The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 9 (Films 25-26, THE BLIND MENACE)

 

THE TALES OF ZATOICHI Column
With 25 adventures of Shintaro Katsu’s famed blind, wandering swordsman Zatoichi recently becoming available through both a remarkable Criterion Collection box set, and digitally via Hulu Plus, our team decided it was time to walk down the dusty roads of adventure and watch and discuss the entire legendary chanbara series. Roughly every other week until we are through, We’ll spend roughly 300 words covering each film specifically, and then we’ll each get a chance to offer another round of final thoughts as well. Each post is going to cover three films, and once we finish covering the core 25 films of the original adventures, we’ll even dive in to some of the remakes and reboots! Wander with us as we marvel at The Tales Of Zatoichi.

Well, the time has come in which we’ll be wrapping up the original film series starring Shintaro Katsu in this week’s installment. This week we’ll cover the 25th film in the series, which was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the original run of Zatoichi films. We then move on to the 26th film, which came 16 years later and served as Katsu’s very final appearance as Zatoichi; a send-off film, if you will. Next we circle back in time to The Blind Menace, a black and white film starring Katsu in which he plays a villainous blind masseur as a bit of a pre-cursor to the Zatoichi films.

In the next installment we plan to cover several of the remakes and reboots of Zatoichi that have released in more recent years [Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003), Ichi (2008), and Zatoichi The Last (2010)]. So this column isn’t finished yet! Also keep an eye out for one final installment after we’ve covered the remakes in which we’ll wrap up our thoughts on the series as a whole, and maybe even rank some of our favorites.

ZATOICHI’S CONSPIRACY (1973) Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Ed: In this, the 25th and final film of the original series, Zatoichi comes home. And as one might expect, his hometown of Kasama is not what it once was. Zatoichi’s Conspiracy does a good job of injecting some gravitas through the exploration of “home” and delving into Ichi’s origins, even if it plays loose with his previously established origins in the process. Many of the earliest films in the series had wonderful pathos because they included figures like Ichi’s estranged brother, or Ichi’s now-corrupted sword master. Characters like these revealed Ichi’s roots and deepened his character. And so having him return home in the “final” film and reestablish connections feels simultaneously earned, and a bit like a cheat. It feels obvious that the writers are creating a sister-like character in Omiyo, a girl who was raised Ichi’s grandmother, for this final film. The same goes for the villainous Shinbei, who himself grew up in Kasama and once played at mischief with a young Ichi. While these characters feel new to this installment, it is effective to tie them to Ichi’s past. They carry a manufactured weight that mostly works. Shinbei turns out to be a wicked villain mostly because of the complication of he and Ichi’s childhood friendship, which causes Ichi to be more merciful than he might often be.

Like any other entry, Ichi will uncover Shinbei’s backstabbing plot, protect Omiyo from harm, and free the village from Shinbei’s shifty schemes. He’ll also walk into the sunset one final time… forever a wanderer. The foreknowledge that this will be the last of the original series probably increased the weight of this film for me, so what is really a pretty standard entry landed strongly. I also bought into the villainy of Shinbei and found enormous satisfaction in a new visual to the series: the flowing blood of the villain mixing with a pile of rice, the life-blood of the common people. This visual was a stunner that added something of brilliance to an otherwise standard entry that happened to be the last for about 15 years. (@Ed_Travis)

ZATOICHI (1989) Dir. Shintaro Katsu
Austin: Also known by the alternate titles Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman or Zatoichi: The Darkness Is His Ally.

16 years after Zatoichi’s Conspiracy, effectively the final film in the series, and a decade after the TV series that followed, Shintaro Katsu returned to the character as both director and star in a twilight sequel as the final word on the blind swordsman, simply called Zatoichi (an approach later used by Sylvester Stallone in his similar character revisits, Rocky Balboa and Rambo).

Most Zatoichi films establish a pretty straightforward plot early on, but with this one I struggled to identify what was happening. Halfway through the film, I still had no grasp of where this thing was going. Ichi seems to establish a relationship with a female Yakuza, but that thread is almost immediately dropped. Even after watching the entire film, I can only vaguely identify the conflict between the local Yakuzas and another gang of firearms dealers.

This finale feels like both a hit and a miss. The action is sublimely bloody and it’s great to see an older Ichi still kicking all kinds of ass. There are a lot of great character moments we’ve seen before: running his favorite dice con, carrying a lantern in the darkness, cutting candles in half, rescuing an infant, hiding in a barrel and a straw mat, and having an unwanted rivalry with a formidable opponent who in better circumstances would be a friend. In previous sequels, we might have decried these recycled moments, but distanced from the series, they aren’t rehashes but callbacks.

The music is very ’80s, which while jarringly different, didn’t bother me until the vocals kicked in – in English. WHAT? The film is a visual departure as well, with an ugly, drab palette unlike any previous film.

It’s interesting to note that despite being the final film, it ends just as any other. There is no ending or closure; Ichi is perpetually a wanderer and always will be. (@VforVashaw)

THE BLIND MENACE (1960) Dir. Kazuo Mori
Michael: Before Zatoichi, there was Suginoichi. Blind, like Ichi, Suginoichi chooses a path to power that is predatory, not redemptive. He cons, rapes, and murders—-all without remorse. Aside from blindness, and a shared profession, Suginoichi and Ichi are as different as night and day. Suginoichi is the Bizarro to Shintaro Katsu’s Blind Swordsman.

The Blind Menace opens with a parade. A man of distinction is carried through the streets in a litter. Celebratory cheers of the parade echo through Suginoichi; a poor boy, whose life of degradation has just begun. Without the ability to see, but only listen, these cheers are magnified, and questions fester. “How do I get into that litter?” the boy asks himself. “How do I become powerful, a man of distinction?”

Suginoichi’s questions are asked with little, if any, regard for consequence. While Katsu’s iconic Zatoichi often searches for meaning in his blindness, his Suginoichi uses it as a catalyst to deceive. Hannibal Lecter had the decency to kill his prey before eating it (Ray Liotta’s Paul Krendler being the exception). For Suginoichi, his power is derived from the pain his victim’s endure, eating away at them until there is nothing more to be consumed, leaving victim after victim, a remnant of their former self.

Menace is a fitting entry in the Zatoichi canon. Both Ichi and Suginoichi use their blindness to defy the status quo of mid-19th century Japan. Ichi defies it in order to protect and redeem. Suginoichi defies it in order to profit. If only Suginoichi was a masterful swordsman, he may have been Ichi’s greatest rival. (@MikeOnTheRun79)

Ed’s Final Word
Ed: Zatoichi ’89: Much like Austin, I found myself surprised at how haphazard this definitively final adventure of Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi ended up being. I waited no more than 24 hours between Zatoichi’s Conspiracy and this one… so the weight of seeing the many “callbacks” of this film didn’t wholly land for me like they would have for contemporary fans who waited in real time. What DID land for me was the 1980s aesthetic. In a polar opposite reaction to Austin’s, my jaw dropped with joy when an ’80s, English, rock ballad graced the soundtrack. And the super sexy bath sex scene (which absolutely goes nowhere as Austin mentioned) was fitting. I feel like Ichi deserved to straight up get laid by this point, and there’s nothing like the 1980s to make that happen. The gore was also stellar. At one point a man’s severed nose slides down a bloody wall. Ichi’s slashing sword has a bone-crunching effect to it. The 1980s were good to Zatoichi, I just wish the story had been a more potent one to send off this, one of my all time favorite heroes.

The Blind Menace: I’m surprised how much I enjoyed this 1960s morality tale. The film was actually far more effective to watch AFTER having taken in the full Zatoichi franchise. Simply to see a young, fresh-faced Shintaro Katsu cold-bloodedly murdering and serial raping was stunningly effective and chilling. I never questioned whether his villainous Suginoichi would get his comeuppance, but what surprised me was how invested I was in seeing this bastard fall from glory. Mike’s thoughts on this film were so much more eloquent than anything I might add. The flipside view of how a blind man responds to the Shogunate society around him is very interesting, and the dream of seeing Suginoichi trained in swordplay and becoming Ichi’s greatest enemy is a brilliant idea I never would have thought of. Thanks Mike!

I’ll miss Shintaro Katsu. And making my way through this series via the Criterion box set, alongside my Cinapse family, and recording our thoughts for our readers, was one of the great viewing projects of my life. Watching the final two films of this set of three, however, was a huge bummer as I watched them on Hulu Plus versus Criterion Blu-ray. The quality drop off was… substantial. God bless Criterion Blu-ray, and bring on the remakes!

Austin’s Final Word
Austin: For this final entry on the original series, we made a conscious decision to circle back and look where it all started. This selection of films looks not only at the end, but also the beginning.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy: Ed didn’t imagine the sense of gravitas and finality that this film brings: I noticed it too. It’s subtle, but Ichi’s voice is noticeably gruffer and more stoic in this film than we’ve heard before. We first hear his internal monologue as he decides which path to take at a crossroads. A coin toss (a visually marvelous one at that) determines his path back to his hometown. Clearly this is not going to be your typical Zatoichi film.

In one of the cooler subplots we’ve seen, Ichi is harassed by a small gang of youths, whom he treats with a sort of dismissive kindness, even giving them some food (or perhaps more accurately, allowing them to steal it). At one point they arrange with the film’s baddies to kill him for a bounty, and the aftermath to this is perhaps the most optimistic takeaway of a bloody finale.

The film ends with another subtle change-up that speaks to its finality. In previous entries, a small emblem stating “The End” popped up in a corner of the screen as Ichi walked off into the distance. This time, the screen fades first and then the end title appears in large, screen-filling prominence.

Blind Menace:
Put simply, this precursor to the Zatoichi series finds Shintaro Katsu playing a blind villain who cleverly schemes to get ahead, but pays for it in the end.

It’s always interesting to see how filmmakers handle villains as main characters. Usually these films either fail to inspire empathy for the character, or swing too far in the other direction and glorify the bad guy (Coppola’s Dracula). Katsu’s Suginoichi definitely falls on the unsympathetic side of that equation. He’s a vile, opportunistic charlatan who will do anything – including rape and murder – to get what he wants.

I expected to like this a lot more than I did. Ultimately, this rather repugnant film is interesting mainly for its relation to the Zatoichi series rather than any merit of its own. I do love Michael’s idea of Suginoichi as a Zatoichi villain, though. What a matchup!

Michael’s Final Word
Michael:Like Austin, I too had a difficult time watching The Blind Menace. Yet, during one of the more gruesome, repellent scenes, I marveled at how the scene was shot. Director Kazuo Mori pulls away from the violence, a technique Quentin Tarantino revived in Reservoir Dogs. Unlike Tarantino, the pull away is slow.

We watch the victim squirm, feet kicking. We want the camera to pull away faster. We root that it does. But, like the victim, we are helpless, with no control. Like Suginoichi maintains power over his victims, Mori maintains power over the viewer; as long as we watch, his power is absolute.

Also like Austin, I too valued the youthful presence in Zatoichi’s Conspiracy—in particular, the self-proclaimed harlot of the group. The suffering of some of the youth, after they choose late in the game to align themselves with Ichi, arouses remorse. In all 25 films there have been few moments when secondary characters warrant such emotion. This band of rapscallions earns it.

In closing, the most poignant three words written thus far have been Ed’s: “God bless Criterion!” I could not agree more. While The Blind Menace is a worthwhile watch, it suffers from not receiving the Criterion treatment. Like Ed, I preferred watching Menace after watching the series, and I recommend this approach for those seeking out a Katsu marathon.

Join us in two weeks for the Zatoichi remakes, and then after that we’ll do one last post featuring our final thoughts on the series as a whole! We hope you can watch along with us and engage with us in the final stages of this film-watching adventure. Until next time, Cinapsians!

The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 1 (Films 1-3)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 2 (Films 4-6)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 3 (Films 7-9)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 4 (Films 10-12)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 5 (Films 13-15)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 6 (Films 16-18)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 7 (Films 19-21)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 8 (Films 22-24)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 9 (Films 25-26, The Blind Menace)
The Tales Of Zatoichi Vol. 10 (The Remakes)

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis

  • Austin Vashaw

    Anybody else notice that Blind Menace era Katsu looked like Bela Lugosi?