Excerpts from the OST
The Zatoichi films are what you could class as a cinematic phenomenon, a series that would sustain twenty six original movies, nearly one hundred episodes of a television show, and a modern re-imagining. The eponymous hero, played in all but the latest film by Shintaro Katsu, would become a national institution and would go on to inspire countless movies, television shows and videogames.
What I’m going to do in this post is talk about four of these films, three movies from the original series and finally Takeshi Kitano’s entry in the series. The films selected do not offer the best of the series, but instead showcase the different dynamics and talents involved in the continuing success of the series.
Just a quick note on images. My copies of the older films are by ArtsMagic, who are pretty much the worst DVD distributors in the world. As such my copies of Zatoichi at Large and Meets Yojimbo were so bad as to not allow me to screencap them. Thankfully somebody screencapped the much superior R1 version of Meets Yojimbo for me, but unfortunately I’ve had to use non related images for Zatoichi At Large.
Zatoichi at Large (1972)
Despite being one of the last entries in the original Zatoichi series and being in the middle chronologically of the five films I’m looking at, Zatoichi at Large is probably the best place to start this post. Despite being film number twenty three in the twenty six movie original production run, Zatoichi at Large represents a back to basics approach for the series. As such it is a pared down story and offers perhaps the best entry point for the series.
I’d assume the demographic for this blog will already be familiar with Zatoichi, seen as popular and iconic Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 re-imagining of the series was. For those unfamiliar with the character all you need to understand is that Zatoichi is a blind masseur with extraordinary fighting skills. Using his enhanced hearing he fights in a reactive and almost supernatural manner utilising a sword hidden in his cane to dispatch numerous foes with terrifying ease. Despite maintaining the appearance of a begrudging hero Zatoichi roams Japan moving from town to town rooting out injustice.
Zatoichi at Large starts with our man stumbling across a dying pregnant woman, offering his services as a midwife and helping in delivery of the soon to be dead woman’s baby. Zatoichi at Large was the second Zatoichi film I ever saw, my first foray being Kitano’s film, and this scene destroyed any preconceptions I had about the original series. I knew that the latest Zatoichi film was viewed as being almost a parody of the older films, and as such I was expecting something brooding and serious from the Katsu movies. What this opening scene does is detail the broad humour which is a constant undercurrent in the older films, a weird mixture of physical comedy and dry wit.
Katsu’s Zatoichi is a quite remarkable piece of characterisation, humble, world weary and scatterbrained whilst maintaining an air of lethality. With twenty two films to master the character it’s not surprising that Katsu fits so well into the role, but it is still impressive to see such a well honed performance in a series which is essentially the James Bond of East Asia. Katsu obviously has a lot of fondness for Zatoichi and he imbibes the character with a real humanity.
Zatoichi at Large also represents the film where Zatoichi is subjugated the most, his spectacular swordplay only coming into play after nearly an hour and fifteen minutes of being toyed with and tortured by his surprisingly low rent enemies. The villains of Zatoichi are an odd bunch, an unspectacular bunch of Yakuza who pale in comparison to the multitudes Zatoichi had slaughtered in previous movies. If the Zatoichi films are an analogue to James Bond then this is the Casino Royale of the series, with an emphasis shifted to the main character and the villains just used as context.
Even if the villains aren’t particularly impressive, the swordplay used to dispatch them holds up. Despite a dearth of actual combat, there are some truly great scenes of Zatoichi showcasing his particular talents. Of note is his disarming of two yakuza, forcing their swords into a mat before sending the mat into the air and slicing it in twain in one continuous movement. It is the kind of iconic moment the series is famous for, and it showcases the moral ethos that Zatoichi stands by. Unlike contemporary Japanese characters like Lady Snowblood’s Yuki or Lonewolf and Cub’s Ogami Itto, Zatoichi doesn’t seek to cause harm. He is more content to intimidate and generally only kills in defence or as a last option. Zatoichi At Large highlights this fact by having Zatoichi seriously hurt by the accusations of murder a small boy hounds him with.
Of course this squeamishness towards violence doesn’t last forever, with an extended torture sequence carried out on our hero ensuring that none of the villains are going to live past the final scene. The final battle, which encapsulates the last fifteen minutes of the film, is an odd affair, with an army apparently materialising out of thin air to give Zatoichi adequate cannon fodder for a fight which rips through the yakuza’s hideout, into the local forest and climaxes on a burning stage. The fights in Zatoichi at Large avoid the arterial spray and severed limbs of many samurai films, and instead operate on an almost expressionistic level. Zatoichi is a reactive fighter, and his strikes are often only registered by the sound of ripping on the soundtrack, his bested foe freezing in position before lurching to the ground dead.
There is an ethereal majesty to the fights which are never really replicated in other films, the aesthetic making even a small fracas seem epic and exciting.
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
From one of the leanest Zatoichi films to one of the most convoluted ones. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo has our hero caught in the middle of a family feud, only this isn’t a family feud which leads to awkward silences at the dinner table, this is a family feud which leads to Samurai Warfare.
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo also casts as our hero as a more intellectual figure, whereas his swordsmanship resolved his problems in Zatoichi At Large his intelligence allows him to take charge of the situation in this film. As such we only see him draw his sword once or twice in the films near two hour running time, his role more agent provocateur than anything else. The majority of the slice and dice action is left to the titular bodyguard of the piece played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Recalling his iconic role in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo Mifune is outstandingly magnetic and proves to be a worthy equal to Katsu.
The film follows Zatoichi as he finds himself aggrieved by his current situation; a rain soaked opening forcing him to recall fond memories of a peaceful village he visited a few years back. Fatigued by his current lot in life he endeavours to travel back to this village where the smell of plums is in the air and brooks babble in a pleasing manner. Of course being a Zatoichi movie our titular hero is not allowed a relaxing holiday and even the path leading up to the village suggests that all is not well. In a bit of dark comedy Zatoichi slowly follows the path remarking on the sound of wind and babbling brooks with an air of joyous calm, unaware of the dead bodies all around him.
The central plot of the film is a variant on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, with gang warfare splitting a village in two. Whilst the conflicting factions are more covert than their brutal counterparts in Yojimbo, the central thrust remains the same with both Zatoichi and the yojimbo, named Sasa, manipulating their respective factions for their own gain. As the plot expands to include government mints, a fortune in siphoned gold and psychotic secret agents the scope of the film increases. All of this is handled with consummate ease by director Kihachi Okamoto who happens to be one of my favourite Japanese directors. Okamoto is responsible for some truly great samurai films, obvious examples being the seminal Sword of Doom and Samurai Assassin.
Okamoto is probably one of the most proficient directors to work on the Zatoichi films and his talents as a filmmaker allow for a movie that is grander and more cinematic than anything that had come before. There is a scope and grace to the film that just marks it as a quality product, the only problem is that this cinematic mastery combined with Mifune’s dominating performance almost makes the film not seem like part of the Zatoichi series.
Zatoichi and Sasa share divergent story paths, and subsequently divide screen time between themselves. Zatoichi, in his trademark fashion, is rather oblique with his motivations, choosing to stay in the village for his own unknowable reasons. Sasa has been hired by the delinquent son of the merchant who now runs the village. Both men employ similar tactics, underplaying their skills by playing the part of a cripple and a wastrel. Sasa, much to the chagrin of his employer, is reluctant to act and quick to drink, lounging around and trading information to his employer for monetary gain. It is only when presented with people to kill and a proper incentive to do so that he shows his true colours, his sword work matching Zatoichi’s in its power and precision.
Hired to kill the blind Masseur, Sasa has an unusual relationship with Zatoichi, following an initial encounter in which Zatoichi channels a killing stab back into a scabbard the two squabble like children in a playground. Mifune’s an old hand at this kind of childish bravado and as such his character’s spats with Zatoichi are generally hilarious.
A problem that many will have with the film is its deliberate pacing, it is a good half hour longer than most Zatoichi films and Okamoto is renowned for his focused and determined pacing. At least ninety minutes of the film are just initial set up, with Zatoichi doing very little in action terms. Like all Okamoto films the focus is on characters and plotting and people wanting a visceral bloodbath are going to start getting a little antsy. Indeed despite excellent characters the film plots itself into a rut, which then requires a new catalyst to be introduced in the form of a pistol toting government agent.
The last twenty minutes of the film see the carefully set up plot reach its conclusion and offer us our glimpse of Zatoichi doing what he does, although even this is marginalised compared to the combat we see Sasa take part in.
The scale of the combat at the end is impressive as the duelling factions finally come to blows, but it all feels a little impersonal with Zatoichi mulching around on the sidelines. But Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a film prided on combat, it is not an action film in a traditional sense, it is a samurai film first and foremost. As such it is concerned with character and nuance over stylised combat. It is a diversion from the usual Zatoichi staples, but it is a diversion which proves how adaptable the character is.
Shintaro Katsu would take the role of director for his 1989 return to the Zatoichi series. The twenty sixth film in the original series would be simply called Zatoichi and would come after a sixteen year hiatus following 1973’s Zatoichi at the Blood Fest. Not being a historian of Japanese cinema it is hard for me to speculate on exactly why the series had such an abrupt cinematic end, the films segueing into a long TV series starring Shintaro Katsu himself. It is hard to tell if this move into TV was due to flagging profits for the films or if there was demand for the show in new media. Certainly the fact the TV show lasted four seasons and had close onto a hundred episodes suggests that the reasons for the move to TV weren’t because of fatigue with the character.
It could also be that with the arrival of the Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub series (both produced by Katsu himself, with Lone Wolf and Cub having Katsu’s brother star as the titular anti-hero) the Zatoichi films found themselves outdated. The expressionistic combat and morality of the Zatoichi films would be displaced by the brutal violence, sexual pervasiveness and morally questionable anti heroes of these films, in short the Zatoichi films would suddenly seem very tame. Expanding on a previous analogy it is interesting to note that the James Bond films would find themselves in a similar situation towards the end of the 1980s, a new crop of American action cinema detoothing the series and forcing the series to adapt, unsuccessfully, to the new style.
Despite this ignominious end the James Bond series would be resurrected to great acclaim and success, its new run producing five major films and revitalizing interest in the series. The Zatoichi series would end on a high note, Blood Fest regarded as a pinnacle of the series, and yet its comeback would yield a single film. This single film would effectively kill the series, casting a critical eye on the preceding movies and giving tonal closure to the character. Katsu’s interpretation of Zatoichi may have been intended as homage to the older entries in the series, its set pieces a hodge podge of ideas and scenes from the other movies, but it came across as a creatively bankrupt pastiche. If the ‘best of’ elements of Zatoichi make the film seem like a last hurrah, Katsu’s portrayal of the titular character gives the movie the feel of a wake.
The film opens with Zatoichi incarcerated in a prison for political prisoners. Right from the opening scene there is an overriding bleakness to the film. We’ve seen Zatoichi humbled before, but there’s a melancholy to this opening scene which makes it quietly discomforting. This is not abuse that will lead to Zatoichi breaking free and extolling his wrath on his captors, this is institutionalised abuse that will never go punished. This is the reality of being a blind man in samurai era Japan. Zatoichi’s blindness is an important factor in this film. Whereas in previous films it was simply a means to an end, a disability to add context to his incredible skill, in this movie it is a defining part of the character. We hear Zatoichi talk about losing his sight, about the impact it has had on him and there is a true sense of tragedy.
This forlorn and sullen aspect of the character is a key element of the film, even on a physical level the Zatoichi of this film is a shell of his former self. Greying, old and bulbous the character is well past his prime and the focus on the implications of his blindness do lots to make us suddenly empathise with a character who was always superhuman. The other films never showed a Zatoichi that was this helpless, that was this fragile and it almost works to deconstruct the character. It is only when the trademark Zatoichi violence kicks in that we’re reminded of the intent of the film.
Zatoichi is probably the most violent film in the entire series, with at least half a dozen fights totting up close onto a hundred victims. Zatoichi is continually assaulted at the behest of his nemesis, a young and ambitious gangster, and as such is given plenty of opportunities to showcase his amazing skill. The fight scenes are all direct lifts from other films, lifting and enhancing previously used ideas in homage to the series. What is interesting is that Katsu injects some of the nastiness from the films he produced into the film and as such we’re treated to a Zatoichi film covered in blood, with decapitations, amputations, burnings, guttings and limb breaking all filmed in meticulous gory detail.
Katsu proves an able director, his use of composition and natural lighting creating images which are at times surprisingly beautiful. In fact his aesthetic seems to have influenced more modern Samurai films and it easier to equate this film with modern works like The Hidden Blade rather than the older movies which inspired it. Katsu has a keen sense of framing and a natural understanding of light and shadow and it creates a movie which looks legitimately lovely.
But exciting fights and beautiful cinematography aren’t everything and Zatoichi falters due to a storyline which is intricately set up and then never goes anywhere. Certainly the idea of Zatoichi having to deal with two ruthless and young and well equipped gangsters would create an enrapturing story, but Zatoichi never really interacts with his enemies in a meaningful manner. They simply want him dead due to his reputation, as such there is no real connection between the two parties and subsequently it feels like two movies running parallel rather than a linked product.
This disparity is apparent throughout the film, even the use of violence in the film varies greatly from initially being brutishly shocking to becoming standard visceral entertainment. Certainly it is hard to reconcile the innate nastiness of an initial wrestling match, Zatoichi breaking a man’s arm in horrifying and methodical detail, with the glorious and kinetic action set piece that rounds out the film.
Despite the fact that Zatoichi ends with the masseur continuing his wandering the film is effectively the end of the series. By this point we’ve been shown a Zatoichi who is old and tired and we’ve also seen the introduction of an element that would shape countless Samurai films. Guns play an important part in Zatoichi; whilst firearms aren’t used in any of the action set pieces there use in the plot marks the end of Zatoichi. The film ends with the beginning of the age of the gun, an age where Zatoichi’s prenatural skills will be of no use.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
Takeshi Kitano was an odd choice for a reinterpretation for Zatoichi, largely because Kitano had cut his directorial teeth on esoteric gangster dramas. Sonatine, Boiling Point, and Hana-Bi were all fantastic films but didn’t showcase anything which would aid in the creation of a new Zatoichi film. In fact the closest Kitano had got to Zatoichi was a sketch on one of his comedy shows in which a Zatoichi type character fought off numerous attackers with various weapons including a babies nappy. The two facets of Kitano both seemed unsuitable for the project. His serious work was far too abstract and esoteric for a good fit with the material and his comedy work was far too broad for anything other than a slapdash parody. Yet somehow Takeshi Kitano made a film which appears to be a fitting tribute to the series.
Taking the role of director and star Kitano infuses his own style into the movie almost from the off. There is an odd dichotomy working within the movie, with the film acting as a pastiche and a springboard for Kitano’s own ideas. All the elements you’d expect from Zatoichi are there, yakuzas, swordplay, a silent end duel with a rival swordsman, even broad slapstick comedy, but they’re all infused with Kitano’s own style. The opening scene sets up as homage to the old Zatoichi films with a gang of Yakuza coming upon the blind masseur on a roadside. Paying a kid to steal his sword they promptly mock Zatoichi upon obtaining his weapon only to be cut down within seconds. It is a classic opening to a Zatoichi film, apart from the fact that when a second Yakuza draws his sword he slices his compatriots arm in two. It is a weird kind of playfulness, but it is playfulness all the same.
The key difference between this film and the movies which came before is the way in which the character of Zatoichi is utilised. Previous films would focus on Zatoichi as a central protagonist, in this film the plot focuses on peripheral characters with Zatoichi being used as almost a deus ex machina. The main thrust of Zatoichi’s narrative is focused on a pair of parallel storylines. The first concerns a pair of siblings posing as Geishas who are plotting to avenge their murdered family. The second story revolves around a disgraced ronin seeking employment with the local Yakuza. This is perhaps the more traditional of the stories, although it is given extra emphasis by the performance of the always fantastic Tadanobu Asano.
The story of the skilled ronin who is hired to deal with Zatoichi is a prevalent theme in the films and each of the movies in this list has at least an extrapolation on the idea. What The Blind Swordsman does is give extra depth to the character by giving him flashbacks and at certain points allowing an insight into his own POV, a technique used effectively during his confrontation with Zatoichi. His motivation and back story are such that he stops being a skilled cipher and actually becomes a fully fleshed character in his own right. What this does is set up the character as a rival for audience affection with Zatoichi, who is within the context of the movie a surprisingly distanced character.
In fact Zatoichi’s presence in the film, the way in which he isn’t involved with the stories until he has to stack up the bodies, is one of the more peculiar decisions in a film filled with peculiarities. The Blind Swordsman is perhaps the best directed of the entire series, filmed with a truly talented eye and staged with utmost precision and beauty but it is also a film that is intentionally quirky. Zatoichi’s entry into the village is a perfect example of this, his walk along the road scored against the electronica score. It is a mundane if anachronistic scene which introduces the main players, but it also introduces the stylistic tics of Kitano’s film. Towards the end of the scene we see villagers at work, their movements becoming part of the score in a nod to the didactic percussion of films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen.
These moments appear infrequently throughout the films runtime and serve to maintain the heightened reality the movie exists in. Kitano’s Zatoichi exists in a world far divorced from the older Zatoichi films, everything from the soundtrack to the style of fighting conflicting with what we know about the series. The fight scenes are brutal affairs, the actions realistic and nasty but countered by blood splatter which has been made to look specifically artificial. The soundtrack, when not having villagers contribute to it, is utterly modern at all times using a variety of instruments and combining them with electronica to create a truly anachronistic score. Even Zatoichi, who despite his talents always had some failings, is somewhat supernatural in his capabilities. His ability to kill heightened to a point where tension is completely removed from the equation.
When in combat Zatoichi is more like a Hollywood monster than anything else, only chasing feudal gangsters instead of drunken teenagers. His final assault on the Yakuza is played almost for comedic effect. He is an unstoppable force of nature in the film, a demon equitable to the likes of Ogami Itto, and it is another way of shifting audience sympathies.
The Blind Swordsman ends with a huge festival, every good major character taking part in a huge tap dance number. The only good character to not appear is Zatoichi, with the show even allowing for the young and old versions of the geishas to make an appearance, and it gives a clue as to how Kitano feels about the character. There is a monstrosity to Zatoichi’s character, an unstoppable, unknowableness that resides at the core of the character. He is always on the outside looking in, his few interactions with people either involving small talk or bloodletting. In a way it is a natural extension of Katsu’s last portrayal of the character, a burnt out old man who had become increasingly vicious with old age.
But whereas Katsu gave us the raw hurt needed to understand where this sudden aggression had come from. Kitano’s calm and at times happy exterior makes his character seem almost like a sociopath. Less Robin Hood and more Patrick Bateman with a positive ethos. There is a certain devotion paid to the scenes of combat, a morbid fascination which sees kills presented with in loving detail. Whilst Katsu’s film would start to show the reality of violence, Kitano would take it a step further. Certainly watching Zatoichi run his sword down at a spear shaft and cut the unfortunate wielders fingers off is the kind of moment which is both horrifying and thrilling.
Kitano is too intelligent a filmmaker to accidentally make such a troubling protagonist and as such the only way to approach his interpretation is as a critique of Katsu’s creation.
The four films I’ve picked represent divergent views of the same character. Kazuo Mori would be a director who would help bring Zatoichi into the world, directing the second Zatoichi film in the series and creating a lot of Zatoichi’s iconography. His vision of Zatoichi would create the remissive Zatoichi At Large, a light hearted film which showcased Zatoichi as a humanist. Mori’s Zatoichi was a gentle soul deep down, desperate to help people but haunted by the reality of his deadly skills.
Kihachi Okamoto would take the character and pitch him into the middle of a far more epic and convoluted story. He would showcase a beleaguered Zatoichi, a character tired of killing and desperate for a break from it all. A character that utilises his cunning rather than his sword skill to achieve his goals.
Shintaro Katsu would bring the most experience to the character having played Zatoichi for fifteen years over twenty five films and four TV series. He would showcase a broken character, a crippled man who had been forced to become vicious to deal with an increasingly vicious world.
Takeshi Kitano would transform the character into something mythical and almost terrifying. A demon of death and destruction, unstoppable and unpredictable.
This divergent views are all the truth of the character and that is what allowed so much to be made from a simple concept. These fractured concepts would fuel twenty seven movies and would allow the character to enrapture both Eastern and Western audiences.