The old ones like me want to revisit the old loves and the guilty pleasures of the past. It turns out that during the long confinement, while digging through my old DVDs, I was able to unearth my collection of Zatoichi movies and watch them again on my old DVD player. And then lately, I also discovered that some Zatoichi films are available on YouTube.
As a young man, I avidly watched Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi films depicting the hardships of a lonely blind master swordsman during the Edo period. I also followed the Zatoichi series, which then aired on Channel 13, if memory serves. In a 2003 film, a reboot of Zatōichi was directed by Takeshi Kitano who also played the role of Zatōichi in the film as a sort of tribute to Shintaro Katsu, who was well received internationally.
From 1962 to 1989, Shintaro Katsu played the original role of Zatoichi in a series of 26 films. From 1974 to 1979, the Zatoichi television series starred Katsu and was produced by his own production company.
Zatoichi’s films were the Japanese counterparts of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns. Ichi was the unnamed Wandering Man equivalent of Clint Eastwood, decimating the bad guys in every town he encountered. In Ichi’s case, the bad guys were usually corrupt government officials, local lords, as well as Yakuza bosses and their minions, usually in collusion against Zatoichi.
However, in the genre of violent action films, Zatoichi films are on a different aesthetic level. Consider this:
–Are you happy that you cannot see?
–Why? Do you have any problems seeing?
– Pretend not to see something, I guess.
-I can’t see but I have to live as if I can see.
It’s the kind of dialogue you wouldn’t normally expect in a typical violent, testosterone-pumping action movie. It’s perfectly OK for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry to throw out clever jokes or macho memes like “Go ahead, make my day”, but I can’t imagine him saying a line like “The falling leaf doesn’t hate the wind”.
It’s the Zen-like dialogue that separates Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi films from the rest of the antihero action flicks of the ’60s,’ 70s and ’80s. Words linger in the mind long after the thrilling stints are over. in place of climactic cutting action. Even the titles of the Zatoichi TV series are something else. Rainbow in an invisible tear and The flower that bloomed with the lullaby are just two examples that resonate with literary minds like me.
What I like most about movies is that between action scenes, the viewer is offered reflections on the human condition. For example, in Shintaro Katsu’s latest film Zatoichi, which he also directed, titled Darkness is his ally, the film touched on topics such as moral wounds, color symbolisms, human greed, betrayal and the purity and innocence of youth and a son’s love for his mother. So much to mull over in a film that is supposed to be an action thriller. But I was not bored. This is because our hero has multiple split second duels to keep the tone of the action going throughout, providing the viewer with many exciting portions of samurai blades clashing and flashing and spurting blood. , all wonderfully choreographed.
Blinded as he is, Ichi sees in his mind more than a person who can see; he can see through the human heart. If Superman has x-ray vision, Zatoichi sees through people’s machinations as well as people’s kindness. He also has extraordinary hearing skills. He can not only hear the chatter of people from afar, he can even discern the subtext behind the words.
So sensitive and agile, Ichi is able to avoid stepping on crawling insects on the road. On one of her trips, her foot almost crushes a bird egg that fell from its mother’s nest.
These scenes are designed to show that Ichi has a compassionate heart. He is on the side of the underprivileged and the exploited. The proof of his kindness is that children love him and that he plays with them. In the middle of a fight, Ichi manages to pick up a toddler to bring him to his mother while fending off his abusers.
The irony is that although Ichi came from the gangster world, he acts more honorably and chivalrously than real samurai. At the end of the Edo period in Japan, the samurai was portrayed as corrupt and no longer true to his code of honor and conduct. Poor peasants are resigned to their life of samurai and yakuza toys.
Ichi is an anma (masseuse), traveling from city to city and he is able to ease the ailments of people from all walks of life, even evil lords. But what it cannot cure is greed and evil that are deeply rooted in the souls of human beings. He is also a master gamer, using his super sense of hearing to accurately predict the roll of the dice. He wins game after game, and using some sort of jujitsu he lets others take advantage of his blindness first and it’s a pleasure to see him turn the tide against cheaters in the last round.
Ichi has a great appetite for the finer things in life and as he admits, “I have an eye for great food, sake and gambling.” It never fails to whet my appetite whenever Ichi is shown hammering his teeth into an onigiri (rice ball stuffed with a variety of toppings and flavors that make an ideal quick snack) or sipping an onigiri. simmering hot oden broth, what I learned is flat winter comfort from the Japanese even today.
Equally fascinating is the fact that the films provide a window into traditional Japanese culture. We learn so much about their various rural festivals, customs and way of life, the various clothes of men and women of different classes in old Japanese society.
The ritual of pouring and serving hot sake (rice wine) to a drinking friend is also fascinating to watch. There is also a scene in which jakenpon (yes our jack n poy) is played which I pointed out to my grandchildren. I got to know the meaning of a durama doll (a kind of tumbling toy) on the first day of the new year and how the Japanese observe the first day of the new year by greeting the first light of the sun for blessings, etc. There are more cultural goodies to discover. And thanks to the subtitles, you learn to speak basic Japanese quite early.
Above all, I love Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi films because good ends up triumphing over evil. Zatoichi sometimes receives the unexpected kindness of a stranger and admits, “The world isn’t full of demons, after all.
At this late stage in my life, it’s still heartwarming to fantasize that there is an Avenger of Justice as quick as Zatoichi on our side to take down the bad guys with just a few blows from his sharp blade.