The International Writers Magazine: Zatoichi - The Directors
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN:
HISTORY, MISCONCEPTIONS AND THE FACTS
By Most Rev. Antonio Hernandez, O.M.D., A.B.F.
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.
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: in America, 1990, the
other in Japan, 2003. No less than Al Pacino (among countless others)
borrowed heavily from the character and films. That's the greatness
of Zatoichi: copied, parodied, imitated, remade, but nothing more.
Katsu 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. Karaoke was originally developed
thanks to him. And he did it all with a rarely matched panache.
Katsu was in his mid-twenties when he created the portrayal for the
original film, Zatoichi Monogatari ("Zatoichi's Story" or
"The Legend of Zatoichi"). The Zatoichi character began life
as a minor character in a novel, created by Kan Shimozawa. Shimozawa
was an incredibly gifted writer/producer/director. All his career he
was overshadowed by Akira Kurosawa- but Kurosawa could not overshadow
Shimozawa's star: 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 him 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. Today more than four solid generations have been 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. Even now (
in 2004), there is confusion and error surrounding Western knowledge
of Zatoichi and his context. Even die-hard fans misinterpret and misunderstand
the facts. So for the diehard fan and for the newly interested, here's
data that will clear that foggy mist.
Zatoichi: Misconceptions ~ and the Facts
There were 27 "Zatoichi" films made~ There were exactly 26
films made. There was a script, unproduced, of which we shall learn
more later. This miscount is a common error, due to the bad translations
of the original Japanese titles. Occasionally one film is counted twice.
At least one of the early films was re-released under another wrongly-translated
title and simply added to the list. Almost all of the titles have been
wrongly translated. Then there was the sixteen-year gap between the
penultimate film and the final film, titled simply Zatoichi (a.k.a.
"Zatoichi 1989" and "Zatoichi 26"). Adding to the
confusion is the recently released Zatoichi DVD called Darkness Is His
Ally- presumably some digitally remastered and retitled film episode.
It also doesn't help that there were 112 television episodes in the
Zatoichi television series, which Katsu did from 1972 to 1979.
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.
These misconceptions tend to go hand-in-hand; they are a tall order
to fill. But fill them we must. No doubt Ichi'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 traveling musician, singer, masseur and acupuncturist,
making a very good living at all that and dice gambling- a real Renaissance
itinerant worker. The skills he springs on audiences are always a pleasant
surprise, from pro-grade sumo wrestling to sensing the tiniest vibrations
in the air. Katsu generally plays Ichi as sensitive, understanding and
Ichi is also a sometime yakuza who is, paradoxically, always first and
foremost a detective. Very likely Zatoichi was inspired by the first
detective, Françoise-Eugéne Vidocq, founder of the French
Sûreté. Like Ichi, Vidocq was an apparent ne'er-do-well,
a brawling, gambling, thieving crook who was accepted into the Paris
Police. Moreover, Vidocq was a master swordsman, skilled at disguise
and the exponent of the philosophy that it takes a criminal to catch
a criminal. Vidocq inspired Poe to write the first detective novel,
Murders in the Rue Morgue featuring Dupin, Hugo to write Les Misérables
featuring Vidocq's literary counterpart Jean Valjean, and both Vidocq
and his Valjean- along with Ichi- inspired a famous American tv detective
(more about him later). Vidocq also inspired Balzac's character Vautrin.
An interesting sidebar that must be made here is the possible literary/film
origin of at least the general Zatoichi concept. Van Johnson fairly
sparkled in a sleeper mystery released by 20th century Fox in 1956.
Called 23 Paces to Baker Street, this crisp yet quiet murder mystery
starred Johnson as Mr. Phillip Hannan, a successful playwright living
in 1950s London. Blinded in the war, Hannan is bitter about not being
able to see, yet handles it with such aplomb that few people realize
he's blind. Originally a minor character in a minor novelist's novel,
just like Zatoichi, Baker Street's Hannan fairly leaps off the screen.
Hollywood good-guy favorite Van Johnson stretches well in this film,
and director Henry Hathaway departs grandly from his usual film noir
preferences. There is some sprinkling of noir in the atmosphere of this
film, making it all the more palpable.
The film is full of wit, sarcasm and very little pathos- far less pathos
than a typical Ichi film. Johnson is strong, proud, an American WWII
hero living in London. Being blind has gotten him down, yes, but he
won't let it depress him, at least not too much. Hannan is smooth, going
by senses as sharp as Ichi's. ( It is a pity his very expensive cane
did not have a sword in it.) The mystery, anchored around a conversation
about a kidnapping, overheard by Hannan in his local pub, is very weak
and thin; it is primarily about Hannan and his trusty English butler,
Bob. Hannan finally gets the police force's attention, and undying admiration.
The film h as as much noir as most of the Ichi films. (It is nonsense
to insist that noir must be a black and white film.)
A few examples:
Early in the film, Hannan's girlfriend Jean confronts him about his
bitterness. He becomes frustrated and trembles all over, turning suddenly
and smacking directly into the balcony door. "I wish people would
leave things where they belong!", he screams. One can envisage
Ichi doing exactly the same thing. In the pub, the barmaid assumes Hannan
saw something. He says, "I don't see things nowadays." The
great actress Estelle Winwood is brilliant as the old barmaid. She says
with great emotion, "I'm sorry sir. I didn't realize." Without
batting an eye, Hannan tells her, "That's all right, you weren't
intended to." Later he tells her, about being blind, "You
never get used to it." In another scene, while assisting a bespectacled
gentleman through the London fog, Hannan quips, "Must be a great
handicap having to wear glasses!" Then they stop, and Hannan tells
him, "It's exactly twenty-three paces to Baker Street."
Phillip Hannan naturally solves the kidnapping through sheer intelligence
and his keen senses. By using his trusty dictaphone and other tape recorders,
he lures then corners the villain in his darkened apartment. Like Zatoichi,
he unnerves the villain by asking the villain if he's afraid of the
dark, for now he and Hannan are equal. With all the up-close reality/noir
moments Van Johnson gives the viewer, it's tough not to see Ichi standing
in his place. The reality of blindness is grittier, more bitter in Johnson's
performance, but he has all of Ichi's stoicism.
Though a rather subdued film, 23 Paces to Baker Street ambles along
tautly; it manages to vibrate with a quiet stylism that is obvious in
later Japanese films. Johnson's character, the storyline (weak though
it is) and the theatrical stylishness make this 1956 gem 15 years ahead
of its time. Director Hillary gave Hitchcock a run for his money with
this film. From a character somewhat altered out of a Philip Mac Donald
novel (Warrant For X, 1938) to Van Johnson's sensitive portrayal, I
highly recommend this rare, little-known film to any Ichi fan. Personally,
after seeing it I felt as though Johnson's Phillip Hannan might very
well have inspired Katsu's Zatoichi.
my business to know how people talk- what they're thinking when they're
-Van Johnson as Mr. Phillip Hannan
Now to kill the rest of the misconceptions: Ichi is in fact so emotional
that his face twitches with deep 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. There is no way he can pass for a psychotic
or a psychopath. Vidocq, too, had a generous heart and usually pitied
the criminals he brought to justice. Ichi is not unbeatable, having
technically lost a number of matches while being seriously wounded in
others. At the same time, Ichi has everyone in his back pocket, so to
speak. He knows all the tricks and is hardly ever fooled. The same is
true of the life of Vidocq. He is, all told, just like Vidocq: a representative
of the superman-in-everyman.
As a martial arts character, he is equally skilled in sumo wrestling,
judo, kendo, death strikes, jujitsu, and good old-fashioned psych-outs.
Being disabled, occasionally clumsy, quirky, good-humored and very fallible
made Ichi 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. This in itself was never a
small feat for anyone in any era.
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 explains that he was self-taught, because he was tired of people
making fun of his blindness. 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 sword."
Zatoichi himself repeats throughout all the films that he was never
"formally" trained, and that he studied obsessively on his
own. 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 face. We can see some kind of unspoken continuity in the narrative
with this particular film: Zatoichi has returned to finally teach his
evil 'teacher' a thing or two. Overall, the generic answer to this misconception
has to be a resounding "NO".
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. The upside-down grip Zatoichi always uses is known
as "reverse" sword drawing, sometimes called the Muraku style.
Zatoichi is equally skilled in 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 on 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
Zatoichi has only one canesword throughout all the films~ This, too,
is confusing. The first film was clearly left wide 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 somehow 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. By this time he has lost the scabbard. 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.
In the fourth installment, he's back for the third time with what seems
to be the exact same canesword. Even later in the series, 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 another 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".
In the films there is never any attempt to explain how Ichi acquired
the 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.
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.
As to historical credibility, the canesword was 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.
These caneswords generally had incredibly lousy sword blades. The shikomi's
uniform exterior_ what antiques dealers call treen (made from one solid
piece of wood)_ was designed 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. Most of them were unbearably
ill-made, as are their modern counterparts:
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 groundbreaking and beautifully filmed. The fact that the Japanese
had limited filming resources was no hindrance. Zatoichi films are still
among the finest in the world, and had a strong influence on Kurosawa's
post-1960s work. Many of Kurosawa's trusted cast and crew often worked
in the Zatoichi films as well. The films have not physically aged gracefully,
and this is often mistaken for poor picture/sound quality. Truly sad
is that even devoted Western fans complain of poor production quality.
The Zatoichi films had the finest of everything Japanese filmdom had
to offer. They haven't aged a day in terms of great cinema.
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."
Zatoichi is/was 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, shaved his head 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 "nominally" 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 that ingenuous Los Angeles Police detective, Lt. Columbo,
created by Peter Falk in 1967. Few people realize that Columbo is the
longest-running television series of all time: it debuted a young Peter
Falk in the 1967 thriller Prescription Murder. Falk continued to make
Columbo films through the decades, citing his "love of wearing
that raincoat". The most recent television film, 2003's Columbo
Likes the Night Life, was hailed as his "swan song"_ but there
are no guarantees of that. Forget the fact that Falk was already into
his 80s by the time Night Life was released.
Lt. Columbo was a part that was originally written for an elderly Bing
Crosby, who refused it. 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 Victor Hugo's character Jean Valjean
(I do not see how), but there is little doubt among connoisseurs that
Falk himself borrowed from Katsu.
The 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 reprised his role, this time
as Master Po's ghost. Very likely the 2003 Zatoichi remake borrowed
a bit from Keye Luke's unique appearance.
In late 1978, 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,
is 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 remade 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 fun must-see. Hauer's
take gives us some history of his character, which makes him much more
human and believable. Somehow, though, it doesn't satisfy in the same
way as Katsu's more mysterious, mystical creation.
Hauer's blind swordsman is a Viet Nam veteran who loses his sight in
an explosion. Some mythical tribe of indigenous jungle people take him
in, treat his eyes and teach him the art of the sword. Though a somewhat
laughable idea, the jungle tribe works neatly enough within the confines
of the film. Hauer, ever the wandering hobo, saunters off when the movie
ends, just like Ichi does.
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 wanderer, Pacino plays a retired Marine
colonel who is a raucously successful attorney. He manages to either
charm or out-duel (with his wits) almost everyone, and takes on a young
protégé. The only Zatoichi reference prop is the Marine
sword Pacino lays out on the bed while contemplating his suicide.
This time it is Pacino who 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.
Both Pacino and Hauer even borrow a stunt from one of the Zatoichi films:
Katsu has a hair-raising race on a horse, and both Pacino and Hauer
enjoy a similar scare when they gleefully drive cars.
Then there is the dreadful 1999 film Ghost Dog: Code of the Samurai,
one of Forest Whitaker's most nauseating turns since The Crying Game.
In this pathetic excuse for a gangster/culture-clash film, Whitaker
stars as an ill-fated Zatoichi rip-off (though he is not disabled in
any way, except perhaps mentally). Ghost Dog, the name of the character,
is finally done in, operatically, by the eccentric Mob family he had
served as a yojimbo.
The movie and its character strive pathetically to reach the heights
of the Zatoichi films, but only succeed in generating some very negative
food for thought. Ghost Dog has been rather shakily claimed to be based
on Kurosawa's films Sanjuro and its sequel, Yojimbo. This is a highly
exaggerated claim. Though rather humorous and self-effacing at times,
this is probably the worst samurai film in history.
In 2002, the USA network premiered Tony Shalhoub's interesting series,
Monk. Adrian Monk, played by Shalhoub, is a former San Francisco police
officer who consults with the department in particularly baffling homicides.
Known in the first season as the "defective detective", Monk
is terribly crippled by Obsessive Compulsive Disease after his beloved
wife is killed by a car-bomb. Though his appearance is impeccable, Shalhoub
clearly bases his character on Falk's Lt. Columbo- but the resemblance
to Zatoichi is no coincidence.
Shalhoub stumbles about in a nervous craze, worried about germs, asymmetry,
bad water and everything else. In many ways he is truly crippled when
out in the real world. Stuttering, trembling, twitchy, somewhat autistic,
yet armed with real courage, a photographic memory and a wealth of knowledge,
Monk really invokes the spirit of Zatoichi hot on the trail of a villain.
With his trusty nurse and secretary, Sharona, Monk almost always solves
impossible cases all by himself. On occasion, Sharona or someone else
assists him in crime-solving.
The most recent Zatoichi-inspired film to date is the Disney Channel's
2004 offering, Going to the Mat. Starring the very handsome and sweet
Andrew Lawrence as Jace "Daredevil" Newfield, this teen-oriented
film is perhaps one of the best in the "blind hero" genre.
Jace, a New York City Jewish boy, blind from birth, finds himself lost
when he and his parents move to an obscure Utah town. Though the kids
at the new school are amazingly callous, they are equally amazed at
Jace's "supersonic senses" (immediate shades of Zatoichi).
Lawrence, delivering a neat and precise performance halfway between
Katsu and Hauer, paradoxically seems rather arrogant and loudmouthed.
Soon he feels like a freak, and finds that his only way out is to join
the wrestling team. Aside from Jace's very cool but painfully obvious
telescopic white cane, and an unneeded throw-away character (a black,
blind music teacher), the film is very self-reaffirming. From his amazing
ability to know people's exact locations and actions by sensing "air
vibrations", to his prodigious music and athletic skills, Jace
predictably finishes as a champ and a hero. Without Katsu, though, the
character Jace Newfield would have never gone to the mat.
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 sadly, Katsu's quirky, sensitive and incredibly accurate performance
as "Ichi the Blind" can never be fully enjoyed by those without
sight. Katsu obviously kept non-sighted people in mind when making each
film; he often speaks on behalf of all the blind. In every film, there
are moments when his dialogue alone could guide an unsighted person
through the action. For the rest of us, there's a lesson Katsu's Zatoichi
has to teach. Let us learn it well.
2003 Remake Facts
Takeshi Kitano, a Japanese television comedian/filmmaker also known
as Bîto Takeshi (Bîto is supposed to mean "Beat"
in Japanese), 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 purchased the distribution rights. The film saw release in the
U.K. in March '04, in the U.S. on June 4th, 2004. (No coincidences:
June 4th is the Festival of the Buddha's First Sermon in the city of
Benares, and March is the month traditionally assigned to honor the
Buddha's mother.) Zatoichi 2003 enjoyed a race of its own, across Europe,
garnering prizes. It nearly made its way to a nomination for Best Foreign
Language Film Oscar of 2003. Ironically, it was swept aside by some
other Japanese samurai film.
Aside from the fear caused by Zatoichi 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 occurred, thanks to the demanding Kitano. He stated flatly in
an early interview that he would brook no editing. He also refused to
allow dubbing, insisting on subtitles. In any case, Kitano and his Zatoichi
leave the other recent samurai movies in the dust.
Kitano, strangely, is no fan of the Zatoichi franchise. He idolizes
Katsu, like most Japanese, and what he has taken from Katsu's performances
is by way of pure hero-worship homage. 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 owned the rights to everything Zatoichi. Extremely wealthy, owner
of dozens of strip clubs, and sometime mothering loan-shark to Katsu,
she wanted Kitano not only to do the remake, but to star in it.
Though weakly attempting to bow out of the proposal, Kitano relented.
He must have been busy thinking about his great film Kikujiro (see below),
but no matter. The 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 relented
to play Zatoichi after all, and he said, "I immediately dyed my
hair blond." In thinking seriously about Katsu's body of work,
Kitano determined to make something "new" of Zatoichi, "a
totally different character". But the Tourette Syndrome-suffering
Kitano had already buzz-cut and dyed his thick black hair blond, before
the Zatoichi project came up.
The madam's choice is no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with
Kitano's work. Though originally attaining fame through his stand-up
and comedy tv shows, he has displayed a stunning array of talent. With
his slouchy, twitchy, Tourettic, Falk-like manner, gravelly yet oddly
high-pitched voice, loping, bow-legged gait and pockmarked, villainous
face, he was the natural choice for the new Zatoichi. His body language_
tight, compact, muscular and yet highly comical_ added to the 'Zatoichi
effect' the madame saw in him from the first. Anyone who watched his
1999 hit Kikujiro will agree that Kitano is a great, fresh, natural
talent. The old madame has quite an eye.
Pre-production planning 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 (samurai
movie). Nor has he had any major blockbuster, though his 1999 comedy
Kikujiro (a remake of John Hughes' 1986 sleeper Dutch), earned some
deserved praise. This complexly hilarious film was written and directed
by Kitano, and he held his own as the lead title character.
Thus the challenge of Zatoichi was accepted after all. Kitano threw
himself into the Zatoichi remake project, directing and acting with
such zeal that the old madame was proud enough both for herself and
Katsu. Taking the story and script from none other than the late Kan
Shimozawa (which included never-before-used 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 following Katsu or portraying
Zatoichi. This is partially 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. (Personally I strongly object to this
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
he wanted. Lots of credit also goes to Shimozawa, who did not get to
produce this particular story (probably because it involved a transvestite
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 as more of a
pointless mercenary than anything, like Eastwood's man with no name.
"I see Zatoichi as a villain", he stated categorically in
The second problem is Kitano's 'blond' hair. As seen in the photos,
too much blond that isn't really there stands out prominently... but
not in the film. My suspicion is that for the film, some additional
whitener was 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 "blond", he said, as the first step in redesigning
the character. According to the film stills and reviews, however, Kitano's
hair is white. He is showing Zatoichi as an old man, both in makeup
Kitano is giving Zatoichi fans what they hadn't been given before: a
portrait of what an elderly Zatoichi might be like. Whatever Kitano
claims, it is clear he wants the young Zatoichi to be seen now as a
white-haired old wanderer in his autumn years. Kitano's Zatoichi is
older, meaner, and a bit more dead inside than Katsu ever played, and
he does not want the audience to forget it. Thus he once again bows
to Katsu by presenting his vision of the last years of the original
Zatoichi character. Kitano has stated that the hair color was a mere
ploy, to help the audience see Zatoichi better in the fight scenes.
It is a patently absurd and typically Kitanoesque notion.
This reminds me of the raucous laughter caused by Ricardo Montalban
in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. His long wig, everyone said, was
BLOND! What hilarity! At the theater, we immediately saw that the wig
was grey, to show that Khan had aged. I suspect the same type of thing
is occurring with Zatoichi 2003, and Kitano himself is enjoying the
confusion. But the available photos showing his snow-white hair surely
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: Kitano himself
confirms that he "could not change the fact that Zatoichi is blind."
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. Zatoichi's eyes are a milky,
dull silver color. Brown-eyed Katsu requested special contact lenses
for that scene, wishing to demonstrate Zatoichi's "dead" eyes.
Later, though never again donning special contact lenses, Katsu mastered
the horribly difficult art of rolling his eyes up in their sockets while
opening them widely. Katsu's idea to wear contacts was so resounding
that the great Keye Luke borrowed the effect for his role as the blind
Shao-lin priest Po. Portraying a blind person in this way is so difficult
that even Pacino and Hauer avoided it. The fact that the blind can see,
albeit differently from sighted folks, is an incontrovertible fact in
the old Zatoichi films.
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. Kitano is an infamous tap dancer, and even mocks his tap
reputation in a hilarious scene of Kikujiro, actually mentioning Gene
Kelley by name.
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 played villagers in the film and 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."
Unfortunately, Kitano chose once again to deny Katsu's influence: Katsu
created the idea of actions-as-soundtrack, and the idea of incorporating
his own music into the film's action. Gene Kelley might very well have
been influenced by Katsu, as so many have been. In any case, the bizarre
"we're not really acting anymore" kind of finale is more typical
of Chinese films. Any fan of Asian film knows that the informality of
the cast pulling down the "invisible wall" is the way they've
always done it in Asian martial arts film.
Finally, though I have read no direct reference to it, Kitano has provided
his Zatoichi with a fire-engine red canesword festooned with green stripes.
It's a real eye-popper, even in the publicity stills. Kitano once again
explains that the purpose is to emphasize Zatoichi in a crowd. There
is no mismatch here, though. Edo Period caneswords were sometimes camouflaged
with loud paint, though I wonder if Kitano knows this. Here, Kitano
is merely giving Zatoichi a new sense of style.
The same is true of Zatoichi's new wardrobe, beautifully outlined against,
or complementing, the stunning natural primary colors in each shot.
Katsu's all-brown wardrobe achieved the same effect in another way,
blending into the dun sand and contrasting brilliantly with the lush
green. When the third film saw the change to color, Katsu darkened Ichi's
palette, which had been ethereally chiaroscuro in the first two black
and white films. The marvelously talented Kazuko Kurosawa, Akira Kurosawa's
daughter, designed and made the costumes for Kitano's film. (Most humorous
is Kitano recalling how he would ask Kazuko whether a scene was like
her legendary father's work. "Not really", or "No, not
at all", she would flatly reply.)
Very likely Kitano will make at least one Zatoichi sequel. Kitano has
spoken to this matter, claiming that at least one sequel will probably
be made because he needs the money. Also, artistically he is interested
in doing a more Zatoichi-oriented sequel because, amazingly, this one
is a bit sparse on the character. Kitano 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.
As to global distribution, the film now seems to have Kitano's blessing
and will be very big no matter what. Connoisseurs are claiming that
it will very likely go directly to video- not a very sound guess since
Miramax has announced American theatrical release for June 4th. Whatever
Miramax does later, it will certainly be much later after the film is
at least selectively screened.
Zatoichi must depend first and foremost on Pay-Per-View, VHS and DVD
sales/rentals for success in America. Comparing it to the marketing
mania of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is simply not fair; that
film was a first... and probably last. It also snagged the 2003 Best
Foreign Film Oscar. Zatoichi is a surprisingly beloved character in
America, but only by those who are Zatoichi and/or chambara fans. Its
additional boon, Kitano, will help only a bit since there is only a
tiny American fan base for his other work.
The most sensible thing to do at the moment is to purchase a pristine
Japanese VHS or DVD (make sure the DVD is compatible with your DVD player).
They have been available for some time prior to their March 11th release.
Strangely, the DVD (a double set that includes a 1_ hour-long "making
of" documentary) costs around $40 American, while VHS costs around
$145. The VHS will surely drop to around $30 after the June American
release. With any luck, Zatoichi might be seen on American cable- the
Independent Film Channel, for some odd reason- as early as late 2004.
For Kitano, the attention is a richly deserved reward for a career that
has been thankless and heavily criticized. (Naturally, the ever-bizarre
Kitano has complained about the "attention".) For the late
Shintaro Katsu, Kan Shimozawa, and even for the ever-vivacious mysterious
madame, Zatoichi has finally gotten the cinematic honor of the millennium...
in spite of the shameless Oscar snub. It's a final bow to Zatoichi,
and to Shintaro Katsu: recognition, attention and praise are better
than Oscars and money, any day.
FILMS: A COMPLETE LISTING OF ALL 26 FILMS, WITH ORIGINAL JAPANESE AND
ALTERNATE TITLES, DATES AND STORY OUTLINES (WHERE POSSIBLE)
1. Monogatari = tale, story, legend.
2. ~tabi (tabi) = journey, trip.
3. ~giri (giri) = duty, honor, courtesy, service rendered therefrom.
4. Zoku = group, "folks", tribe, customs, family background.
5. Ichi = The number one; a nickname.
1. ZATOICHI MONOGATARI~ 1962. The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi,
a.k.a. The Legend of Zatoichi. The introduction that started it all.
Master Ichi encounters the pretty girl O-tane for the first time, and
they fall in love. Ichi also meets Hattori, a gay samurai who is so
depressed he only wants to be out-dueled and die with honor. Though
he falls for Ichi and Ichi considers him his best friend, Ichi has to
kill him. Ichi leaves his canesword to be buried with the samurai. Ichi
is also forced to leave O-tane. A tear-jerker that was the first of
many to inspire Kurosawa. Probably the only film with a powerful but
subtle gay subtext.
2. ZOKU ZATOICHI MONOGATARI~ 1962. The Return of Masseur Ichi. A hilarious,
awesome opening sequence where Ichi, before being kicked off a boat,
steals a bully's sword, nicks him in the face and back-leaps into the
water. Ichi is mistaken for a priest for the first time. Magically,
Ichi, who is returning to visit the grave of the samurai he loved, has
his canesword back again. Here Ichi is pitted against his one-armed
brother, who seems involved in a homosexual relationship. We discover
that Ichi himself took his brother's arm over a woman long before. Ichi
recalls he was already blind by then. Ichi's brother and his companion
are murderous thieves, and Ichi has to kill his brother to keep him
from being taken into custody. O-tane is not even referenced in this
3. SHIN ZATOICHI MONOGATARI~ 1963. Masseur Ichi Enters Again. The first
film in color. Ichi encounters O-tane for the second time, staying in
prostitution exclusively to a worthless samurai. Here Ichi has returned
to the place where his "teacher" lives. He revisits his old
school and finds another mess. He also sees "the grandmother"_
the one who raised him_ and she tells him that he ought to visit his
parents' graves. His teacher's sister proposes marriage and Ichi accepts.
His old "teacher" tells him to leave. Meanwhile Ichi is running
from the gang members related to the boss he killed in the original
film, while helping a worthless gangster-heir accomplish his dreams.
The mean samurai kills O-tane, and Ichi goes after him in a rage. Before
he kills the samurai, Ichi loses his canesword for the second time,
when the samurai breaks it during the fight. Probably the most supporting
actors Ichi has ever been forced to kill in one film.
4. ZATOICHI KYOJO-TABI~ 1964. Masseur Ichi the Fugitive, commonly a.k.a.
Zatoichi, Crazy Journey with an alternate date of 1963. Ichi wrestles
sumo and specifically refers to himself here as "a fugitive".
For the third time he magically has his canesword again. A fun storyline,
but a bit tiresome.
5. ZATOICHI KENKA-TABI~ 1963/1964 (?). Masseur Ichi on the Road, a.k.a.
Zatoichi, Fighting Journey. Ichi helps a girl return to Edo.
6. ZATOICHI SENRYO-KUBI~ 1964. Masseur Ichi and a Chest of Gold. Ichi
gets mixed up with tax-thieves.
7. ZATOICHI ABAREDAKO~ 1964. Zatoichi's Flashing Sword. A fireworks
festival and rivals fighting over river-crossing rights.
8. ZATOICHI KESSHO-TABI~ 1964. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Ichi vows to
visit 88 shrines to help him stop killing. He mistakenly gets a lady
killed then tries to carry her son to his father. Sadly, he has to continue
killing to get the job done.
9. ZATOICHI SEKISHOYABURI~ 1965. Adventures of a Blind Man. [I call
this Daruma Santan_, "Dharma Doll".] A girl who takes to Ichi
embroils him when her unfairly convicted brother escapes. Two cute little
acrobat boys steal the show_ and, incongruously, Ichi thinks he has
found his father in a drunken old bum. The betraying old alcoholic is
not Ichi's father, but Ichi spares his life simply for giving him a
bit of hope. Watch for the two scenes when the samurai villain attacks
Ichi_ Ichi "beats" him both times, yet ends up finally getting
killed by Ichi. They never learn! One of the best films.
10. ZATOICHI NIDAN-GIRI~ 1965. The Blind Swordsman's Revenge, a.k.a.
Zatoichi's Two-Sword Style. Ichi returns to find his massage teacher
murdered, the teacher's daughter in a brothel, a big mess.
11. ZATOICHI SAKATA-GIRI~ 1965. Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, a.k.a.
Zatoichi's Reverse-Slash Style.
12. ZATOICHI JIGOKU-TABI~ 1965/1966 (?). The Blind Swordsman and the
Chess Expert. (My first ever Zatoichi film, a personal favorite and
one of the best of the entire series.) Zatoichi meets a Japanese-chess
fanatic and later meets a very caring samurai, his assistant and his
sister. Ichi becomes pals with them all, only to find that the chess
master is the murderer of the samurai's father. Of course Ichi has to
kill him. One of the best films, with a very ethereal gay undertone.
13. ZATOICHI NO UTA GA KIKOERU~ 1966. The Blind Swordsman's Vengeance,
a.k.a. Showdown for Zatoichi. For the first and only time, Ichi encounters
a blind travel companion: a Buddhist priest, who correctly surmises
(falling a wee bit short) that Ichi must have been able to see until
he was at least 5 or 6. After the swordplay, the blind priest concludes
that Ichi is a sort of tormented spooky spirit, who is neither blind
14. ZATOICHI UMIO WATARU~ 1966/1967 (?). Zatoichi's Pilgrimage.
15. ZATOICHI TEKKA-TABI~ 1967. The Blind Swordsman's Canesword. Ichi
meets a retired swordsmith, who informs Ichi that his old master is
the one who forged Ichi's canesword blade. It is one of the finest blades
ever made, but he tells Ichi that the life of the sword is over_ one
more kill and the sword will break because it is cracked. The old man
is inspired by Ichi's gift of the canesword; in return he finally forges
the ultimate blade, and places it in Ichi's cane. The old man turns
out to have been greater than his teacher, who expelled him from the
sword-shop for drinking. In a tense climactic moment, Ichi fights, not
knowing his sword has been replaced with the "blade that contains
the very soul" of the old man. One of the best films.
16. ZATOICHI ROYABURI~ 1967. Zatoichi's Rescue, a.k.a. The Jailbreak,
a.k.a. Zatoichi Breaks out of Jail.
17. ZATOICHI CHIKEMURIKAIDO~ 1967. Zatoichi Challenged! a.k.a. Zatoichi's
Bloody Path [a much better title translation]. Said to be an all-time
18. ZATOICHI HATASHIJO~ 1968. Zatoichi and the Fugitive. Ichi travels
with a doctor and they find the doctor's son enmeshed in crime.
19. ZATOICHI KENKADAIKO~ 1968. The Blind Swordsman Samaritan, a.k.a.
Zatoichi the Samaritan. One of the most hilarious and compelling of
the tales. [Another personal favorite.] Ichi gets in a mess collecting
money from one who borrowed from the yakuza. He also meets a fat, cheerful
r_nin who helps him. Ichi is forced to kill the man, but then meets
the man's sister. She falls in love with Ichi, even though she knows
Ichi killed her brother. Another excellent example in the series, and
probably the funniest.
20. ZATOICHI TO YOJIMBO~ 1970. Zatoichi and Yojimbo [correct title translation],
a.k.a. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, a.k.a. Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo [commonly
listed]. With Toshiro Mifune, reprising for the third time his role
as the bodyguard with no name. Ichi eventually fights Yojimbo, though
they are allies. An interesting ending_ this is an absolute must see.
21. ZATOICHI ABARE HIMATSURI~ 1970. Zatoichi's Fire Festival [probably
a.k.a. Zatoichi and the Fire Festival]. Ichi rescues a samurai's wife
from hot pursuit. Fairly generic entry.
22. SHIN ZATOICHI 'YABURE! TOJIN-KEN'~ 1972. Zatoichi Meets His Equal,
properly listed as Zatoichi and the One-armed Swordsman. Guests Jimmy
Wang-Yu. Famous Chinese 1-armed guy visits Japan, messes up the Imperial
procession and Ichi has to help him.
23. ZATOICHI GOYO-TABI~ 1972. Zatoichi At Large. This marks the time
Katsu left Daiei Studio to go to Toho Studio.
24. ZATOICHI ORIETA-TSUE~ 1972. Zatoichi in Desperation. Said to be
a dark, bitter film. An old lady falls off a bridge and Ichi stumbles
into another fine mess.
25. ZATOICHI KASAMA NO CHI MATSURI~ 1973. Zatoichi's Conspiracy, a.k.a.
Zatoichi and the Bloodbath at Kasama [properly titled]. Subtitled in
Spanish (?). Ichi goes home... he is known as Kasama-no-Ichi in early
movies, and says he is from Kasama. He finds an unknown step-sister
and a childhood friend who has turned evil. This is the last of the
films for a while, until....
ZATOICHI~ 1989. Zatoichi, a.k.a. Zatoichi '89, a.k.a. Zatoichi 26. Very
rarely listed, and then usually mis-filed. Katsu's last film, and said
to be no better than the others. Boasting more modern production value,
color and sound.
© Rev Antonio Hernandez April 2004
all rights reserved