played a blind man, a character that supposedly is nothing like Ichi. (I’ve not seen this film yet, but I’m intrigued by a User Review at IMDB that describes Katsu’s performance as “the complete antithesis of Zatoichi.”)

During the 1960s, Katsu starred in two other popular movie series; “The Hoodlum Soldier” (5 titles between 1965 and 1969) and “The Bad Reputation,” with 16 films between 1960 and 1969. On some weeks he could be seen on the big screen playing three different characters in three different movies.

In the 1970s, a television show based on Zatoichi, with Katsu reprising the role, ran for over 100 episodes.

Katsu died of lung cancer on June 21, 1997, at age 65. Over 5,000 people attended his memorial service at a temple in Tokyo.

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With hordes of inferior DVD versions out there roaming about the western landscape, this is the best way for those with hi-def gear to experience Ichi.

NEXT: SIDEBAR - What to do with the extra disks

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