座頭市物語 (Zatoichi monotogari) [The Tale of Zatoichi] (1962)

So far as I can tell, the archetypal “blind person who’s actually incredibly lethal, but intensely gentle and humble” was originated, or at least most emphatically popularized, with the series of stories about Zatoichi told across 26+ films (plus, because there are spin-offs, reboots…), and a one hundred episode TV series. I remember bumping into Blind Fury and being intrigued by the notion (surprise! it’s a remake of one of the Zatoichi films–part of that endless Western trade like, especially, Yojimbo), finding it viscerally appealing as so many do. I actually was most intrigued by Don’t Breathe because it seemed predicated on this concept (until it turned into a hideously unpleasant, exploitative bit of non-fun upon viewing it). Still, much like the lengthy Lone Wolf and Cub (28 manga volumes, 6 films, 79 TV episodes), I didn’t really consider dabbling in it for a very long time, until a series of circumstances placed the massive Criterion Blu-Ray in my hands for less than a quarter of the list price.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind masseur and gambler, who wanders into the town of Iioka and the home of yakuza leader Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi), who has seen Ichi’s skill with a sword before. Subordinate to Sukegoro, Tatekichi (Michio Minami) is one of many who not only disdain the itinerant masseur, but attempt to cheat him in a game of chō-han by taking advantage of his lack of sight. Sukegoro is revealed to be most invested in his guest due to the predicted war with Shigezo (Ryuzo Shimada) out of Sasagawa, who has hired a ronin from Edo, Miki Hirate (Shigeru Amachi, who had recently starred in 地獄 [Jigoku]). Tatekichi is also embroiled in an affair with a woman who he has gotten pregnant, to the frustration and anger of his younger sister Otane (Masayo Banri). Ichi and Hirate find some solace in each other, as they are the only men reluctant to act as and for the yakuza.

This was an interesting viewing experience: the story felt intensely familiar, as it rests firmly on that archetype I described initially, and on the series of events that would later prove to be the standard for establishing the character–doubt and suspicion case on a perceived easy mark, revealed to be laughable underestimation, and only later associated with more formidable (read: lethal) characteristics, all wrapped up in gentle reluctance. However, despite that, and despite being a film that significantly predates obsession with beating audiences to the nitpicking punch with relentless attention to filling holes in logic for elements that are not important (is there a monster? If so, we really don’t always need a real-world, “believable” explanation, or at least don’t need it to be unassailably “possible”)–this is an exceptionally entertaining film.

Katsu, who would play Ichi for most of the rest of his career (and eventually, write, produce, and even direct films in the series), has already developed him wonderfully. Whether this was a clear blueprint from creator Kam Shimozawa or scripter Minoru Inuzuka, or just the talents of Katsu himself is irrelevant when it the inception of the idea is so well-realized. The cinematography from Chikashi Makiura keeps things crisp and well-defined, with the framing and shot choices indicating a strong voice from director Kenji Misumi and editor Kanji Suganuma.

There’s more flash to the imagery than I expected from a film that’s part of a series this long–not that it’s fair to judge the inaugural film by the fact that it inspired a multitude of sequels. Still, it gave the impression, from a distance, that it would be a low-budget, quickly-produced-for-popularity sort of series. This may prove true as I move on through the set, but it definitely wasn’t here. Careful attention is paid to clearly elucidating how Ichi perceives the world, both in sensory and emotional terms, in a merging of the technical talents of the crew and the naturalistic talents of Katsu: his face is used in extreme close-up to tell us when he is detecting something we wouldn’t necessarily expect him to without sight, or indicating his response to a moment that affects him deeply–rare though those moments are. But people–and there’s also a fantastic shot I can’t not-mention with Banri and Minami that perfectly conveys everything wordlessly, using extreme close-up to take what their performance is clearly telling us, and enhance it to relate it to the way it is transferred so directly between the two of them–are not the sole focus of the camera: often, scenes are framed in or through flora in the surroundings of the film location. It has a nicely subtle effect of placing us within what’s occurring, and describing the surroundings as part and parcel of what’s going on, rather than incidental and in-the-way.

In a plot that I felt was largely predictable (albeit mostly due to its imitators), there was never a sense of dissatisfaction with choices, whatever they happened to be, and none telegraphed despite their “obviousness”. The choices that made sense for the characters and the film are what occurred, things all to convey the themes and the sensibilities of a film that hinges on the gaping void between the relationship between Ichi and Hirate and either of them and the yakuza world around them. It was paced beautifully to match with the appropriate characters and interactions, and didn’t stop and force Ichi into the position of appearing as some sort of otherworldly entity, like The Spectre, to gain justice or vengeance whenever there was a wrong, leaving him only inhumanly skilled, not entirely inhuman.

I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention the generally sparse but quite excellent score of Akira Ifukube (one of the two people I had cause to recognize, alognside Amachi–Ifukube, of course, scored Gojira, and is responsible for that infamous leather-glove-on-contrabass roar). There are only occasionally interspersed moments of music, but at least one stands out as truly exceptional: the pounding and menacing score behind the inevitable war between Iioka and Sasagawa, rendering it unlike Westerns in its depiction of violence, even more so than a fight in the woods that leaves victims moaning and carried away on stretchers rather than quietly and suddenly motionless in theatrical fashion. Ifukube’s work complements that of the cast and Misumi and Makiura’s shots, conveying the sense that Ichi explodes in describing at the end: this is not a valiant, glorious battle. This is unpleasant, unnecessary, and horrible.

As a fan of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, it was perhaps most revealing in clearly having set much of the tone and approach of that story–nevermind Zato-Ino the Blind Swordspig, the way that Usagi comports himself and drifts from location to location so clearly comes from this section of jidaigeki that it’s undoubtedly a large part of the familiarity I felt for it. Truly something to relish.

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2 thoughts on “座頭市物語 (Zatoichi monotogari) [The Tale of Zatoichi] (1962)

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