"The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi"


posted to www.marxmail.org on July 28, 2004


In Hollywood, the blind are represented in film either as pitiful victims, such as in "Wait Until Dark," or as comic figures like Mr. Muckle, who tears apart W. C. Fields's shop in "It's a Gift." Leave it to the Japanese to come up with somebody like Zatoichi, the blind master swordsman who was played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu in 26 films between 1962 and 1989, as well as 100 television episodes based on the character.


The name Zatoichi is a conflation of "Zato-No-Ichi," which translates literally into "Ichi the Masseur." In feudal Japan, the blind were often enlisted as masseurs, but Zatoichi's fighting skills allowed him to transcend the rigid class restraints of Japanese society.


After Katsu died in 1967, Chieko Saito, an elderly female strip-club owner who had acquired the rights to the character as collateral to a loan to the actor, proposed to Takeshi "Beat" Kitano that he write, direct and star in a new film based on Zatoichi. "Beat" Takeshi is one of Japan's most innovative directors, who specializes in ultra-violent films set in Japan's criminal underworld. Before launching a film career, he was one of Japan's most popular TV comedians and host of his own long-running show. Takeshi's "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," which is playing now in New York City, can best be described as a happy marriage between the original product and his own uniquely off-kilter style.


In keeping with the earlier films, Takeshi's Zatoichi is an itinerant masseur who happens on a town brimming over with villains in need of vanquishing. As is the case with classics such as "Yojimbo" or "Seven Samurai," the powerful villains are busily exploiting the local peasantry. In contrast to these films, Zatoichi is not a samurai himself but a kind of feudal version of a lumpen element who supplements his income by gambling. With his super-sensitive hearing, he can detect whether thrown dice come up odd or even. Like nearly everything else in this narrative, this must be taken with a grain of salt. When Zatoichi cuts apart a small army of sighted assassins with his cane-sword, you have to accept his prowess as an article of faith. That being said, in the final moments of Takeshi's film, you are left with the impression that he might be sighted after all.


Whether or not you are persuaded by the spectacle of a blind man carving up his foes, Takeshi's film is impressive solely on esthetic terms. As one of his most visually ambitious film, it includes an almost surreal tap dance production number at the conclusion. As postmodernist pastiche, it rivals the interjection of Janis Joplin's "Freedom's Just Another Word" into the conclusion to Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz."


For comparison's sake, I also watched "Zatoichi the Outlaw," a 1967 film--the first one directed by Shintaro Katsu himself. You can find this film and others in the series at your better video stores or on the Internet. They are also shown with some frequency on the IFC cable station on Saturdays, which are devoted to classic Japanese samurai films. Jazz musician and Zatoichi-enthusiast Tatsu Aoki writes in the notes to one of the DVD's, "He is a blind wanderer who refuses to walk on the sunny side of the street, an outlaw-Yakuza who respects others regardless of rank within the feudal system."


In this film, the blind swordsman once again finds himself in a familiar situation. The owners of a gambling den and corrupt officials are cheating innocent peasants out of their savings and throwing them off their land. While taking up their cause, Zatoichi joins forces with Shusai Ohara, a sword-less samurai based on a real-life, 18th-century peasant leader named Yagaku Ohara. Ohara persuaded his followers to give up gambling and follow efficient farming practices. The film is filled with exciting action scenes and droll humor.


For example, a drunken overlord begins throwing gold coins at Zatoichi, who is focused on playing a shamisen (a stringed instrument used in Kabuki, etc.), in order to bribe him into crawling around like a dog. Without missing a beat, Zatoichi deftly swaps his pick for the coins in midair and keeps playing.