Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Zatoichi 01: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Director: Kenji Misumi

Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Massayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura

More info: IMDb

Plot: Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind masseuse in the Edo period (Ichi is his name; Zato is his title that indicates that he is in the lowest rank of the guild of blind men). He’s also an expert gambler and swordsman, able to best sighted opponents. When Zatoichi comes to a town embroiled in a war between rival Yakuza groups, Zatoichi is drawn into the conflict.

My rating: 8.5/10

Will I watch it again? And again, and again...

In the past 50 years, this film has spawned 25 sequels, a four season TV show (so far, all of which starred Shintaro Katsu), and in the past decade we've gotten a remake with two sequels! That's a lot of Zatoichi. So what's the big deal about a badass blind swordsman? He's a loner, blind, almost supernaturally skilled with his sword and he's an incredibly gentle person who's got a great deal going on inside himself than he almost ever lets on to anyone around him. Ichi is a pretty complex character that grows a little with each film.

Samurai pictures from Japan during this era can be rather calming. There's not that much music (what's there is very well scored in this one by Japan's leading film composers, Akira Ifukube), and the action in this first installment is limited but when there is action (especially from Ichi), it's ON! I dig his style. It's very swift with an elongated quiet pause at the end, allowing his victims to fall.

Ichi's interactions with the more sympathetic characters are very touching. While he may deceive them a little (not everyone can know he's a lot more in touch with the world around him than he lets on), he is completely justified in his secrets. With each film we get a scant few more details into his past and what made him the man he is today. ZATOICHI is not just samurai sword series of movies. These are dramas with moments of swordplay. If you dismiss this picture and others like it for being simple "dudes in dresses with swords" movies, you'll be missing out on some excellent cinema no matter how you slice it.

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