The Tales Of Zatoichi: Sheathing Our Swords (AKA The Wrap-Up)

 

When I dream big about writing about movies on the Internet, it is projects like The Tales Of Zatoichi that I dream about. Film fans all over the internet geek out when amazing releases like the Bond 50 box set or this amazing Zatoichi box set hit the market. But how much of that excitement has to do with collecting and owning nice things, and how much of it has to do with deep cinematic exploration? I’m guilty of slavering over box sets and giant releases (and even owning a few) that I’ve never fully explored and experienced. But when I was gifted with this set, and reflected that I now run a film outlet wherein I can take dream projects and try to make them a reality, I realized that there was no better way to discover this franchise than to gather a small community, experience these films together, and then write out our thoughts, sharing them with fellow Cineastes.

With my Cinapse friends, I’ve spent the Summer of 2014 digging deep into a film series that spanned some 30 feature films (thus far) and massively influenced our perception of the complex hero in pop culture entertainment. Shintaro Katsu’s wandering masseur and blind swordsman Zatoichi may not have spawned uniformly great cinema across all of his 26 installments, but he did become one of my all time favorite cinematic heroes in the process. And I suspect many who would take in all these films would fall similarly in love with Zatoichi.

And now, upon completion of this project, I’ve never been more proud of a published body of work that I’ve been involved in. My great hope for this completed column is that our Cinapse team’s journey of discovery will be found by other fans and those who are interested in taking in The Tales Of Zatoichi themselves. One of the biggest goals and driving forces behind Cinapse as an online outlet is to advocate for underseen cinema and to facilitate cinematic discovery. Cinema as an art form just keeps expanding, and older, foreign, and cult cinema will continue to be vital pieces of the puzzle for young fans and filmmakers as they craft new heroes and villains, and as they search for the roots of some of their most beloved modern characters. Cinapse’s coverage of the Zatoichi films isn’t the most dense or methodical coverage available. It is, however, an honest team project filled with personal opinion, thrills, and solid insight. I’m proud of the team for their work, and am better for having experienced all of Zatoichi’s adventures. Hopefully anyone stumbling across our work here will feel the same.

Ed’s Rankings
I’m not much of a list guy. There are some installments that were narrow misses here, and catch me on another day, and the order of these could easily be swapped. But as part of the goal of cinematic discovery goes, listing some of our favorite installments after just watching all of them gives potential new fans a great place to get started with this dense series, which doesn’t necessarily need to be watched chronologically in order to find enjoyment.

Least Favorite: Samaritan Zatoichi (1968, Film 19) – Dir. Kenji Misumi
(Covered in our Volume 7)
– The series lapses into a crippling same-ness fairly often. Our writing has noted this throughout, making many of our favorite entries films that shook up the formula or tried something new. But while Samaritan Zatoichi tried to do something different by changing some of the essential elements of what made Ichi who he is, it was a total failure. In this film Ichi abandons the code which guides him throughout all the other movies. He cuts down a largely innocent man on the orders of a generic yakuza boss, then hits the road with the dead man’s sister after realizing his error. On the road he cheats at gambling, and even gambles away his sword. Perhaps this could just be seen as our hero hitting his rock bottom, but I see it as bad writing, a rushed misinterpretation of the character, and distasteful all around. I’ll always choose to remember the Ichi of all the other films over the Ichi of this one.

Top 5

5. New Tale Of Zatoichi (1963, Film 3) – Dir. Tokuzo Tanaka
(Covered in our Volume 1)
– The earliest Zatoichi films have the most gravitas. At the beginning, the relationships and origins of Ichi have a weight to them, and they’re also more interconnected than later installments. The first color film benefits greatly from the addition of a full color palette. But again, this early installment offers a weighty narrative which enriches Ichi’s backstory and feels essential because it explores the origins of Ichi’s swordsmanship and features another memorable foil in the form of his own former swordmaster.

4. Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963, Film 4) – Dir. Tokuzo Tanaka
(Covered in our Volume 2)
– Here a former love from one of the original three films comes back into Ichi’s life with tragic consequences. There’s a powerful emotional motivation here combined with an epic conclusion featuring Ichi under threat from an army with rifles, then cutting through them like butter to reach a despicable samurai who mistreated his former love.

3. Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival (1970, Film 20) – Dir. Kenji Misumi
(Covered in our Volume 7)
– In a series with often interchangeable villains, Fire Festival features somewhat of a super villain. Boss Yamikubo, “The Shogun Of The Underworld”, is himself a blind man, who has built up a vast network of criminal organizations and placed himself at the top. He then devises the most intricate trap ever devised for Ichi resulting in one of the most spectacular finales in the series.

2. The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) – Dir. Takeshi Kitano
(Covered in our Volume 10)
– In one of the greatest arguments for why remakes can be worthwhile, Kitano’s Zatoichi remake is one Japanese icon paying homage to another. Using the clout of both of their careers, the film is able to achieve something transcendant. Beautiful, action-packed, filled with intrigue and music… the only reason this isn’t my number one pick is that Shintaro Katsu alone can hold the top spot, and this film couldn’t exist without an original series to riff on. Well, that and the terrible CGI blood found here.

1. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964, Film 7) – Dir. Kazuo Ikehiro
(Covered in our Volume 3)
– I’m an action movie junkie at heart, so my favorite installment naturally features some of the series’ most foundationally badass moments. Here is the first time Zatoichi cuts a candle, holding its still flaming wick on the edge of his sword and brandishing it menacingly. The conclusion of this installment is also one of the most beautiful and hardcore: Fireworks explode in the sky as Zatoichi storms a villainous compound, featuring a stunning single take sword fight. Beautiful and iconic, this film stands out from the pack.

Austin’s Final Word

Zatoichi is simply a great character, and his creators should be lauded for choosing to focus on a man with a major disability yet make him an utter badass. I love it. Thankfully the uniformly excellent films are up to the challenge (out of 26 films in the original series, I loved the vast majority, considering only 2 to be missteps). Ichi’s blindness is an integral part of his person and appeal, defining his social caste and unique challenges, and making his uncanny swordsmanship and other skills that much more exciting. Ever the great listener, his perceptions aren’t affected by appearances, giving him different insights – he is an excellent judge of character. Outwardly Ichi is always polite, smiling, and agreeable, but inwardly he’s full of keen wit and clever machinations, and when the situation requires, his sword is unsheathed with lightning quickness and deadly accuracy.

Can I end this on a confession? Without Ed proposing that we take on this massive series, my lovely gargantuan Criterion Blu-ray set would almost certainly still be sitting on my shelf unwatched. As a certifiably insane cinephile I have hundreds of films in the watch pile at any given moment, and a sprawling series like Zatoichi always feels like “too much to tackle right now”, especially since I’ve started writing for Cinapse and finding my film schedule dictated by current releases. So thanks to Ed for conceiving this thing and making me get my butt in gear, and to my other team members Michael, Victor, and Liam for joining us on this crazy ride. Just watching all the Zatoichi films is a hell of an accomplishment, and collectively reviewing every single film between us is something to be immensely proud of.

Austin’s Rankings
Least Favorite: Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967, Film 16), Dir. Satsuo Yamamoto
Satsuo Yamamoto’s only Zatoichi film struggles to find its footing with a weirdly paced, long-term plot and shoddy production values. Wigs and makeup have never been more fake and obvious, and the high-grain, high-contrast look is a terrible change. Katsu Productions’ inglorious debut is an embarrassment.

Top 5

5. Zatoichi’s Cane-Sword (1967, Film 15) – Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
A retired blackmith recognizes Ichi’s shikomizue sword as the work of his sensei, realizes the blade will soon snap, and is inspired to exit retirement to replace it. I really enjoyed this one, a memorable story which I suspect was later homaged in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

4. Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973, Film 25) – Dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda
The last film of the original mainline series (excepting the 1989 return) in which Ichi heads back to his hometown, has a nice gravitas to it that elevates it above most. At one point Ichi nearly dies, and it’s the situation surrounding this incident which provides one of the series’ most compelling supporting character arcs.

3. Zatoichi (2003) – Dir. Takeshi Kitano
Kitano’s violent and poetic remake was my introduction to the world of Zatoichi, and for that reason will always hold a special place in my heart. While Ichi himself is a bit shortchanged by a script full of supporting characters, his ultra-cool presence and an astoundingly organic soundtrack cements this as a favorite.

2. Zatoichi Challenged (1967, Film 17) – Dir. Kenji Misumi
This film admittedly copies the Fight, Zatoichi, Fight template a bit, telling a similar story where Ichi gets paired with a bratty kid. The benefit here is that with an older child, the story carries a weightier two-way relationship. This film’s harrowing final battle is my favorite of the series.

1. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964, Film 8) – Dir. Kenji Misumi
Ichi’s first experience of being thrust into “parenthood” is a humorous and emotionally resonant film, showing how he becomes very attached to an infant suddenly placed into his care. Later entries overused this plot device, but here it was approached with great effectiveness.

Victor’s Final Word

When I first started writing for Cinapse, one of my planned initial reviews was intended to be a writeup of Beat Takeshi’s 2003 Zatoichi remake for their Asia Beat column. For whatever reason, that never came to pass. But in retrospect, it made my participation in this project fait accompli.

Early on in the series, Michael made the astute observation that it was perhaps better to look at this series as the equivalent of a television series, something of a ‘samurai procedural’. And at a certain point, it occurred to me that if this actually had been a show, I probably would have stopped halfway through. The stagnancy of formulaic, procedural-style programming is what drove me away from most TV in the first place.

And I’m not going to lie: there were several points where just sitting down to watch the films was a burden. I did roughly half the series and I still felt burnt out. I will forever be in awe of Ed, Austin, and Michael for being able to watch every last film. For me, there were so many times where I’d rather have been doing anything else than taking notes trying to decipher the complex chains of who was betraying who and why (Guys, I came to watch dudes get sliced up samurai style. Y’all making me think too hard…)

But then, even in the worst, most middling of the films, there was always a moment or two that recaptured my imagination, and made me grateful I had signed on to this thing in the first place. And regardless of what surrounded him, Shintaro Katsu was a revelation. If there’s anything the remakes taught me, it’s that Katsu and Ichi are one and the same. Even if it’s good (and Blind Swordsman ‘03 is very, VERY good), without Katsu, it just ain’t the real thing…

And in the end, that’s what I’ll take away most from this series: not whatever boredoms or frustrations I felt, but fond memories of the overwhelming awesomeness that is Shintaro Katsu; and the many, many moments, both big and small, that transcended the formula and made this something more than just a ‘samurai procedural’; at its finest, it was truly one of a kind.

Instead of compiling a list of favorite movies, and in keeping with my earlier statements, I’m going to present my choices for the best moments in the series, or at least those I felt to be most indicative of all that was great about it. I have purposely excluded the 2003 version to keeps things fair, because if I were to let that one go through, this list would basically be me recapping the entire film. At any rate, these are my picks as it currently stands; but you can be damn sure that sooner or later I’m going to go back and check out the stuff I missed…

Victor’s Favorite Moments
Zatoichi The Fugitive, The Confession

At a certain point, Ichi became desensitized to the violence around him. Which in the long run is probably the nature of such a character and such a series. Regardless, it’s informative to go back to the earlier installments and see how badly he was affected by his reflexive slaying of a young, foolish amateur. The scene where he goes to the dead man’s mother and begs forgiveness is a powerhouse.

Zatoichi And The Fugitives, The Speech On Colors

Ichi reminiscing about attempting to remember things like flowers by their colors is another one of those small moments that helped me get through the more rote plot machinations this series inevitably fell victim to. It’s a lovely little speech, touchingly delivered.

Zatoichi In Desperation, The Beginning

Entertainment generally treats death as either tragic or cathartic, but more than anything, it’s just strange. It’s strange how someone is here, and then they’re not. And it’s hard to think of a better portrayal of that strangeness than this stylishly shot and ominous opening scene where a brief and pleasant encounter on a bridge takes an arbitrarily lethal turn. It could have happened anywhere, to anyone, and the bizarre senselessness of it all colors the entire rest of the (quite good) film with an overwhelming sense of the inexplicable capriciousness of death.

Zatoichi Meets The One Armed Swordsman, The Final Showdown

I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, but I have a great deal of respect for the way the inevitable showdown between the two franchise stars played out. In crossover events like this, great care is taken to make sure that both sides are shown to be equally matched, and given equal weight in the narrative. This movie takes a more pragmatic approach (or at least realizes who the real star of the series is), resulting in an unexpected finale that also works (as Ed smartly pointed out) as the logical conclusion of the dark themes that have been snaking through the entire picture. You’ve got to admire everyone involved for having the courage of their convictions and opting for the more troubling and thought provoking ending…

Zatoichi At Large, Where There’s Fire

For all the talk of thematic resonance and character moments, it’s important to note that this is still primarily a series about a blind dude fucking up bad guys with swords. And the concluding duel here, where Ichi faces off with a small army while trying very hard not to kill the young swordsman who mistakenly thinks Ichi has murdered his father, is one of the best. And that’s before they cover a pagoda in oil and bring out the torches…

Any Scene Where Ichi Slices A Moth In Half

Because he does that shit way more than you’d expect, and it never gets old…

Zatoichi Challenged, Duel With Akatsuka

By the 17th installment of the series, the formula is very much set in stone. We get the intrigue, the rigged dice games, the untrustworthy Yakuza bosses, and the inevitable final showdown where Ichi takes on an army. Breaking with the formula led to one of the best final fights in the series as Ichi takes on an honorable, duty bound samurai. It would be a bit of a spoiler to reveal why exactly this is one of my favorite moments, but suffice to say it all leads to a satisfying and unexpected ending.

Zatoichi The Outlaw, The Last Battle

While my overall opinion of the movie was less than complimentary (I pretty much hated it), I have to concede that it contains one of the most iconic moments for me, one that does as good a job of summing up who Zatoichi is as any in the series. A wounded, exhausted Ichi is carried on a stretcher to the scene of another battle where his help is sorely needed. He’s bloodied, he’s brutalized, and he’s barely able to stand, but when the villagers slide him off the stretcher he charges his enemies without missing a beat or a second thought. This moment gets at the core of the character’s duty bound warrior soul better than anything I could imagine.

Mike’s Final Word

Great Villains: The Lifeblood of Great Movies
Superman II: In a brilliant moment of subterfuge Superman (Christopher Reeve) deceives his Kryptonian nemesis Zod (Terrence Stamp), crushing the bones in his hand, and effortlessly tossing him, as if he were nothing more than tissue paper, into the abyss-like crevices of the Fortress of Solitude.

Robocop: Through gritted teeth, villain Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) shouts “Sayonara Robocop!” after spearing hero Alex J. Murphy/Robocop (Peter Weller) through the chest with a metal rod. Boddicker leans into the rod, glowering victoriously into what he mistakenly believes to be the diminishing eyes of Murphy, that is, until Murphy thrusts his car key into Boddicker’s neck. Blood gushes, leaving Boddicker just enough time to realize that he has been defeated before dropping dead into a pool of sewage.

Die Hard: It is not the final bullet fired by John McClane (Bruce Willis), nor his clever send off, “Happy trails Hans,” that sends villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) flailing to a gruesome death from atop Nakatomi Tower. Instead, it is the loosening of an expensive watch, which, once loosened, frees Gruber to plummet to the pavement below, that defeats him.

Lethal Weapon 2: Instead of stabbing or shooting his wife’s killer, Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) drops a cargo container on his head—echoing the larger-than-life antics of his favorite cartoons, Looney Tunes.

Great villains are the lifeblood of great movies. More so, great villain demises make for great heroes. Before Superman, before Robocop, before John McClane, before Martin Riggs, there was Zatoichi. Throughout the Blind Swordsman series Zatoichi showcases the callousness and vanity of his foes, particularly within their last moments. When Ichi draws his cane sword, the sting not only spills blood, but it often also reveals the character of those slain — a tradition that begins with The Tale of Zatoichi.

With The Tale of Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi and actor Shintaro Katsu orchestrate scenarios where Ichi does not necessarily challenge villains. Instead, he challenges their egos; he challenges the status of masculine power within the Edo period of Japan. He does this when cheating cheaters; he does it when confronting rapists. Most profoundly, he does it in Tale’s final scene.

In the aftermath of a bloody confrontation between dueling yakuza bosses Ichi leisurely makes his way out of the village. A familiar, heavily armored, yakuza soldier charges at Ichi. Throughout the 95-minute feature, this soldier uniformly evaded death by way of cowardice. Ichi does not honor the soldier by accepting his cowardice charge from behind. Instead, Ichi shifts his feet.

The clumsy, yet treacherous, yakuza stumbles and falls backward into a shallow stream. His body armor weighs him down. Completely submerged, the villain drowns. Ichi waits until the last air bubble surfaces, then pops. He turns, and then continues his journey.

With this moment Ichi accomplishes what few contemporary heroes accomplish. It is an accomplishment maintained throughout the series. The villain, who represents power and subjugation, is emasculated and silenced in a way that defies his power — drowning in a stream that a small child could wade in. It is this refusal to empower the status quo that persisted throughout the decade long series, from Tale to Zatoichi’s Conspiracy. Contemporary western cinema could use a bit more of this method of exposing the abuse of power.

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)

And We’re Out.

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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