Zatoichi: The Tale of Zatoichi is the first in a long series of movies (around twenty-six in the series), of the adventures of Zatoichi, a blind masseur, who also happens to be a master swordsman. He spends his time wandering from town to town, offering his services as a masseur and generally helping those who can’t help themselves with his sword skills.
My first introduction to the legendary Zatoichi was the 2003 Takeshi Kitano film Zatoichi, starring Kitano himself as the legendary masseur. Kitano gives a charismatic performance, portraying Ichi as a powerful yet humble man with the near superhuman ability to be completely aware of his surroundings even though quite blind. Shintaro Katsu portrayal of Ichi in Tale of Zatoichi is to some extent the opposite: Katsu’s Ichi is meek and humble, and has none of the qualities attributed to the stereotypical hero. He’s not the most attractive fellow and probably needs to go to the gym to work off his paunch. He just doesn’t look to be a capable swordsman. This humility is demonstrated repeatedly in Ichi’s downplaying of his skills as both a swordsman and a masseur. Of course as the film progresses, we find that Ichi often uses this to his advantage, generally outwitting any gangster who crosses him.
In Zatoichi: The Tale of Zatoichi, Ichi finds himself wandering into town looking for a place to stay. He is given board by the Iioka gang, whose boss has witnessed Zatoichi’s skills with a sword. He is treated as an honoured guest, which seems strange until we discover that the rival gang has gained the services of the samurai, Hirate. For the right price, Zatoichi agrees to side with the Iioka gang. By chance Zatoichi meets Hirate whilst fishing and the two become friends. Upon the realisation that he is to fight Hirate, Zatoichi has second thoughts but it’s too late: the battle is inevitable. Who will win?! The large number of Zatoichi sequels makes this an easy question to answer, alas for suspense.
Unlike the 2003 Zatoichi, Tale of Zatoichi has very little swordplay, focussing primarily upon introducing and making initial impressions of the Zatoichi character, as well as giving an insight into gang culture. This insight of gang culture is interesting as we are witness to some of the evil acts people are capable of, all because of their apparent status.
Overall, Zatoichi: The Tale of Zatoichi, is a great film, introducing us to one of Japanese cinema’s most recognised characters. Although by the end of the film Zatoichi’s background is still shrouded in mystery, the story is tight enough that you feel satisfied. What the mysterious character of Ichi provides, however, is an overwhelming desire to continue on with the Zatoichi saga.
One Zatoichi film down, twenty-five to go…