Shintaro Katsu’s ‘Zatoichi’ revisited

Old timers like me want to revisit old loves and past guilty pleasures. It so happened that during the long lockdown, as I was rummaging through my old DVDs, I was able to dig out my collection of Zatoichi movies and watched them again on my old DVD player. And then lately, I also discovered some Zatoichi movies are accessible on YouTube.

As a young man, I avidly watched Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi movies featuring the travails of a lone blind master swordsman during the Edo period. I also followed the Zatoichi series, which were then aired on Channel 13, if my memory serves me right. In a 2003 film, a Zatōichi reboot was made by Takeshi Kitano who also starred as Zatōichi in the film as some sort of a tribute to Shintaro Katsu, which was well received internationally.

From 1962-1989, Shintaro Katsu played the original role of Zatoichi in a series of 26 films. From 1974 to 1979, the television series Zatoichi starred Katsu and produced by his own production outfit.

The Zatoichi films were Japan’s counterpart to Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns. Ichi was the equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s wandering man with no name, decimating bad guys in each town he happens to come upon. In Ichi’s case, the baddies were usually corrupt government officials, local lords, as well Yakuza bosses and their underlings, usually conniving with each other against Zatoichi.

However, in the genre of violent action films, Zatoichi films are on a different aesthetic level. Consider this:

Are you happy not being able to see?

Why? Do you have problems seeing?

-Pretending not to see something, I guess.

-I cannot see but I have to live as if I could see.

This is the kind of dialogue you normally don’t expect in a typical violent, testosterone-pumping, action movie. It’s perfectly OK for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry to spout smartass quips or machismo memes like “Go ahead make my day” but I can’t imagine him saying a line like “The falling leaf does not hate the wind.”

This is the zen quality dialogue that separates Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi movies from the rest of the anti-hero driven action movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The words linger in the mind long after the exciting climactic slashing action set-ups are over. Even the titles of Zatoichi TV series are something else. Rainbow In An Unseen Teardrop and The Flower That Bloomed With The Lullaby are just two examples that resonate with literary minds like me.

What I like most about the films is that in between action scenes, the viewer is offered reflections on human condition. For example, in the last Zatoichi movie of Shintaro Katsu, which he also directed, entitled Darkness Is His Ally, the film touched on such subjects as moral injuries, the symbolisms of colors, human greed, betrayal and youthful purity and innocence and a son’s love for his mother. So much to ruminate on in a movie that is supposed to be an action thriller. But I did not feel bored. That’s because our hero has several split-second duels to keep the tone of action throughout, giving the viewer plenty of thrilling servings of samurai blades clashing and flashing and blood spurting, all awesomely choreographed.

Blind as he is, Ichi sees in his mind much more than a person who can see; he can see through the human heart. If Superman has x-ray vision, Zatoichi sees through the machinations of people as well as the goodness in people. He also has extraordinary auditory faculties. He can hear not only the chatter of people from afar, he can even discern the subtext behind the words.

So sensitive and agile, Ichi is able to avoid stepping on crawling insects while on the road. In one of his road travels, his foot almost crushes a bird’s egg that happens to have fallen from its mother’s nest.

These scenes are designed to show that Ichi has a compassionate heart. He is on the side of the disadvantaged and the exploited. Proof of his kindheartedness is that children love him and he plays with them. In the midst of a fight, Ichi manages to pick up a toddler to bring him to his mother all the while fending off his attackers.

The irony is that while Ichi used to come from the gangster world, he acts more honorable and chivalric than actual samurais. In that late Edo period in Japan, the samurai is depicted as corrupted and no longer true to his code of honor and conduct. The poor peasants are resigned to their life as playthings of samurai and yakuza.

Ichi is an anma (masseuse), traveling from town to town and he is able to bring relief to the aches of people from all walks of life, even evil lords. But what he cannot heal is the deep-seated greed and evil in the souls of human beings. He is also a master gambler, using his super hearing sense to predict accurately the roll of the dice. He wins in game after game, and employing some sort of jujitsu, he lets others initially take advantage of his blindness and it’s a delight to watch him turn the tables on cheaters in the final round.

Ichi has a big appetite for the good things in life and as he admits it, “I have an eye for good food, sake and gambling.” It never fails to whet my appetite every time Ichi is shown sinking his teeth into an onigiri (rice ball stuffed with a variety of fillings and flavors that make an ideal quick snack) or slurping simmering hot oden broth, which I learned is a winter comfort dish of the Japanese even today.

Equally fascinating is the fact the movies provide a window into traditional Japanese culture. One learns so much about their various rural festivals, their customs and way of life, the various apparels of men and women from differing classes of old Japanese society.

Also entrancing to observe is the ritual of pouring and serving warmed sake (rice wine) to a drinking buddy. There is also one scene in which jakenpon (yes our jack n poy) is played which I pointed out to my grand kids. I got to know the significance  of a durama doll (a kind of tumbling toy) during the first day of the new year and how the Japanese observe the first day of the new year by greeting the sun’s first light for blessings and so on. There’s more cultural tidbits to discover. And thanks to subtitles, you get to learn to speak basic Nippongo soon enough.

Above all, I like Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi movies because good eventually triumphs over evil. Zatoichi is sometimes the recipient of unexpected kindness from a stranger and admits: “The world is not full of demons, after all.”

At this late stage in my life, it’s still comforting to fantasize that there’s a fast-drawing avenger of justice like Zatoichi on our side to cut down the bad guys with just a few strokes of his sharp blade.

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