Zatoichi: The Best Martial Arts Movie Series You’ve Never Heard Of

We take a dive into the whopping 25-film Blu-ray release of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman – The Criterion Collection.

Zatoichi and Scoundrels

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In the 1978 US documentary The Blind Swordsman, Shintaro Katsu is asked how he’d like to present himself to American viewers. “I have zero interest in promoting myself,” he barks, waving the question away, “I run like a dark horse!” Indeed, this may go some way to explain that while he was celebrated as an actor, writer, director, producer and singer in Japan, his name still drifts only on the fringes of international pop culture.

The son of a kabuki performer, Katsu was born into performing arts and originally followed in his father’s footsteps as a shamisen player. After a tour of America during which he met James Dean, he changed his focus to acting and amassed a series of second-tier roles in Daiei Studios pictures throughout the 1950s. When they held auditions for the lead in a new film called The Tale Of Zatoichi (1962), based loosely on an obscure 1948 short story by Kan Shimozawa, Katsu fought for the role, won it, and became an overnight sensation.

He starred in 24 more Zatoichi films between 1962 and 1973, 100 episodes of a Zatoichi TV series between 1974 and 1979 and one final send-off in 1989’s Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally. Zatoichi was by no means the only role he played but it’s unquestionably what he’ll be remembered for.

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Many years ago, when I first discovered Japanese chanbara films via Lone Wolf & Cub (coincidentally produced by Katsu as a vehicle for his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama), finding even one Zatoichi film in the UK with subtitles, in watchable quality, was a challenge. Now, thanks to the new Zatoichi boxset from The Criterion Collection, I can finally watch all 25 classic era films one after the other… and it’s an experience, to say the least.

[Before I start, I should note there was a slight technical hiccup for UK buyers – the version released before Christmas had a fault on Disc 6 where it was encoded to the wrong region – but, from 18 February, there’s a new version available where everything’s as it should be. You can buy it here and, if you already bought the previous version, just get in touch with Criterion UK via their website and they’ll send you a replacement disc.]

As with most Criterion releases, you know the films are getting the ‘Rolls Royce’ treatment. All of these have lush HD transfers in 2:35:1 aspect ratio with uncompressed monaural soundtracks and look as beautiful as they ever could.

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With Zatoichi though, you’re also getting the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Japanese Samurai cinema. These are the absolute real deal. A combination of populist sensibility and artful experimentation that still explodes off the screen. Watching them in succession like this lets you see how Japanese cinema itself developed throughout the 1960s, emerging from its classical Golden Age to its dark, surrealistic New Wave.

Zatoichi himself is a blind man who wanders the countryside in 1830s Japan, giving massages for money and gambling in seedy dice dens. Jovial and somewhat shambling, he poses little threat to anyone he meets and most of them dismiss him as a fool. However, Zatoichi’s secret is that he is a master swordsman, the greatest in the land…

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Tale Of Zatoichi (1962)

In the original Tale Of Zatoichi (1962), he’s hired by a yakuza boss who wants to use Zatoichi’s skills against a rival gang who’ve also recruited an expert samurai. However, what Boss Sukegoro hasn’t banked on is Zatoichi and the samurai developing a bond, based on being the only honourable men in a world of scoundrels. New viewers may be surprised by how little swordplay there is in this film. Far from being a choreographed fight-fest, Tale Of Zatoichi is largely a melancholic character study of a friendship between two haunted men. When the swords do come out, the action is swift and brutal – blades are drawn only to kill, not to show off with. The film is starkly shot and theatrical in its approach to drama, but still holds the power to provoke thought with its gently philosophical tone. It brings Zatoichi to the screen fully formed; a new character to many but one who feels like he’s an old friend.

The first three sequels – The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues (1962), A New Tale Of Zatoichi (1963), and Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963) – are stories in the same style, although they switch from black and white to color in New Tale onwards. There are a number of recurring characters, from the shady yakuza bosses who won’t leave Zatoichi alone to the tragic figure of Otane, Zatoichi’s great love who is doomed for having met him (played beautifully by Masayo Banri). This initial quartet sets up not just the swordsman’s background but also the formula for a Zatoichi story. There’s usually a nefarious yakuza plot, a misguided peasant who’s in too deep, a vulnerable woman (often a prostitute) who falls in love with Zatoichi, and a mysterious ronin lurking in the darkness until the final confrontation when his intentions are revealed.

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From the fifth film – Zatoichi On The Road (1963) – onwards, the recurring characters drop off and the stories get more episodic and self-contained, keeping things varied and, as the series progresses, allowing the filmmakers to experiment more. When Katsu’s newly-formed Katsu Productions company took charge of the series from Daiei in 1967, the films grew darker, in line with the actor’s vision of where the character should go.

By the time he took the director’s chair himself for Zatoichi In Desperation (1972), the tone had shifted dramatically. To give you an idea, if Tale Of Zatoichi is The Wizard Of Oz then Zatoichi In Desperation is Return To Oz. Everything comforting and familiar is suddenly dark and gritty. In the early films, a crooked dice joint could have a certain Edo romanticism to it but later on, the gambling dens are Hellscapes. An oppressive, noisy blur of threats, extortion and sweaty, dirty criminals lit only by the occasional candle flame. Likewise, the yakuza themselves are absolutely repulsive, going way beyond the call of duty to do evil.

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Zatoichi and Scoundrels

Whether you prefer the elegiac early films, the dark and vicious later ones or anything in between, what’s consistent throughout is their astonishing quality. I mean, is there another film series anywhere near this long where every single entry has an IMDB rating of 7.1 or above?

In addition to the high calibre of creative talent behind the camera – Kenji Misumi (Lone Wolf & Cub), Kimiyoshi Yasuda (Yokai Monsters), Kaneto Shindo (Onibab, Kuroneko), Kazuo Miyagawa (Yojimbo, Rashomon) and many more – the casts read like a Who’s Who of ’60s Japan, mixing pop icons like singer Mie Nakao and transvestite model Peter (who plays a bisexual pimp in the most psychotronic entry, 1970’s Zatoichi Goes To The Fire Festival) with legends of the screen like Takashi Shimura (Godzilla), Tatsuya Nakadai (Sword Of Doom) and Katsu’s real-life brother Tomisaburo Wakayama (who plays both Zatoichi’s brother in The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues and an whip-cracking adversary in Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold).

Towards the end of the series, Zatoichi even teams up with other famous screen swordsmen, squaring off against Toshiro Mifune in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) and Jimmy Wang Yu in Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman (1971). The latter is a co-production with Hong Kong (a rare occurrence at the time) with a heavy metaphorical message about the troubled relationship between the two countries, one of several examples where these films are quietly subversive.

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But the star of the show is Zatoichi himself. While the stories are mostly standalone, his character deepens with every film and his own inner darkness grows. He’s instantly engaging, a mass of dichotomies that compel you to study him. His mind is sophisticated but he bows, scrapes, pratfalls, and eats like a pig because it’s what’s expected of him. As a blind masseur, he’s seen as one of the lowest ranking members of society but those who know the standard of his swordcraft view him almost as a god.

He is a yakuza who racks up a body count of at least 800 in these films alone, but one who abhors violence. He is ashamed whenever he’s forced into a position where he needs to kill and yet continually finds it’s his only option. In a few of the films – notably Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964) and Zatoichi Challenged (1967) – he makes tremendous personal sacrifices to try and preserve the innocence of children, whom he universally adores. He knows he is beyond salvation himself, but continues to exist purely to save others from the same fate. Even his name could be argued as a contradictory pun, Zato being the lowest class of the Todoza (blind man’s guild) and Ichi being the Japanese for “one” (e.g. number one, the best).

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Zatoichi Challenged

It would be a fascinating character for anyone to play but with Shintaro Katsu, we’re treated to one of those rare and precious meetings that’s cinematic alchemy. When Katsu toured America with his father, playing shamisen, he was forced to journey in steerage class (which at the time was deeply unpleasant – not everyone survived it!) because their profession was seen as lowly. This mirrors Zatoichi’s predicament and it’s easy to see Katsu channelling his residual rage through the character. Additionally, he’d already played a sightless character in The Blind Menace (1960) and felt an affinity with this trait. His beloved shamisen teacher was blind so he believed he had understanding of how blind people think and behave (and indeed, by the time you’re six or seven films deep in this you’ll legitimately forget Katsu can actually see).

Not many actors get to play the same character in over 130 different productions – especially not one this intense – so I guess he has an unfair advantage, but I think Katsu as Zatoichi may be the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t get to use his eyes the way most actors do so makes up for it with the rest of his body. If you like “physical” performances, you’ll be in raptures watching him. Of particular delight to audiences at the time was the classic Zatoichi ‘switch’ where he moves from being the Chaplin-esque fool to the devasting killer in a split second.

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My personal favorite film of these is Zatoichi Challenged and it gives you several of the best Katsu moments. One is when a carpenter makes fun of Zatoichi for being blind. Ichi plays along with the gag at first, laughing at himself, but turns the tables and soon has his tormentor barking like a dog on all fours in front of his peers, a cruel and petty humiliation. Watching Katsu’s entire body language and vocal inflection shift as Zatoichi goes from cheerful victim to terrifying aggressor is blood-curdling. Likewise, when his sword shaves the eyebrows off a third-tier yakuza who’s acting tough – a sudden explosion of violence in the middle of a slapstick scene – he then drops to his knees, devastated and shows shame over how inocent onlookers have seen “the worst side” of him, even in such a comparatively mild display of violence.

The climax of Zatoichi Challenged – set against the dramatic backdrop of a mountain snowstorm (and included in my Awesome Martial Arts Fights In The Snow list!) – is breathtaking, a shining example of how to turn a swordfight into something moving. Every blow resonates with emotion and it feels like Zatoichi is fighting for his very soul. When it’s all over, the film’s final sting is a heartbreaker showing that while Zatoichi has all the qualities of a great hero, the weight of all this violence on his soul is nothing short of unbearable.

Zatoichi Laughing

Unfortunately, Zatoichi’s internal pain mirrors Katsu’s own and the latter part of his life was plagued with substance abuse, personal tragedy, and an early death in 1997. One of the extras in the Criterion boxset is the aforementioned Blind Swordsman documentary from 1978 and it’s an astounding piece. Historian John Nathan spends candid time on the set of the Zatoichi TV series and the resultant portrait of the master at work is almost like watching a parody of the “tortured genius” archetype. He has lackeys on set to pull up his trousers for him, drop cigarettes between his fingers and fetch him coffee while he barks “idiot!” and “clown!” at them, in between setting up insanely intricate shots with the meticulousness of a man obsessed. Watching him choreograph a fight and whisper to the stuntperson at the end of his sword “I can still hear your heartbeat”… “no… still”… “Okay, now I heard the last tick of your heart…” the line between Zatoichi and Katsu is all but gone.

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Scenes of him paralytic with alcohol, arguing with crew members and colleagues are hard to watch. One accuses him of “being funny in the head” after enduring a semi-coherent rant, to which Katsu dourly replies, “I have been all my life…” but these sad moments are offset by scenes of him taking his crew out dancing, playing the shamisen and making those around him laugh ‘til they cry. Much like Zatoichi, his light and darkness can turn on a dime. The most moving moment however is when, after some particularly diva-ish footage is shown, Nathan asks one of Katsu’s long-suffering crew what he likes about the boss. The man’s face lights up, genuinely, entirely, and he gushes “EVERYTHING!” – which says it all, really.

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It’s easy to see why this irascible iconoclast’s character would appeal to fellow irascible iconoclast Takeshi Kitano but watching his enjoyably goofy remake, Zatoichi (2003) (the film that brought the character to most modern western eyes), it’s like a loving but inferior imitation rather than the living, breathing brilliance of the original. If that’s the only Zatoichi film you’ve seen, this boxset should be in your life straight away. If you’re already a fan of chanbara, jidaigeki or Japanese pop culture, it’s nothing short of an essential presence on your shelf.

On top of compiling so many great films (some of which were once quite rare) and the documentary, Criterion throw in a cracking featurette where John Nathan reminisces about making the documentary, an interesting overview of the series by critic Tony Rayn, and original trailers for all 25 films. That’s just on the discs. The crowning glory is the packaging.

The Zatoichi Collection comes in an exquisite hard box (you can watch an unboxing here), beautifully illustrated, with pockets for each of the discs and a hardback book. Inside the book you get a nice essay and some “tasting notes” for each of the films in turn and, best of all, a new English translation of the original Zatoichi short story by Kan Shimozawa.

This is a lovely little piece to read at the end, to put the whole thing into perspective. How great oak trees – an iconic movie character and the career of one of Japan’s finest actors – can grow from tiny acorns. And how sometimes, even the dark horse can come out on top. The legacy of Zatoichi – and Shintaro Katsu – has never looked brighter or more vital.

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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is out now on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection.