Zatoichi Challenged

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Sword of Vengeance

The Street Fighter

Fist of Legend

Zatoichi Challenged

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Zatoichi Challenged
Ichi, masseur and blind swordsman.
In every office there is some guy (or girl) who serves as the resident film buff. Annoying, isn't he? He's seen just about every movie ever and has definite opinions about everything committed to celluloid. Just when you think you can't stand anymore, the kind people at Stomp Tokyo are here to arm you with one good film that Ms. Film Buff probably hasn't seen. During some lunch break with lots of people lurking about, ask your know-it-all co-worker her opinions of Zatoichi Challenged and watch the fun begin.

Zatoichi Challenged is one in a long-running series of samurai films starring Shintaro Katsu. Katsu plays Ichi, a blind masseur who wanders around medieval Japan, getting into trouble. The "Zato" appended to Ichi's name in the title seems to mean "blind man" most of the time, though sometimes characters in the film seem to use the same term for "masseur." The word "zato" may very well mean both, considering the Asian tradition of employing the blind as masseurs, but we're not experts on the subject.

Zatoichi Challenged
Ichi gets medieval on some guy's ass.
The Zatoichi films, in terms of tone, are neither as serious as your average Kurosawa film, nor as exploitative as a Lone Wolf and Cub film. The series seemes to have been made to have a broad appeal, with a little drama, a little romance, a lot of comedy and enough sword fights to keep an action fan watching. Best of all, they are built around the charismatic presence of Shintaro Katsu. Even though he plays every scene with his eyes rolled back into his head, he is totally entertaining.

Zatoichi Challenged opens with Ichi feeling his way down a trail with his cane. He is pursued by four sword-wielding bandits who accuse him of killing their boss. Here's where those of you not familiar with Zatoichi find out why his movies were so popular. Zatoichi, when confronted, pulls a sword out of his cane and dispatches his attackers with lightning speed. Yep, Ichi has trained his other senses to the point at which he can swordfight without the advantage of sight. Okay, this is kind of silly. Short of having a radar sense like Marvel Comics' Daredevil, it doesn't matter how well you hear in a swordfight. If you can't see, you can't win. But no one ever said that the Zatoichi films were realistic.

Ichi's adventure in this film begins when he stops at a small inn. During his stay there, a woman dies, leaving behind her son and the plea that Ichi deliver the boy to his father, an artist in a nearby town. Ichi, being the honor-bound good guy that he is, grudgingly takes the brat under his protection and makes his way toward the father's town.

Zatoichi Challenged
Akatsuka takes advantage
of some mood lighting.
The movie wouldn't be much fun if Ichi were able to complete this task easily. Accordingly, the swordsman and his sidekick find themselves in the company of a traveling band of entertainers and a mysterious samurai named Akatsuka, each with their own set of troubles. When they do finally arrive in the designated town, they find that the father, an artist named Shokichi, has disappeared.

Zatoichi Challenged is one of those films in which screen personalities transform a merely good script into a highly entertaining movie. Although we can't help but wonder if Katsu was chosen for the role of Ichi mainly because of his large ears, his gruff persona is extremely charismatic. His performance reminds us of Peter Falk as Columbo -- full of tics and enormously appealing. (Except that that Ichi never gets to the point that you'd like to strangle him for being such a pissant know-it-all.)

This movie would later be adapted into the Rutger Hauer film Blind Fury, a truly mediocre film that had to really stretch to come up with situations where a swordsman would be of any use in the modern world. Zatoichi Challenged is actually set in medieval Japan, which is where all samurai films should be set. Zatoichi has everything we love about samurai films. Ichi takes on dozens of bad guys, and triumphs in seconds thanks to lightning fast sword work. And every time he cuts down an opponent, the soundtrack makes a really cool slashing sound, kind of like ripping silk. This element is conspicuously missing in most American swordfighting movies, like The Highlander and The Hunted. Ichi also employs a very unorthodox form of swordplay, in that he holds his sword "under hand" and he tends to get the drop on his enemies by falling down a lot.

Zatoichi Challenged
"And here's where Rutger Hauer would say,
'I do Bar Mitzvahs too.' What a dork."
If you enjoy Zatoichi Challenged, there are plenty of other Zatoichi films to watch. There were more than a dozen films made between 1962 and 1974, and one was made in the 1980s. Unfortunately, only three of the films are widely available on US tape, all from Chambara Video. They cost about $20 each, and the titles include this one, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi and the Chess Master. If you're really lucky, your video store might have an old copy of Zatoichi vs Yojimbo, which was released on US tape years ago, probably because Toshiro Mifune appears, playing more or less the same character he did in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sajuro. (Mifune would also play the character in Incident at Blood Pass, also with Katsu.)

We do suggest you watch Zatoichi Challenged prior to your showdown with the Film Buff in your office. If he's seen it, you're going to look pretty stupid if you can't hold your own in a conversation about samurai films and blind swordsmen.

Review date: 10/02/1998

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