The International Writers Magazine FILM: Zatoichi Opens UK
March 26th 2004
THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS OF A BUDDHIST AMONG BAPTISTS
Reverend Father Antonio
Hernández, O.M.D., A.B.F.
Founder of the Independent Order of American Buddhist Fathers
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN:
HISTORY, MISCONCEPTIONS AND THE FACTS
has the soul of a monk, the skill of a samurai'.
1962 until 1989, Zatoichi (Ichi the Blind), the blind masseur and
swordmaster, slashed his way through the Japanese silver screen
and into the Japanese people's zeitgeist- and hearts.
get an in depth version of this essay go to
character, part martial arts master, part detective, part yakuza, part
clown, part pathos (he's blind, remember)- is the most popular fictional
character in history. It's just a history we don't get to learn here
in the West. In spite of that fact, Zatoichi has an enormous following
in the West. The films have spawned two remakes- one in 1990, the other
in 2003 - and no less than Al Pacino (among others) has borrowed from
the character in his 1992 film "Scent of a Woman". That's
what is great about Zatoichi: copied, parodied, imitated, remade, but
-1962 original that started it all.
Shintaro, known in the West as Shintaro Katsu, is the enormously
talented actor who gave Zatoichi life. Katsu (pronounced "Katz")
was an accomplished master of entertainment. A genuine fencing master,
singer, musician (he invented rap music in the mid-1960s), composer,
writer, director, producer, he did it all. And he did it with a
rarely matched panache. Shintaro Katsu sets up a scene. Katsu was
in his mid-twenties when he created the character for the original
film, entitled Zatoichi Monogatari ("Zatoichi's Story"
or "The Legend of Zatoichi"). Though not known for certain,
it is generally thought that the Zatoichi character was originally
created by Kan Shimozawa, an incredibly gifted writer/producer/director
who was overshadowed all his life by Akira Kurosawa.
Kurosawa could not overshadow Katsu. Kurosawa wrote one of his films
- the stunning, Oscar-winning 1980 film Kagemusha ("Shadow
Warrior")- especially for Katsu to take the starring role.
Sadly, Katsu never got to do it, and Kurosawa never landed Katsu
for any other role.It mattered not one whit. During Kurosawa's slim
years, his "underground" years, his good years... Zatoichi
was always up on the marquee, rain or shine. There is no doubt that
three solid generations of Japanese were inspired and heartened
by Katsu's character. Not long after its premiere, the West got
wind of the films. They never reached much more than minor cult
status until the advent of global movie technology.
Takeshi Kitano at Zatoichi
now, in early 2004, there is confusion and error surrounding Western
knowledge of Zatoichi and his Shintaro Katsu, young and near the
end of his career. Zatoichi is: not really blind; only half blind;
a bum; really a samurai; cold and emotionless; a psychotic killer;
a yakuza; an unbeatable swordsman; a guy who knows only fencing.
No doubt he's blind. He often talks of it, people ask him about
it, and he runs into things and falls down when no one is there
to help him. Case closed. He is far from a bum, though "hobo"
is an excellent word to apply to him. In fact, he is a skilled masseur
and acupuncturist, making a very good living at that and dice gambling-
a real Renaissance itinerant worker. He is so emotional that his
face twitches with emotion and anguish, even when he kills the true
psychos who have it coming. He has a heart of gold: that is what
the films truly strive to teach. Zatoichi is not unbeatable, having
technically lost a number of matches while being seriously wounded
in others. He is, all told, representative of the superman-in-everyman.
a martial arts character, he is equally skilled in sumo wrestling, judo,
kendo, death strikes, jujitsu, and good old-fashioned psych-outs. Katsu
created the most unique and lovable martial arts master ever. It is
also thanks to this character that all who are exposed to these films
gain tremendous respect for the disabled- no small feat.
"YOU WILL NOT TOUCH THIS BABY!!"
doing what he does best: rescuing people, big and small. Zatoichi
had a teacher.~ This is confusing thanks to the varying movie storylines.
The original film and its two sequels, which are meant to be taken
as a trilogy, tell a very different story from the later films.
Each later film also tells a slightly vacillating story.
Originally, Zatoichi was self-taught. This is a special case in
the eyes of the Japanese, for they believed that self-taught people
had been "taught by the gods". Much later, it turns out
that Zatoichi did study with a teacher. Though the teacher, a mean
small-town samurai villain, only taught Zatoichi some things, he
took tremendous credit for "teaching Zatoichi how to use a
himself repeats throughout all the films that he was not "formally"
trained, and that he studied obsessively. He proves this even in the
contradicting film, when he effortlessly kills his former 'teacher'-
but he does it in a way that helps the teacher save some face. We can
see some kind of unspoken continuity in the narrative with this particular
film: Zatoichi has returned to finally teach his 'teacher' a thing or
two. Overall, the generic answer to this question has to be a resounding
"NO". Zatoichi chats with some over-educated "pals".
Zatoichi's sword technique is unique. In fact it is part of the system
of which Zatoichi is a master: I-Ai-Do, the art of the rapid, accurate
draw/strike/resheath method. The upside-down grip Zatoichi always uses
is known as "reverse" sword drawing, though Zatoichi is equally
skilled in the traditional samurai fencing. It was Katsu's experience
and talent as an actor that lead him to adapt this technique for Zatoichi.
It is the most effective technique for a fencer who is somehow hindered.
The way Katsu chose to choreograph and photograph the fight scenes gives
the viewer the most realistic impression of genuine reverse-draw I-Ai-Do
ever seen in film. The only other film in history that shows such excellence
in choreography and skill in a reverse-draw fight is Kurosawa's "Sanjuro"
(of which his later film "Yojimbo" is the sequel). Two common
reverse-draw I-Ai-Do poses. Zatoichi has only one canesword throughout
all the films. This, too, is confusing. The first film was clearly meant
to be left open to a possible sequel, but was meant to stand alone.
At the end of the film, Zatoichi orders that his canesword be buried,
with the samurai he has been forced to out-duel. In the sequel, however,
he has "the" canesword with him when he returns a year later
to pay his respects at the samurai's grave. In the second sequel, which
is the first film in color, Zatoichi's sword is broken by the samurai
who is fighting him. Zatoichi draws a hidden shiv from the canesword
's handle and kills the samurai.
After all this, he throws the handle away angrily, and wanders off empty-handed.
Yet in the fourth installment, he's back for the third time with what
seems to be the exact same canesword.
Even in the episode when Zatoichi sells his canesword for gambling money,
to the samurai who wants to kill him no less, the samurai simply returns
it later. In a much later episode, just when Zatoichi's sword is about
to break due to a crack, he fatefully befriends a skilled swordsmith
- who turns out to have been a student of the master who "made
the original canesword". There's no attempt at continuity or even
a hinted explanation for this prop's disappearance/ reappearance in
the films. We are left with the feeling that Zatoichi somehow magically
gets the same canesword back no matter what happens to it. Perhaps that
in itself is a symbolic lesson imbedded in the movies.
One of the first of many caneswords.... The canesword needs some explaining
from a purely historical and technical point of view. Katsu of course
had dozens of prop caneswords over the decades, and these hardly ever
matched each other. Some had to be replaced several times during the
shooting of just one film. Props varied from solid, heavy sticks to
light, hollowed-out versions. Some had phony retracting blades, some
had genuine dulled blades and others had genuine live blades (for close-up
shots). All of this served the illusion of the superhuman quick-draw.
In certain close up shots, the differences in props are painfully obvious.
Yet it is said that George Lucas was inspired to create the lightsaber
by Zatoichi's lightning draw.
A Jedi Knight should look as awesome.... As to historical credibility,
the canesword was and is common in Japan. The Edo Period, spanning the
15th through 19th centuries, saw a proliferation of such weapons since
the emperor had forbidden the commoners from carrying any weapons. The
canesword, properly termed shikomi ("cane"), shikomi-katana
or shikomi-tsue (both meaning "canesword"), was most commonly
carried by traveling masseurs and gamblers. Its uniform exterior- what
antiques dealers call treen (made from one solid piece of wood)- was
designed only to serve as camouflage. Therefore it had to be more or
less straight, plain and consistent in design. Some dazzling caneswords
were made throughout the Edo Period. One of the greatest examples, now
in a private collection, resembles a solid gnarled branch and contains
the finest katana blade. This particular canesword, unlike Zatoichi's
type, would probably have cost a modern figure of around $5,000 American,
in its time. Today it is priceless: The most gorgeous existing example
of a canesword, early 19th century.
A shikomi-shirasaya, "imitation bamboo" canesword- the most
common type in the Edo Period. The early films are of poor quality overall.~
This misconception is the most preposterous and inaccurate of all. Every
single film in the series is ground-breaking and beautifully filmed.
The fact that the Japanese had limited filming resources was no hindrance-
and the proof is in the films themselves. Zatoichi films are still among
the finest in the world, and had a strong influence on Kurosawa's post-1960s
work. The films have not physically aged well, and this is often mistaken
for poor picture/sound quality. Truly sad is that even devoted Western
fans claim poor quality in some of the films. The Zatoichi films had
the finest of everything Japanese filmdom had to offer. They haven't
aged a day in terms of great cinema.
Katsu shows reverence where reverence is due: some of the finest cinematography
in history. Zatoichi had to be bribed or forced to do the right thing.~
Another asinine Western guess. It seems the first two generations of
Westerners to watch the Zatoichi films probably saw them in Hawaii,
where they would not have been subtitled. Ever since then, very bad
guesses about the nuances of each film have been inflicted like sword
wounds on innocent bystanders. In fact, Zatoichi above all was a sorely
needed bringer of justice.
This why Zatoichi films also had a powerful influence on American Westerns.
As one expert critic has put it, "Zatoichi has the soul of a monk,
the skill of a samurai." Some helpful advice from a friend in need.
Zatoichi is a Buddhist monk.
Easy mistake to make: in the early films he had the peculiar habit of
shaving his head; he was glimpsed hanging around temples and priests.
He often carried a traditional Buddhist juzu ("rosary") though
he was equally immersed in Shinto practices. Clearly he was a devout
Zen layman, sometimes mistaken for a priest. This is because the films
are influenced by the famous 17th century poet Matsuo Basho, the man
who created haiku poetry. Basho took special Buddhist vows and dressed
as a priest, but stated clearly that he was not a priest or monk. For
many Japanese Zen Buddhist priests, the Zatoichi character represents
the summit of enlightenment, but Zatoichi is most definitely not even
"marginally" a Buddhist monk. If not for any other reason,
he likes prostitutes.
Zatoichi has never had any influence on Western characters. Many interesting
but sparsely spread-out characters have derived from Zatoichi. The very
first was probably that ingenuous Los Angeles Police detective,
Lt Columbo - Peter Falk
Columbo, created by Peter Falk in 1967- but it was a part that was
originally written for an elderly Bing Crosby.
Diminutive, shuffling, stooped, humble, chuckling to himself and
scratching his head, "blind" to the world in a sense,
Falk's Columbo always got his villain. Like Zatoichi, he would eventually
corner them and (usually) gently force them to confess. He, too,
was of mysterious background and superhuman gifts, though fighting
was not among those gifts. Columbo even refused to carry a gun.
It is said that Lt. Columbo was inspired by 18th century French
detective Eugene Vidocq, who founded the Sûreté and
in turn inspired Jean Valjean of A Tale of Two Cities. There
is little doubt among connoisseurs that Falk borrowed heavily from
great Seattle-raised, Cantonese-born actor Keye Luke immortalized his
own version of the blind master: the great Shao-lin Temple Master Po,
he of the silvery white eyes, in the television series "Kung Fu".
In the 1989 film version of "Kung Fu", Luke reprises his role,
this time as Master Po's ghost. Very likely the 2003 Zatoichi remake
borrowed a bit from Keye Luke's unique appearance.The story of Shao-lin
Temple, "Kung Fu":
[L] Keye Luke with David Carradine. [R] The silvery Master Po. In the
late 1970s some of the boys from Monty Python's Flying Circus cobbled
together a cute takeoff of Treasure Island, entitled "Yellowbeard
the Pirate". Mr. Harvey "Blind" Pew, as played by John
Cleese, was sharp, funny and the only Zatoichi parody ever seen in the
West. What is most hilarious about "Blind" Pew is his tiny
white cane- and the dangerous sword he draws from it, exactly once,
to extinguish a candle. After which he extinguishes an entire tavern
full of toughs.
Zatoichi was actually remade once before, in America's 1990 action flick
"Blind Fury", starring Rutger Hauer. The likeable turn for
Hauer and the obvious homage to Zatoichi's whole character series make
this film a must-see.
THE American Zatoichi: Rutger Hauer attempts to copy Katsu in "Blind
Fury"- not too badly. The 1992 film "Scent of a Woman"
starred Al Pacino as yet another Zatoichi-inspired character. Like Hauer's
Zatoichi-character, Pacino plays a Viet Nam veteran, but unlike Hauer's
wandering bum, Pacino's Zatoichi-guy is a retired Marine colonel who
is a raucously successful attorney. The only Zatoichi reference prop
is the Marine sword Pacino lays out on the bed while contemplating his
suicide. But again, Pacino clearly borrows heavily from Katsu's performances,
especially Katsu's body language and rough voice. Sounds familiar, because
Peter Falk borrowed many of the same traits for his Columbo character.
There is no doubt that Shintaro Katsu, once and for all, gave people
with disabilities a great dignity they had never enjoyed on film before.
Most ironically, Katsu's quirky, sensitive and incredibly accurate performance
as "Blind Ichi" can never be enjoyed by those without sight.
For the rest of us, there's a lesson Katsu's Zatoichi has to teach.
Let us learn it well.
Takeshi Kitano, a Japanese filmmaker also known as "Beat"
Takeshi and for his portrayals of violent Cops and criminals, released
his remake of the original Zatoichi film in the spring of 2003. Titled
simply "Zatoichi"- the same title as the last film Katsu made
in 1989- it is causing a huge buzz. Though earning rave reviews, snagging
the prize at Venice and causing a global ruckus, it has not yet reached
the Western hemisphere. Miramax has purchased the distribution rights,
and the film will be released in the U.K. in March 2004 , in the U.S.
on June 4th. (No coincidences: June 4th is the Festival of the Buddha's
First Sermon, and March is the month traditionally assigned to the Buddha's
mother.) As this article is being written, Zatoichi races across Europe,
Aside from the fear caused by the remake being released after "The
Last Samurai" (and so long after the ridiculous "Kill Bill"),
there had also been great fear among fans that Miramax would not release
the film soon. This only hurt more when added to worries that Miramax
would take its sweet time butchering the film in the editing room. Neither
of these horrors will occur- thanks to the demands of Kitano himself.
He stated flatly in an early interview that he would brook no editing.
He may even refuse to allow dubbing, insisting on subtitles. In any
case, Kitano and his "Zatoichi" will leave the other new samurai-oriented
movies in the dust.
And then he deals with it. Kitano, strangely, is no fan of Zatoichi
films. He idolizes Katsu, like most Japanese, and what he has taken
from Katsu's performances is by way of pure hero-worship. Shintaro Katsu
died on June 21st, 1997, of throat cancer; not long afterwards, Kitano
was approached by a very powerful madame and ex-dancer. She was a close
friend of Katsu's, and now owns the rights to everything Zatoichi.
Extremely wealthy, owner of dozens of strip clubs and sometime mothering
loan-shark to Katsu, she wanted Kitano to do a remake- and she wanted
him to star in it. Though weakly attempting to bow out of the proposal,
Kitano relented. This Great Lady could not be refused... nor could her
contribution of 15% of the costs be ignored. After a visit to Katsu's
grave to pay respects, the planning began. As Kitano put it, he would
play Zatoichi after all, and he said, "I immediately dyed my hair
blonde." In thinking seriously about Katsu's body of work, Kitano
determined to make something "new" of Zatoichi, "a totally
Pre-production began as early as two years after Katsu's death. Kitano,
who has a few cult films under his belt, had never before made a jidai-geki
(period costume drama), let alone any chambara. At most, Kitano distinguished
himself by parodying Zatoichi on one of his silly tv comedy shows. Sonatine
was his most respected film in the Uk and Europe. Nevertheless, he and
his director Asano (co-starring in the film) threw themselves into the
project with such zeal that the old madame was proud enough both for
herself and Katsu.
Taking the story and most of the script from none other than the late
Kan Shimozawa (which included never-before-seen material), Kitano slowly
ground out his tour-de force.
The first misconceptions
Western Zatoichi fans have about the remake is that Kitano understands
nothing about Katsu or Zatoichi. This is plainly untrue, as he idolizes
Katsu and deeply respected the madame's wish that he do the remake.
It was as though the request had come from Katsu himself. Kitano made
it clear that out of respect, he would not deign to copy Katsu's acting
techniques- though he did almost entirely borrow the character as created
by Katsu. Some nay-saying purist Zatoichi fans emphasize that Kitano
does not have the talent to match Katsu anyway.
To quote Kitano, "With this film, I wanted everyone to forget [Katsu]
by doing something new." Kitano's goal was to make Zatoichi seem
like a completely new character. Still it is interesting to note that
practically all of Kitano's "Zatoichi" was stuff pioneered
by Katsu, who was usually unable to incorporate his ideas as much as
Lots of credit also goes to Shimozawa, who did not get to produce this
particular story- probably because it involved a transvestite geisha.
Anyway, Kitano does his best to re-engineer Zatoichi as a person: he
derisively eschews all of Katsu's charm, hesitation and other nice qualities.
In short, Kitano wants his version of Zatoichi to seem more mercenary
Listening to the past? The second problem is the 'blonde' hair. As seen
in the photos, too much blonde that isn't really there stands out prominently-
but not in the film. My suspicion is that in the film, some additional
whitener has been added to Kitano's hair. Kitano stated that he bleached
his hair in order to bring an odd, new visual twist to Zatoichi. He
dyed it "blonde", he said, as the first step in re-designing
the character. According to the film stills and reviews, however, Kitano's
hair is bleached platinum white. He is showing Zatoichi as an old man,
both in makeup and performance. Kitano is giving Zatoichi fans what
they hadn't been given before: a portrait of what the elderly Zatoichi
might have been like. Whatever Kitano might say, it is clear he wants
Zatoichi to be seen in outward appearance as a white-haired old wanderer
in his autumn years. Kitano's Zatoichi is older, meaner, and a bit more
dead inside, and he does not want the audience to forget it. Thus he
once again bows to Katsu.
Kitano directing a scene he'll be in, with natural light: obviously
an old man's white hair.
This reminds me of the raucous laughter caused by Ricardo Montalban
in the Star Trek "Wrath of Khan" film. His long wig, everyone
said, was BLONDE! What hilarity! At the theater, we immediately saw
that the wig was grey, to show that Khan had aged somewhat. I suspect
the same type of thing is occurring with Zatoichi 2003, and Kitano himself
is enjoying the confusion. But the above photo surely doesn't lie....
Another item I must mention is Zatoichi's eyes. One critic wrote that
Kitano, whose eyes are screwed shut during the entire film, opens his
eyes at the end of the film to reveal a "weird, creepy silver color".
This lead the critic to suggest that somehow Zatoichi has creepy silver
eyes but can see perfectly well. The idea is idiotic. Katsu came up
with the brilliant idea of weird eyes in the very first film. At the
end of that film, just before visiting the temple where the samurai's
grave will be, Zatoichi opens his eyes and "stares" at a villainous
boss while shouting at him. And guess what... Zatoichi's eyes are a
milky, dull silver color. Brown-eyed Katsu requested special contact
lenses for that scene, the effect designed to demonstrate Zatoichi's
"dead" eyes. Katsu's idea was so resounding that the great
Keye Luke borrowed the effect for his role as the blind Shao-lin priest
Po. The fact that the blind can see, albeit differently from sighted
folks, is an incontrovertible fact in the old Zatoichi films. Zatoichi
in one of many shots of his "silver", sightless eyes. This
is also a very good illustration of the original canesword and a typical
I-Ai-Do sword technique. Kitano's remake has no hip-hop music, as has
been reported so often. While minimal, percussive and pleasantly bizarre,
the music is not typically Western. Deeply influenced by the way Gene
Kelley used background noise in the opening number of "Hello Dolly"
to build up a soundtrack, Kitano aimed for the same effect with his
entire soundtrack. This was not the only way in which Kitano was influenced
by Kelley- or the rhythms of tap dancing.
There has been an outcry over the stomp-like dance routine at the end
of the film. It's a solid 10 minutes of spirited hopping and tapping
about by the entire cast, in costume and shod in traditional Japanese
wooden clogs. Thrown in among the dancers for good measure is the famous
stomp-dance troupe Stripe, who choreographed the dance (and much of
the film's sound effect pick-up work). Kitano cited not only Kelley
but also the late Gregory Hines as influences. He has made it clear
that the dance routine is part of the film- not just a goofball filler
but the show-stopping finale. It's the village celebrating the demise
of the bad guys at the hands of Zatoichi.
"That is why", Kitano grumbles, "Zatoichi is not in the
dance. He was not a part of the village, just passing through... and
the whole number is Japanese-based." This bizarre "we're not
acting anymore" kind of routine at film's end is more typical of
Chinese films. One can only conclude that the informality of the cast
pulling down the "invisible wall" is the way they've always
done it in Asian film. Yet in Kitano's case, he wanted the "Gene
Kelly" number at the end instead of the beginning. And his explanation
does make sense. Finally, though I have read no direct reference to
it, Kitano has provided his Zatoichi with a fire-engine red canesword
festooned with three green stripes. It's a real eye-popper, even in
the publicity stills. There is no mismatch here, though. Edo Period
caneswords were sometimes camouflaged with loud paint. Here, Kitano
is merely giving Zatoichi a new sense of style. The same is true of
Zatoichi's new wardrobe, beautifully matching or complementing the stunning
primary colors in each shot. Katsu's all-brown wardrobe achieved the
same effect, blending into the dun sand and contrasting brilliantly
in the lush green. It is yet another bow from Kitano to Katsu. Khaki
and brown: the colors of the master. Hard to see by firelight, but check
that cane! Very likely there will be at least one sequel. Kitano has
not yet spoken to this matter, but he can't ignore the auguring of a
surefire blockbuster. He also can't ignore that Zatoichi by its very
nature is always open to sequels. Perhaps in the next year or so, we
will hear from Kitano himself about this possibility. As to global distribution,
the film seems to have Kitano's blessing and will be very big no matter
what. For the late Shintaro Katsu, Kan Shimozawa, and even for the ever-vivacious
madame, even one Oscar would be the cinematic honor of the millennium.
All this remains anxiously to be seen- as does Kitano's "Zatoichi".
an in depth version of this essay go to
© Rev Antonio
Hernandez Feb 2004
More Lifestyles and Comment
partial Filmography of Beat Takeshi
Iz˘: Kaosu mataha
fuj˘ri no kijin (2004) (completed) (as 'Bţto' Takeshi)
Battle Royale II (2003)
"Musashi" (2003) (mini) TV Series
Takeshi's Castle" (2002) TV Series (archive footage) ....
Count Takeshi "Hyaku-nen no monogatari" (2000) TV Series Batoru rowaiaru
Battle Royale (2001)
Aniki Yamamoto Gohatto (1999)
Kikujiro no natsu (1999)
(J aka Kikujiro no natsu (1999) (Japan: English title)
Tokyo Eyes (1998)
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Many Happy Returns (1993)
Erotic Liaisons (1992)
Sakana kara daiokishin!! (1992)
Takeshi's Castle (1990) TV Series
Count Takeshi 3-4x jugatsu (1990)
Violent Cop (1988)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Swearing and a nipple cap
Rev Antonio Hernandez
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