(1968) dir. Kenji Misumi
I started this year with a couple of themes for the year, samurai films and John Waters films. I kicked off the samurai cycle with Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968), and while I have seen a handful of others, it’s not been the impressive array of films that I had anticipated watching.
In the case of Samaritan Zatoichi, I had the unusual circumstance of Netflix accidentally sending me a different film than the little sleeve had indicated. I had been planning on Takeshi Kitano’s re-make/re-imagining of the Zatoichi character, The Blind Swordman: Zatoichi (2003). Instead, I ended up with the 19th film in a series of some 26 films about the Zatoichi character, a blind swordsman who is apparently one of the most popular recurring characters in the samurai genre.
Of course, if there is a series of films or something, I’ll tend to try to see them in order, so this is not exactly where I would have started with this series. But fate decided the queue for me.
It’s hard to totally know how this film ranks among the series. In fact, just to get this far in my knowledge, it took a small amount of web research.
Taken within the samurai films that I have seen thusfar, Zatoichi is considerably less austere. Blind and bumbling, he falls into a small river clumsily and flails in the opening scene. Played with great character by Shintarô Katsu, Zatoichi seems not only blind but perhaps also mentally-challenged. Apparently, this goes along with the meaning of his moniker, which indicates his blindness, which according to my reading was looked down upon in Japan in the time depicted, in which mental retardation and perversity were also projected upon the blind.
This all fits with the way that Zatoichi leads his life. He roams the countryside, mostly appearing to others as a buffoonish masseur. However, inside his cane is actually a sword of unique make, and when push comes to shove, with his unusual style of positioning his body and holding his weapon, he is a serious ass-kicker.
The story of Samaritan Zatoichi is that he is tricked into slaying a drunken reprobate who owes on a loan he has taken out (a hit that he understood to be justified when he took the job.) His swordwork leaves the victim’s beautiful sister a lost and lonely soul, having come back just too late with the money to repay the loan. She is sought after by the villainous clans of swordsmen, none of whom seem to have much in the way of honor. Zatoichi follows the woman to repent for his guilt at having slain her brother and ends up protecting her from the numerous baddies.
Much comedy takes place in the stances of Zatoichi, who while bumbling and hunched, quickly shows the samurai that he is not wisely approached when he’s got his sword/cane in his hands. Ridiculed, he is the noble ronin who plays the fool, hiding his skills behind the facade of inneptitude and blindness. Like the Lone Wolf character of Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) who is hampered by trotting around with his baby, Zatoichi seems less potent than he is.
From what I’ve read, the genre in its swordfighting and violent conflicts arose post-WWII, with heroes who are humble with their talents, those who do not brag are the ones who should be watched out for. Zatoichi does seem uniquely humorous, which is perhaps quite a contrast to the noble, vengeance-filled idealists who show much less of their softer sides, grim-faced and tough.
I’ll definitely explore some more of the Zatoichi films, both the original series but also with Kitano’s newer take on the character. I have renewed my commitment here. More samurai films to come!