The Zatoichi series

I’ve been watching a lot of the old Zatoichi movies lately. There’s twenty-six in all, I’ve seen six so far. Most were made in the sixties and seventies, though the series stretches all the way to 1989. In all but two of the series Zatoichi is played by Shintaro Katsu. The films are all set in the same world, but there’s no through-line with the plots.

The stories all take place in feudal Japan, where Tokyo is still called Edo, samurai wear top knots, everyone wears kimonos and paper money hasn’t been invented yet. Through it all walks Zatoichi, a blind masseur on an ending journey to nowhere. He scrapes together what money he can from massages and gambling, but mainly relies on the charity of others. Wherever he goes he introduces himself as Ichi, avoiding his real name because he is really a wanted criminal, and renowned swordsman.

Zatoichi always carries with him his cane, which is secretly a sword cane, and when threatened he uses it with blinding speed to kill the enemies in seconds. He’s by no means the great hero though. He likes his drink and loves his gambling, and wherever he goes he inevitably ends up killing a lot of people. The land if rife with corruption and crime, so there’s a lot of wrongs to righted, and the only way Zatoichi knows how is to use his sword.

In his adventures Zatoichi meets a lot of people, some falling into a few archetypical roles. First, there is The Boss. This is the man in charge, the puppet master. He’s either the leader of the local yakuza or a corrupt government official. This is the man who Zatoichi has to end up killing to restore peace to the village or town. The Boss will have varying levels of intelligence and sometimes there’s more than one, but he always reveals himself to be a vile person that cares only about personal wealth and power.

The second archetype is the Nemisis. Most enemies Zatoichi comes up against are poorly trained fighters, so he can, and does, kill whole swathes at a time. The Nemisis is different, he’s highly skilled and dedicated to his craft. Like Zatoichi his sword is a blur when he uses it, and he is feared by his fellows. Sometimes the Nemesis isn’t given much time on screen to develop as a character, so we must assume he works for the Boss purely for the money and fights Zatoichi because he’s ordered to. When the Nemesis is characterised, he ends up fighting Zatoichi either for glory or vengeance. The glory seekers want the bragging rights of saying they beat Zatoichi. The vengeance seekers are after Zatoichi for something he did over the course of the movie, sometimes by mistake. But at some point the two always end up fighting, and only one walks away from it.

The next archetypes don’t all continuously occur, but are present in various combinations. These are the Good Man, the Heroine and the Kid. The Good Man is the everyman of the story, he’s there to be trampled on by the bad guys and show just how evil they are. The Heroine’s job is to be in love with the Good Man or fall in love with Zatoichi. The Kid has much the same role as the Good Man, but amplifies their evil for doing it to a child. All of these archetypes are there to provide the tragic element of Zatoichi’s journey. He can’t save everybody, he can’t fall in love, he can never stay in one place for very long.

As I said before, most of the Zatoichi movies were made in ’60s and ’70s. This is before any kind of visual effects, decent wire work or convincing prosthetics. In short, if it wasn’t on set, it wasn’t in the movie. It’s important to remember this when watching, and suspend you disbelief for the filmmakers and what they had to deal with. When cut, the characters don’t bleed and their clothes are rarely torn. And Zatoichi moves so fast you’re not sure where they were cut in the first place. Despite this, they do manage to get over the biggest problem when it comes to filmmaking: the main character is blind, but the actor is not. So for most of the movie, he has his eyes closed to hide his perfectly normal eyes; including the fight scenes where he’s moving so fast around other people with his real looking sword cane. Very dangerous, but they pull it off. I hope they didn’t have many accidents while filming.

All in all, I enjoyed the Zatoichi films I’ve seen, and think you will too. There’s a lot of them, but like the James Bond series you don’t have to watch them all in order.  You can pick these up at any point and watch in any order as much or as little as you want. So check your usual haunt for movies and look these up, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.


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