He is blind and he is a swordsman. He is a man of deep compassion and he is a killing machine. He is a man of the people who delights in the most ordinary pleasures and he is a man of exceptional, indeed miraculous, accomplishments. He is a common gambler and sometime con man and he is a righter of wrongs. He is capable of almost mystical serenity and he is racked by remorse for offenses he has committed. He jokes and he suffers. He is a superhero who also has to take time out to wash his dirty laundry. He is pure of heart and he consorts with whores and thieves. He takes childlike delight in the world and he nurses wily and murderous schemes of vengeance.
Such is Zatoichi, the protean hero of twenty-six feature films and a hundred television episodes, in which he was incarnated by the great Shintaro Katsu (1931–97). He is a character of folkloric dimensions and contradictions, a creation who transcends the separate films in which he appears to take on an independent life. His origins are to be found in a brief story by Kan Shimozawa, first published in 1948, most succinctly in only a few passages: “No one who saw him walking along with his shaved head and his long-handled sword at his side would ever have guessed he was blind. The man had an uncanny sixth sense . . . Blind though he was, Zatoichi was a master swordsman with a lightning draw: he had only to lay a hand on his sword for an opponent to shrivel in fear.” Those sentences encapsulate the narrative essence of the Zatoichi films, but they can hardly explain how Katsu and the filmmakers with whom he worked managed to turn Zatoichi into a personage of subtle and enduring power.
The Zatoichi films flourished during the extraordinary era in Japanese filmmaking when the traditional period film was reconfigured in such masterpieces as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966), Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin (1969), and many others. Alongside those formally ambitious and often thematically challenging works, the Zatoichi cycle may, at first glance, look more like easygoing and formulaic entertainment, coasting from episode to episode with variations on the same set of situations and character types. Take one or two vicious yakuza bosses, a benevolent peasant or innkeeper weighed down by debts, a virtuous daughter threatened with concubinage, a hotheaded brother attracted to a life of crime or vowed to bloody revenge, and an orphaned infant, and you have the makings of pretty much any Zatoichi vehicle.
They are action pictures doubling as sentimental melodramas, with roughly equal quantities of murderous swordplay, conspiratorial intrigue, and tearful scenes of grief, longing, and redemption; and to complete the package, they are sprinkled throughout with farcical interludes and joking repartee. In each film, there must be at least one jaw-dropping exhibition of the hero’s skills: cutting a candle down the middle so that each side continues to burn (The Tale of Zatoichi, 1962); cutting a lantern in two, catching the top half of its candle on his sword tip, and then catapulting it to land on a bully’s head (Zatoichi’s Vengeance, 1966); or, from across the room, skewering with a hurled toothpick the moth that has settled on a yakuza boss’s face (Zatoichi the Outlaw, 1967).
But the films have a resonance that transcends their more predictable ingredients. The producers hewed to the recipe with a caution that suggests they knew they were on to something of a rare power that needed to be respected. Zatoichi developed in response to unanticipated popular demand after the success of Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi. Many different writers and directors took part in elaborating this myth, but finally it all comes down to Shintaro Katsu’s embodiment of the character. Katsu, the son of a celebrated kabuki musician, was a flamboyantly theatrical actor who, in playing Zatoichi, found a way to put his hammiest impulses to excellent use. Zatoichi is himself a consummate player whose halting blind man’s gait and good-natured servility can give way in an instant to acrobatic precision and relentless fury, and if Katsu’s rendition of the role sometimes achieves self-parody, this is perfectly in keeping with Zatoichi’s own paradoxical personality. A study could be done just of the metamorphoses of Zatoichi’s laugh, perhaps his most defining characteristic, as it ranges from subservient amiability to deep menace.
The laugh, registering the smallest shifts in attitude, substitutes for the blind man’s absent gaze. Katsu’s total grasp of the part makes Zatoichi’s blindness the very center of each film, the hinge between the world we observe and his inner world, which we can judge only by its sometimes annihilating effects. We cannot see through his eyes or look into them, and this encourages an identification with his blindness and its accompanying hypersensitivity to sound and touch and even smell. His sword strokes, executed from within his permanent darkness, seem almost to slash through the screen on which we watch the movie.
That personality is, of course, so much Katsu’s creation that it is hard to separate them. (Takeshi Kitano’s ill-advised revival of the character in 2003’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi only makes that clearer.) To watch Katsu going through the familiar paces—the shuffle and the chuckle and the affable self-deprecation and the exuberant savoring of bodily pleasure yielding with ritual predictability to sorrow and indignation and mocking defiance, and then again to an inured loneliness—is like listening to an inspired musician, over a period of many years, play successive variations on the same tune. From film to film, his Zatoichi is sometimes harsher, sometimes more tender, sometimes riffing with detached humor, sometimes manifesting sudden glimpses of nihilistic bleakness. I think one has to go back to the silent era to find an actor developing the same role over so many films and with such inventive energy. Like a silent comedian, Katsu puts his whole body into the part; his center of gravity and his orientation in space are always in question. The big head, stocky frame, and large, peculiar ears are intrinsic to the performance.
Throughout the cycle, the character of Zatoichi continues to be a work in progress—a process of change accentuated by Katsu’s own physical changes, as he grows notably heavier over the years. The first two black-and-white features present a younger man still absorbed by the memory of doomed romantic attachments. In the remaining films made for Daiei—before the studio finally succumbed to the financial collapse that the success of Zatoichi had helped stave off—he comes into his own as legendary hero and rescuer of the weak and avenger of the wronged, in films that, even at their most violent, often have a compensating brightness and spaciousness. When Katsu’s own production company took over the series in 1970, the films became generally darker and more grotesque, with Zatoichi shedding some of his earlier joviality, while undergoing more painful forms of on-screen suffering.
Taking the films all together, one can map out the blind swordsman’s curriculum vitae. His early history is vague. He lost his father at the age of five, separated from him while on a pilgrimage to Mount Myogi (Adventures of Zatoichi, 1964). He went blind shortly after that. He learned massage from a man whose death he avenges in Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965), and studied swordsmanship with a samurai who becomes his adversary in New Tale of Zatoichi (1963). He was once numbered among the baddest of yakuza— “Cut those I shouldn’t have, killed those I shouldn’t have” (New Tale of Zatoichi)—but by the time we make his acquaintance, he has settled into the life of an itinerant gambler and masseur, drawing his lethal cane sword only when he must.
He arrives alone, often trudging along a dusty road or making his way through tall reeds, contending with a rainy downpour (Zatoichi the Fugitive, 1963) or walking along through a windstorm, as in Adventures of Zatoichi: “It’s a good thing I’m blind.” And he leaves alone: the shot of Zatoichi moving into the distance, up the slope or down the trail, is the signal that the movie is over. He has never had a home. The word tabi (journey) occurs in the Japanese title of six of the films and is the implied premise of all of them.
He is not alone in his constant movement from place to place, though; along the way, he encounters wandering mercenaries, wandering performers, wandering priests and pilgrims, and, of course, marauding bandits. His unending circumambulation of the Japanese backcountry, far from the dynastic struggles of Edo and Kyoto, reveals a rural world in an era (the 1840s) of collapsing government and widespread corruption. Gangs rule the countryside, in league with local officials more or less indistinguishable from gangsters. The concerns that drive the plots are invariably the pettiest of turf wars, as factions fight over gambling and prostitution concessions, local tolls, and extortionist taxes. Monetary indebtedness is the trap from which Zatoichi is nearly always called upon to rescue those who turn to him for help.
It is a world in which the worthy are powerless and the powerful worthless, and in this world Zatoichi occupies the bottom rung. A blind masseur of the lowest class, he is there to take orders from his superiors and has not one person he can rightfully look down on. He finds his friends among the powerless: children, old people, women forced into prostitution, exploited farmers, roaming entertainers, and those honorable yakuza among whom he is numbered. Zatoichi’s criminal past is frequently alluded to, and his reputation as a swordsman and gambler precedes him among the bosses he runs into in his travels, but the only criminal activity we see him regularly engaged in is a crooked dice game designed to ensure that the only victims are themselves cheaters.
He loves women, but his blindness makes the romantic love he craves an impossibility. As recounted in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), he once fell in love with a woman who rejected him for another man, a man whom Zatoichi subsequently killed. In the same film, he meets another woman, the ill-fated Otane, who likewise (in Zatoichi the Fugitive) betrays him, even as Zatoichi persists in refusing to credit her betrayal. His blindness makes it acceptable for him to share rooms with women and even, on occasion (Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, 1964), to slip into the bath with them. He is a man of strong sensual appetites and along the road finds satisfaction with prostitutes, who occasionally offer their services for free. At the same time, he resists—often with great difficulty, as when he goes swimming with Okichi in Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)—the warm affection he stirs in many of the young women whom he rescues from bondage and oppression. The intensity of his passionate feelings is most vividly exemplified by his blissful expression as he sniffs Okichi’s clothes after she takes them off to go in the water.
He loves children even when they tease him thoughtlessly: “Children may be the only ones who can show their faces to the sun without shame” (Adventures of Zatoichi). Sometimes he enlists them as helpers; at least once (Zatoichi’s Vengeance), he allows himself to be publicly brutalized without fighting back so as not to encourage a boy’s budding admiration for his swordsmanship. He is perfectly capable of looking after a baby and, in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964), spends as much time changing diapers as wielding his cane sword. The outer limit of his parental instincts is reached in Zatoichi at Large (1972), when he delivers a dying woman’s baby in the middle of a field and later smears milk on his nipples in order to nurse the newborn child.
“You are no ordinary masseur,” a stranger tells him in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. “If I were,” he replies, “I would be dead by now.” His expertise at massage can be taken for granted, but when we see him at work, he is generally using his skill to inflict pain on an unwary customer who has offended or threatened him, like the three thugs whose shoulders he dislocates in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970). But Zatoichi’s implied mastery of massage informs his whole physical presence; he knows bodies and their points of pleasure and pain intimately, and he can judge a person’s lifestyle and sometimes their character by the condition of a shoulder or a hand.
His gambling skills are in the realm of the miraculous, since his acutely sensitive hearing enables him to determine the position of the dice in the cup while it is being shaken; somehow, even- and odd-numbered dice are distinguishable by sound. In fact, he rarely gets to finish a gambling match without having to draw his sword to perform some intimidating feat, as the other gamblers start to gang up on him. He excels at archery (Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, 1965) and sumo wrestling (Zatoichi the Fugitive). He can play shogi in his head on a level with a champion (Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, 1965). When called upon—sometimes in the most peremptory manner—to perform, he can play a creditable shamisen solo (Zatoichi the Outlaw), or execute a flavorful song-and-dance routine at a party (Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, 1967).
All his appetities are voracious. He eats with no regard for polite appearances, gobbling up rice like a starved child. “Don’t look at me while I’m eating; it’s not a pretty sight” (Zatoichi the Fugitive). He likes to season his oden with mustard, the stronger the better, and when he eats watermelon, he spits out the seeds with predictable virtuosity. He also likes to drink, but at no time does his drinking interfere with the accuracy of his swordsmanship, and he is able to take brilliant
advantage of Toshiro Mifune’s drunkenness during an abortive duel in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. He loves festivals. At the sound of a festival in progress, in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, he is already dancing as he approaches, and later radiates gleeful enjoyment as he pounds on a big drum. This is the face of Zatoichi at peace with the world, if only people would let him alone.
He is deeply moved by the contemplation of natural beauties he cannot see. He gazes at the moon he can only imagine, and is awed by the size of the ocean, whose presence he intuits by the saltiness of the air. Adventures of Zatoichi ends with him paying homage to the first light of the New Year on Mount Myogi, the place where he was separated from his father at age five. His most deeply pleasurable communion with the world is through the sense of smell: he savors the aroma of bamboo (New Tale of Zatoichi) and plum blossom (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo). He is not, we learn in Zatoichi the Outlaw, a practitioner of any particular faith: “I’ve never prayed to a god or a Buddha, just to the sun in the sky.”
The men Zatoichi has killed are beyond numbering. He takes no joy in these killings and regrets many early ones, committed before he achieved moral clarity: “I was so absorbed by drawing swords and killing people that I entered the yakuza” (New Tale of Zatoichi). He has been forced to cut down men he admired and regarded as friends, like the samurai spoken of in Tale of Zatoichi Continues, and in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold he walks a long way to visit the grave of a warrior he slew unnecessarily. In Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, he undertakes a series of shrine visits in atonement for past killings. (In the same film, it should be noted, he does not hesitate to slice off a thief’s hand as exemplary punishment.) At his lowest self-estimate, he is “nothing but a blind yakuza criminal” (Zatoichi the Fugitive).
He likes to point out to opponents that, unlike them, he can fight just as well in the dark: “The darkness is my ally.” But he has not made his peace with his handicap. In the first film of the series, confronting a roomful of treacherous gamblers, he declares: “I took up sword fighting so people like you would treat me with respect.” In almost every film, he has to deal with his share of random cruelties and idiotic pranks, from having his small change stolen to getting dirt put in his rice, in scenes providing for the rapid reeducation of the pranksters. Attitudes toward blindness come up with great frequency. People are constantly making thoughtless remarks to Zatoichi about seeing or looking at something, and then awkwardly apologizing. At a drunken party in Zatoichi the Outlaw, the guests pretend to be blind, scrambling around with their eyes closed to snatch up coins flung by their drunken host, while Zatoichi stoically plays his shamisen. The comical con man in Zatoichi and the Doomed Man passes himself off as Zatoichi to a yakuza boss, performing an outrageous parody of blindness. Another blind man, the biwa player in Zatoichi’s Vengeance, tells him that, because of his unique skills, he will never be accepted by either the sighted or the blind: he’s fated to be an eternal “in-betweener.” The only people who treat him with true kindness are those almost devoid of any power to make a difference in the world.
And there is, at last, the swordsmanship. Isn’t that finally what it’s all about, the selling point of the series and the only thing the audience is waiting for? Yet strangely, given the number of encounters and the number, often preposterously large, of opponents slain in them, the fight scenes take up an unexpectedly small proportion of total screen time, especially in the earlier films. Even when Zatoichi is engaged in fighting swarms of adversaries, the battles are lightning-fast. His unusual fighting technique (two of the Japanese titles refer to his “double-cut” and “reverse-cut” sword styles), wielding his deceptively simple-looking cane sword, is a matter of near-invisible strokes, slices, and backward punctures, with three or four opponents going down in a blink. Often he fights with a handicap, like having a child clinging to him (Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold), or while struggling to protect a precious bundle of medicine (Zatoichi and the Chess Expert), or with his sword strapped to his arm after his hands have been impaled (Zatoichi in Desperation, 1972).
These opponents are generally the crudest of yakuza, and Zatoichi wastes little time in dispatching them. They are nameless, and no words are exchanged. Things are a bit different when he is up against a samurai—the samurai tending to be isolated, near-tragic, sometimes morbidly philosophical figures, with whom Zatoichi has often established a relationship of some depth. Here the fight goes on a little longer, as Zatoichi experiences perceptible difficulties in the face of more traditional weapons and a higher level of fighting skill. In a separate category is the killing thrust he delivers to the central villain, always an embodiment of unmixed cruelty and hypocrisy: now Zatoichi comes into his own as the dark avenger, emerging unannounced into the innermost precincts of power to administer final justice.
After Katsu Productions took over, the fights got longer and bloodier. But in Zatoichi’s Daiei period, blood was notably scarce, giving the grand finales of swordsmanship an abstract and balletic quality, accentuated by whatever elements of snowfall or water or woodland darkness or firelight came into play to shape their atmosphere. In these scenes, Zatoichi rarely seemed to be actually at risk—except for a few samurai, all his challengers seemed to be seriously outmatched—and the mood was more one of delight in a fantasy of absolute technical mastery. The burden of suffering in which the films’ plots were soaked, with their themes of economic bondage and immovable hierarchies, gave way to exuberant lightness and liberating movement.
At that point, nothing remained but the ceremonial leave-taking of the hero. There is a wonderful moment at the end of Zatoichi the Fugitive when Zatoichi, after a particularly grueling sequence of betrayals and losses, makes his departure in the carefree capering of a festival dancer. In close-up, we see him laughing in evident joy, and then, as he turns away and the image begins to fade out, his face hardens into a mask of resigned sorrow just as the end title flashes. Zatoichi is gone again: a hero who—no matter how outwardly familiar—remains tantalizingly and essentially elusive.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include The Phantom Empire, Sonata for Jukebox, The Fall of the House of Walworth, and, most recently, Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, 2002–2012. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.