Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dir. by Kenji Misumi

The story of the wandering swordsman is as deeply ingrained in Japanese cinema as the tale of the Western gunslinger is in American pop-culture. But don’t expect a chanbara (a sword-and-samurai action film) to be just a Western with a samurai for sheriff and swords for six-shooters. Zatoichi, a tremendously popular film that inspired a couple dozen sequels and a long-running TV show, features a uniquely Japanese style of hero, whose anti-hero status paradoxically confirms his idealism.

The tale is set in feudal Japan. Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind man and a masseur (a rather low-status occupation in a class-conscious society). He calls upon a yakuza boss and proceeds to engage in not-so-friendly game of dice with the boss’s loutish gangsters. After schooling the hoodlums in hygiene and honesty Ichi gets a warm welcome from Boss Sukegoro Iioka. Sukegoro has an ulterior motive for his hospitality: even though he’s blind, Ichi is the deadliest swordsman around. A gang war is brewing with the rival Sasagawa clan. Sasagawa happens to have his own sword-slinger: a samurai who has sunk to being a hired killer for gamblers.

The movie is not all bloody sword-fights. In fact, there aren’t very many at all. A great deal of attention is paid to the sordid lives of the gangsters and Ichi’s growing disgust with the kind of life he finds himself in. Therein lies the distinctive quality of Zatoichi, it is almost sentimental in its appreciation of courtesy, natural beauty, and respect for an honorable foe. Ichi’s uniquely Japanese character is that he is deeply ashamed of what he does and how he lives, even though he continues to live that way. There is none of the cynical posturing of the far more hard-boiled ronin Sanjuro played by Toshiro Mifune. Ichi is not an anti-hero in the sense that he defies society’s norms, but in that he doesn’t even consider himself to be heroic.

Zatoichi is a film that will best engage a viewer who wants a distinctively Japanese story with excellent characterization and just a bit of ferocious action.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Haven't seen this but it sounds interesting.

Dave Hardy said...

I thought it was a trifle slow, but with a hell of a pay-off. Kurosawa's movies are the gold standard inthe West, but Japan really took Zatoichi to heart.