For a while we used to get the Kung Fu channel as part of our cable package and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t care much for the chop-socky kung fu movies but I became a fan of the samurai sagas , espescially those featuring Zatoichi.
Zatoichi , for those who may not be familiar with his adventures, is a fictional blind swordsman who travels around medieval Japan scratching out a living as a masseur and gambler while losing no opportunity to protect the weak against cruel overlords and menacing yakuza . It is difficult enough for a blind man to travel to strange places unaided and the premise that that same blind man is able to fight and defeat multiple enemies is preposterous. Or at least it should be . Somehow , Shintaro Katsu who played Zatoichi, made it seem possible. Katsu’s Zatoichi was a complex character. Not above bending the rules when he gambled, he still had a very strong sense of right and wrong that led him to intervene on behalf of the weak and defenseless. In 26 movies and 112 TV episodes, Zatoichi saved countless damsels in distress , righted innumerable wrongs and romanced not a few women before striding off into the sunset. No matter that the fight sequences were entirely predictable, I never tired of watching a fresh Zatoichi episode ( or even re-watching one that I’d already seen). I was fascinated with the picture of Japanese society that was painted, the harsh social structure of the times and above all, the nuances of Zatoichi’s character. The violence of the fight sequences was offset by the poignant moments when Zatoichi mused on his life as a blind man. The rampant cruelty of some of the characters was counterbalanced by the comic sequences of Zatoichi’s interaction with children or his crab legged walk. Looking at Shintaro Katsu and his mannerisms, his half closed eyes, his groping hands it was difficult to imagine that he was not blind in real life.
About a year ago our cable provider suddenly removed the Kung Fu channel from it’s package. This was a loss because there were several Zatoichi movies that I’d not yet seen. I then joined Netflix and was delighte to note that it gave access to a fair number of samurai movies , including some Zatoichi adventures , one of which was a 2003 flic featuring Takeshi Kitano in the lead role.
I also found there were three movies with Shintaro Katsu starring as Hanzo the Razor.
Hanzo has some similarities to the earlier Zatoichi character. Only some. Like Zatoichi , he is on the side of truth and justice and he is an expert fighter not just with the sword but with a variety of other weapons.He lives in a slightly later era and ,unlike the wandering Zatoichi, he lives in town and works as a samurai constable.As mentioned earlier, he has the usesof his eyes, unlike Zatoichi. The biggest difference is his method of “interrogating ” female suspects. His highly effective method is to screw them until they become slaves of lust and are ready to tell him whatever he wants.While there are plenty of salacious scenes,there is much less nudity than one might expect given this plot device. In the first movie of the series, Hanzo tries to unravel why Killer Kanbei, a convicted murderer who has been incarcerated in an island prison , seems not only to have escaped but is involved with palace intrigue. Hanzo has to battle against his corrupt boss and mysterious higher-ups before he resolves the mystery. The film ends with an unrelated sequence in which two young children are wrestling with the problem of how to put their terminally ill father out of his misery.
Unlike the Zatoichi series, the Hanzo films do not have a clear cut story line. The director is caught between two stools, sometimes treating it like a regular samurai movie, at other times treating it as if it were an exploitation film with comedic overtones.The story line is not always coherent, the music is jarring and the character of Hanzo is not a likable one. Unlike Zatoichi, Hanzo comes across as a cruel , humorless lout. When he involves himself in the plight of the children it comes as a surprise. Until that point he has not come across as someone given to altruism.
Inspite of all that, Hanzo is worth watching if only to see Shintaro Katsu in a different role , one in which he is not blind. Zatichi fans in particular may want to avail themselves of the opportunity. Be warned however that these films have graphic violence and strong sexual content and are not suitable viewing for youngsters.