iSugio

The Tale of Zatoichi – Review

by Dane Benko

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Late Meiji era. Sukegoro of Iioka has a thriving gambling enterprise, but the neighboring Sasegawa territory, lead by Shigezo, is planning an attack. Into their midst wanders Zatoichi, blind masseur and self-taught swordsman, affable enough with his blade hidden in his cane. Sukegoro wastes no time putting Zatoichi up as a defense against Shigezo, who rumor has it has acquired a samurai from Edo to aide in his attack.

Thus opens up our introduction to the famous eponymous character and his many adventures to come. The thing is, for all his glamour in pop culture across the world, this opening adventure is a particularly brooding and depressing story about the waywardness of human beings. One of Ichi’s first interactions with the outlaws is to sniff and say “It stinks here.” He’s responding to more than just the smell. He is in a world where the only people with power have no honor, and the only honor he has is to protect himself.

Zatoichi also has the valuable skill of quickly making an impression. He befriends the wayward samurai from Edo, Hirati. Hirati is dying from consumption and dreading being killed at the hands of a backwoods turf war. Meanwhile, the gangster assigned to his care, Tate, has a pregnant girlfriend and a sister who broke up with his friend, this apparent side drama eventually turning deadly.

For these reasons and more, those going into this film expecting classic jadai-geki (samurai genre) escapades are getting into more than they bargained for. The majority of this movie is a saddened, downtrodden drama with a black and white pallor. The few action scenes are more disturbing than exciting – the final battle especially is a murky chaotic hell. Eventually as Zatoichi begins maneuvering through the politics to protect himself, the landscape opens up a bit and a more epic narrative unfolds. Until then, he is left with aphorisms of his base situation to whisper to a dying samurai and a lonely maiden.

Kenji Misumi’s later work features a lot more flash and glamour of the superhero samurai, but his themes seem to constantly revolve around this lost era of honor and the power-politics of thieves. The first Zatoichi movie, which would lead to 25 others and eventually staple Shintaro Katsu as not only a fixture of jidai-geki but also lead to him opening his own studio, operates a lot more like what one would call an art movie than an action film. The disappointed Zatoichi even gives his sword away and sniffs at the ‘nobody-ness’ of a drowning man after his attempts to divide himself from the outlaws around him fail, as if all is said and done and final. But he’ll be returning in 25 further iterations, not to mention a television series and various remakes. So something tells me that Zatoichi gains a little more hope and a lot more superhuman swordplay skills as the series moves on.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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