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The International Writers Magazine
FILM: Zatoichi Opens UK March 26th 2004

Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., A.B.F.
Founder of the Independent Order of American Buddhist Fathers


'Zatoichi has the soul of a monk, the skill of a samurai'. From 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.

TO get an in depth version of this essay go to Zatoichi 2

This 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 nothing more.

Zatoichi Monogatari -1962 original that started it all.
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. 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.
But 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
Even 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.

As 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.

Zatoichi 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 sword."

Zatoichi 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
Lt. 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 Katsu's acting.

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 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.

Zatoichi 2003 Remake
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, garnering prizes.

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 different character".

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 he wanted.
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 than anything.

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".

TO get an in depth version of this essay go to Zatoichi 2

© Rev Antonio Hernandez Feb 2004
More Lifestyles and Comment

A partial Filmography of Beat Takeshi

Iz˘: Kaosu mataha fuj˘ri no kijin (2004) (completed) (as 'Bţto' Takeshi)
Zat˘ichi (2003)
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 (2000)
Battle Royale (2001)
Brother (2000)
Aniki Yamamoto Gohatto (1999)
Kikujiro no natsu (1999)
(J aka Kikujiro no natsu (1999) (Japan: English title)
Tokyo Eyes (1998)
Hana-bi (1997)
Gonin (1995)
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Many Happy Returns (1993)
Sonatine (1993)
Erotic Liaisons (1992)
Sakana kara daiokishin!! (1992)
Takeshi's Castle (1990) TV Series
Count Takeshi 3-4x jugatsu (1990)
Violent Cop (1988)
Anego (1988)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Respect, Swearing and a nipple cap
Rev Antonio Hernandez


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