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The International Writers Magazine
: Zatoichi - The Directors Cut

By Most Rev. Antonio Hernandez, O.M.D., A.B.F.

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.

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: 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.

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
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 generous.

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.
"It's my business to know how people talk- what they're thinking when they're saying it!"
-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 sequel).

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.

Zatoichi 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 view.)

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 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 an interview.

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 and performance.

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 don'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: 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.


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 film.
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 nor sighted.
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 classic.
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


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