"We Yakuza are not made to walk on the sunny side of the street"
If you had told me I would be spending three hours watching the life story of a blind swordsman who disguises himself as a feeble traveling masseur, while standing up for honor, justice, and equality for all people—in Japanese with subtitles, no less—I would question the prescription medication you were taking and recommend double checking with your pharmacist. Truth of the matter is, The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues are two very interesting films that draw your attention like early morning sunlight glinting off the blade of a polished samurai sword. (There's an OJ joke here somewhere.)
Facts of the Case
The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari): A blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) arrives in Iioka, at the home of a recent acquaintance, crime boss Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi). While waiting for an audience, Zatoichi sits in on a game of dice with Sukegoro's men. It quickly becomes evident this blind man is far from helpless, as he proceeds to swindle the gangsters out of all their money. A territorial war between Iioka and Sasagawa is on the horizon. Sukegoro, impressed by Ichi's exceptional swordsmanship, is counting on him to serve as Iioka's champion. The otherwise passive Ichi shows little interest, until the money being offered becomes too good to refuse. Meanwhile, in Sasagawa, Boss Shigezo (Ryuzo Shimada) has obtained the services of a legendary samurai (Shigeru Amachi) to be their champion, unaware of the secret he is hiding. As the battle draws near, Ichi looks for a way out of the conflict. But can he truly walk away when innocent lives are in jeopardy?
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Zoku Zatoichi Monogatari): One year has passed and the honor-bound Ichi returns to Sasagawa to pay his respects. His role in the Iioka/Sasagawa war has spawned tales of legend throughout the countryside. During the journey, Ichi's masseur skills are requested by respected Lord Kuroda (Fujio Harumoto)—only to discover the man has lost his mind. To protect this secret, Kuroda's men hire local crime boss Kanbei (Sonosuke Sawamura) to silence Ichi at any cost. Escaping his would-be assassins, Ichi crosses paths with an old adversary—the one armed samurai—who has been hiding out with Sukegoro's gang in Iioka. As Ichi battles his old nemesis, Kanbei and Sukegoro converge and join forces to destroy Ichi once and for all. How can a blind man possibly overcome such insurmountable odds?
As the 1950s were drawing to a close, Japanese audiences began hungering for something different—a break from the heroic traditions of the past. Enter Daiei Studios, who revolutionized the industry by showcasing villains as their main characters. Much like Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns of the 1970s or Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction of the 1990s, audiences were drawn to these stories of the darker side of life.
In 1960, Daiei released Agent Shiranui (Shiranui Kengyo)—the story of a lower-class blind masseur who kills a high-ranking blind master and steals his identity. This film, starring a pre-Ichi Shintaro Katsu, combined with a well known short story about and honor-bound blind yakuza, laid the foundation for a character and series that would become a cultural phenomenon spanning three decades—Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.
The first film in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi, establishes our protagonist as a man of mystery—an outlaw Yakuza who lives by an unparalleled code of honor that respects all people, regardless of their cultural rank or status. Actor Shintaro Katsu chews up the screen with intensity, humor, and heartfelt sincerity—not to mention a masterful display of martial arts skill, which causes men to drop dead at even the slightest touch of his cane-sheathed blade. While the main plot line focuses on the growing war between rival gangs, Ichi also gains a love interest, in the sister of one of Sukegoro's lieutenants. Comic relief is provided by the many facial expressions of Eijiro Yanagi as Boss Sukegoro, who will become the thorn in Ichi's side as the series progresses.
Director Kenji Misumi deftly uses lighting (both indoors and out) to establish mood and multiple two-character relationships to build tension. While the film begins slowly, the sub-plot introductions pick up the pace, making this 96-minute character drama a quick study. The fight scenes are saved primarily for the climax of the film and come in spurts rather than one long battle. It is not the fighting that makes this picture, but the attention the audience pays to Ichi as he skillfully weaves his way through complex relationships and situations. The highlight of the film, however, is the relationship between Ichi and Hirate, the samurai—a unique bond of friendship that leaves a lasting impact on both characters.
The second film, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, directed by Kazuo Mori, does an excellent job of establishing the current story before paying deference to Ichi's previous adventure through a brief but thoughtful narrative. Once again, the character interactions drive the story, as we continue to peel back the onion on Ichi's past. While the central plot focuses on Kanbei's attempt to assassinate Ichi for learning of Lord Kuroda's madness, a piece of Ichi's troubled past—with ties to his current trouble and love interest—is revealed through the introduction of Yoshido, the one armed samurai. The pacing may be slower than the first film but we see more of Ichi's IAI—his famed and often debated swordfighting technique.
Shintaro Katsu continues to entrance and entertain, as do reappearances of Sukegoro and other characters from the first film. New/old rival Yoshido—played by Katsu's real life brother Kenzaburo Joh—exhibits intense exhaustion and deep rooted anger that can only be sated by battling Ichi. The film ends with a cliffhanger, leaving the audience hungry for more.
As for the physical evidence, these two films are exceptionally well preserved and showcased in 2.35:1 widescreen format. The transfer is clean with strong blacks and a full spectrum of grays. The only digital interference can be spotted in the opening title sequence of the first film, with noticeable ghosting of the underlying images. However, this quickly dissipates as the film begins. The one thing that bothered me throughout both films—more of a distraction than anything else—was the framing. The cinematographer, on more than several occasions, cut off the tops of the actors' heads in both the foreground and background. Perhaps it was the style of the time. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, but every battle grunt and sword strike comes across with power and clarity. Finally, newly translated subtitles round out this quality presentation.
If you are a Zatoichi fan looking for extras, you will be sorely disappointed. Aside from a collection of theatrical stills, the only special features are found inside the keep case packaging in the form of Zatoichi trading cards and outstanding liner notes by Tatsu Aoki, self-proclaimed "Ichi Freak."
Twenty-six films, 100 television episodes, and countless novelizations later, Zatoichi remains one of the greatest anti-heroes in cinematic history. Americans can find a similar cult following for the Marvel Comics character Wolverine, whose creator borrowed much from Japanese culture and mythology. Home Vision Entertainment plans to release 17 of the 26 feature films on DVD. Fans of the character will most certainly want to make these a part of their Ichi collection. Fans of Japanese cinema and the genre will also find these films of particular interest. For those of you who generally shy away from foreign films and are looking for something different, I recommend renting them—though they may not be easily found at the corner video store.
Home Vision Entertainment is acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing and commended for bringing this classic Japanese character into mainstream view of an otherwise sheltered American film-going audience. Arigatou! This court now stands in recess.
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Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
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