When we recently got a HD TV set, our entertainment package was upgraded to include several new HD channels, one of them being Kung Fu TVHD. Much of the fare on this channel consists of ‘chopsocky’ martial arts epics and I find myself getting tired of Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat who seem to star in most of them. Happily for me, the channel also offers Japanese samurai movies and my wife and I ( and several of our friends) are hooked on ‘ Zatoichi’ .
For those who are unfamiliar with this fictional character, Zatoichi is a blind masseur, a roving ronin ( masterless samurai) who is a highly skilled swordsman. Though blind, he uses his preternatural sense of hearing to sense the movements of his opponents and is able to take on and dispatch dozens of them at a time. He supports himself by gambling and by giving massages at the country inns that he frequents on his travels. Though something of a rascal, he has a keen sense of giri ( duty) and ninjo ( human feeling) and often protects the weak and the innocent from warring yakuza and from general injustice.There are 26 Zatoichi films starring Shintaro Katsu ( 1931 -1997) , 25 of them made between 1962 and 1973 and the last in 1989. After Katsu’s death , one more Zatoichi film was made in 2004 by Beat Takeshi.
What is it that I like about these films ?
Well, it isn’t the sword fighting . After watching even one of the movies , it becomes obvious that even 20 or more swordsmen attacking at a time are no match for Zatoichi. The real attraction is the character of Zatoichi. Though something of an anti-hero, (he likes women and drink and gambling), he has a keen senseof honor that often finds himself risking his life to protect the weak and the innocent. He does not want to fight but is often forced to do so by circumstances beyond his control. For instance, in one of the movies he is called on to massage the crazed young son of an important family. Fearful that Zatoichi will divulge the young man’s secret thus shaming his family, the family retainers set out to kill Zatoichi. In other episodes, he enters the fray to save an innocent young woman or child. I think it is this ‘knight-errant’ aspect of the Zatoichi character and the ultimate triumph of good over evil that audiences find most appealing.
Other things that I love about the Zatoichi movies are the glimpses of life in feudal Japan and the beauty of the Japanese countryside. Except for the first two movies, all the rest were made in color and they offer some breathtakingly beautiful scenes. In the title role, Shintaro Katsu is simply magnificent in his portrayal of a complex character, strong yet vulnerable, coarse but childlike, amoral yet unswerving in his adherence to his personal code of conduct. These movies have a lot in common with Westerns, particularly movies like Shane or those early Cint Eastwood starrers in which a lone hero comes down on the side of the oppressed and takes on the bad guys.
In addition to these 26 movies, Katsu also starred in 100 episodes of the TV series that were produced between 1974 and 1979. I have watched some of them but they are not nearly as enjoyable as the movies.
Enthralled by the Zatoichi movies, I tried to find out more about Shintaro Katsu. Big mistake. In real life Katsu was a heavy drinker ,drug abuser and gambler who often created trouble on the set. Extremely generous with his money, he was bedevilled by his arrogant, prickly nature and died in straitened circumstances. Sometimes, it is a mistake to dig too deep.
Enjoy the movies.