The Tale Of Zatoichi/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
As far as long-running franchises in cinema are concerned, Zatoichi is a strange beast. The series, comprising 26 movies and a television show, may not get the same reverence as Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics. Still, they do deserve their place in samurai movies lore. Perhaps what is intimidating is that you have to go through all the movies. But the first movie, The Tale of Zatoichi, is an excellent place to start.
Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is supposed to be a blind masseur and an expert swordsman, though it comes as a surprise that he had picked up the sword relatively late, or at least that is what he claims. (I feel that his origin story would keep changing as the movies go on, and so would his past when it gets slowly revealed).
As the movie starts, he comes across as a bumbling, even lovable, and cheerful person. He almost reminds you of Columbo, the way he throws off the people who cross his path by surprising them with his skills when they let their guard down. Shintaro Katsu skillfully uses his personality and physicality to play the titular lovable blind swordsman to perfection.
He manages to make the character's dual nature his calling card where people see a harmless person right before revealing his lethal side. Something that was missing in Takeshi Kitano's 2003 reimagining of the character where he was just mostly slicing and dicing. The first scene sets up the template when a Yakuza who helps him immediately puts him down.
After beating a Yakuza gang in the game of dice and walking away with their money, they follow Zatoichi with hurt pride, intent on killing him. Luckily for them, they meet their boss before they meet Zatoichi's sword, and they realize that he has quite a reputation as a swordsman. Zatoichi is then hired by the Yakuza gang-leader Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi) for the impending war with his rival gang.
These initial scenes are amusing at how Zatoichi calmly integrates himself into their lives, seeing the Yakuza duo send to kill him after winning the game made to be his manservants. Particularly the scene where he demonstrates how good he is when he splits a burning candle into two.
Eventually, the rival gang hires a ronin Miki Hirate who is equally skilled and dying of tuberculosis. Now there is something strangely warm in their interactions. In his first meeting with Miki, there is an immediate mark of respect between them. They quickly analyze their skills and realizes that only one would survive their battle. You almost feel sad for Miki (played with such remarkable dignity by Shigeru Amachi) as it is not him that gets to star in another 25 movies.
The territorial infighting also reminds you of Yojimbo. In both cases, the movies could very well have been a western or a gangster in a parallel universe. They did inspire movies that changed the settings completely—the dollars trilogy in the case of Yojimbo and Blind Fury in the case of Zatoichi. Unlike Yojimbo, he does not even want to stir the pot. He is happy taking the advance money and walking away or avoiding a fight.
Eijirō Yanagi is precisely the kind of a slimy bastard of a boss who would hire Zatoichi and keep him at arm's length while laughing at him behind his back. His treatment of Zatoichi also reminds you of how Don Corleone treated Luca Brasi, almost breathing a sigh of relief when Zatoichi is not around. It is amusing watching the same guy who calls out Ichi for his cowardice for not fighting, sniveling away while hiding during the final fight.
The Yakuza here are terrifying by being the one thing they are not supposed to be: incompetent. And both the rival gangs are portrayed as absolute inept cowards who need that one guy in their midst who could turn the tides. The dispensable storm troopers from Star Wars feel very much in good company with these Yakuza men getting slaughtered like lambs.
The Tale of Zatoichi is a perfect entry point as far as the series is concerned. You get a feeling future movies might tell his origin story, but this movie is not concerned about origins. Even as the film is over, we probably understood very little of the character. But as a starting point that shows Ichi as a certified badass, the movie is bang on target.