"Here at Samurai Door Sales,
we're slashing prices!"
Ah, the samurai film. Few things are as much fun as watching guys in drab wardrobe try to kill each other with swords. When you ask film fans in the U.S. to name a samurai film, you can bet dollars to donuts you'll hear "Seven Samurai" or "Yojimbo." Let's face it, in the United States people associate samurai films with the arty films of Kurosawa. As wonderful as those are, there are other terrific samurai films out there.
We've already reviewed one Zatoichi film (Zatoichi Challenged), and now that it's Month of Z again, we're ready to present another. There were, as near as we can tell, 26 Zatoichi films total, and the ones that come later in the series are our favorites. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and the Fugitives was released in 1968 and is a good example of what makes Zatoichi films so much fun.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and the Fugitives has a complicated plot. After a while, you begin to wonder if it was based on a story by Victor Hugo. In the first scene, blind swordsman Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) seeks shelter from the rain in a shack. He asks if anybody is there, but the only other person there, a beautiful woman named Oaki, declines to answer and sneaks away. In the film's second scene, two men mock Ichi by dropping rocks onto a rice ball he's eating. Ichi crunches for a moment, then spits the rice into his tormentor's faces. The two miscreants make the mistake of pulling their swords, and Ichi dispatches them with a lightning fast strike from his sword cane. Readers of our earlier review will remember that Ichi has trained his other senses to the point that being blind is not a handicap to his martial arts. In the movie's third scene, Ichi is sitting under a tree, when a snake drops from a high branch above him. Ichi cuts the snake in half while it's still in the air, and we can assure you that the ASPCA was not on set when they were shooting. In any case, Ichi's feat is witnessed by a passing swordsman.
But strangely enough,
they are afraid of clowns.
Although these events are presented separately and don't seem to be connected, they all impact on the story once Ichi arrives at the unnamed village where the bulk of the movie takes place. It's as if our hero is on the plot development highway.
Apparently, the plot development highway leads to the town of Amazing Coincidence. Ichi, a masseur by trade, looks for work while staying at the local inn. He is hired by a gang that is also staying at the inn, though it becomes obvious that the sadistic gang is planning to torture him. Just as things reach a crisis point, Genpachiro, the leader of the gang, shows up. He just happens to be the swordsman who witnessed Ichi's encounter with the snake, and he calls off his gang before they do something they will regret.
Meanwhile, Oaki, the woman that avoided Ichi on the road, meets with the town's head honcho, a law officer and weaving magnate named Matsugoro. Oaki is with Genpachiro's gang, and she essentially blackmails Matsugoro into hiding the gang in his factory. It appears the heat is on because of a shogunate official who is also in town.
Shintaro Katsu and Takashi Shimura
have a curmudgeon contest.
Ichi meets Junan (the great Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Shizu. Junan is the local doctor, a good man who distributes medicine even to those too poor to afford it. Though Junan is stubborn and somewhat disapproving of Ichi's reputation as a gambler, Ichi takes a liking to the old man.
Two other amazing coincidences drive the plot. Genpachiro is actually Junan's estranged son. Plus, one of his gang members just happens to be the brother of one of the men Ichi killed on the road, providing the gang with a revenge motive.
It later develops that Matsugoro is utterly corrupt, and he uses Genpachiro's gang as a weapon against some local peasants who dared to hold a cocoon bazaar without his permission, and later as a weapon against Ichi. By the end of the film, Matsugoro has kidnapped Junan, everybody ends up in one place, and Ichi reads his enemies a couple of pages from the Book of Whup-Ass (Braille edition).
The idea of a blind swordsman is patently silly, and the Zatoichi films would be unwatchable if they were played totally straight. So Ichi isn't just a good swordsman, he's a great swordsman. I guess we're supposed to believe that he targets mainly by sound, but he's way better than that. He must have radar senses, like Daredevil. He's so good, he can deal with airborne knives. The only weapon that he does seem vulnerable to is a gun. Even though it's tough to understand why he would be less capable of hearing a gun than a knife, we guess the writers needed to come up with some way to even the odds.
This shot directed by uncredited
guest director George Lucas.
What really holds the Zatoichi films together is Shintaro Katsu. Physically, Katsu is a pretty rough looking guy. He looks like he's made entirely of lumps. But this film, like all of the Zatoichi films we've seen, does a good job of contrasting his roughness with the beautiful landscapes of Japan, or with delicate women and children. Katsu plays Ichi as a sort of con man, pretending to be bumbler. When Ichi decides to rescue a woman from an unfair contract with Matsugoro, he stumbles his way to the bosses' factory and tries to push past the guards. When they stop him, Ichi openly insults the boss, prompting them to attack him out of anger. Ichi doesn't kill these particular guards (yet), but it does give Ichi a great chance to show everybody who's boss. If Columbo had lived in medieval Japan, this is the way he would have acted.
In the end, Ichi fights for justice and protects the innocent, no matter what the cost to himself. He ends up alone at the end of this film, despite the fact that he did the right thing. One of Japan's stranger paradoxes is that while the Japanese publicly value conformity and community, many of their pop culture heroes are deliberate loners. Still, even the loners work for the good of the community, wandering from place to place dispensing justice -- and in the Zatoichi films, justice is blind.