I’ve had this Zatoichi Criterion box set on my shelf. It’s a very pretty box set, filled with lots of movies, 25 to be exact. After procuring the set for Christmas some years ago, I watched the first Zatoichi film, The Tale of Zatoichi. What a superb film!
And then there was silence.
I don’t have an explanation. I just have SHAME.
Last year for my Cinema Shame, list I vowed to complete the set. The 24 other Zatoichi films. This in addition to my regular allotment of SHAME. It might come as no surprise that I failed in this endeavor. But this is a new year, with new lists and new motivation. I’ve made certain promises to myself. That I will watch more, read more, write more. I promised to be better to myself and ignore the noise that has distracted me from doing the things I love. Noise is the urge to pick up my phone for no good reason and scroll through social media bullshit. Noise is a DVR filled with episodes of The Big Bang Theory. I haven’t actively wanted to watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory in years.
For January, I began my journey (and my 2017 Shame) through this Zatoichi set once more. To make this exercise more manageable, I’ll break the massive word-spewing down into a few different posts. I’ll watch four Zatoichi movies per month and leave my thoughts here for you to consider.
The first Zatoichi film, The Tale of Zatoichi, showcases a potent character study about the friendship between two warriors (with elevated moral codes) on opposite sides of a clan dispute. Light on swordplay, long on philosophy — but effective at establishing the cavernous division between the moral right and the moral wrong with a conservation of action and language. Our blind, pacifist swordsman vs. a world of human ugliness.
The character of Zatoichi (the excellent Shintarô Katsu) appears as sort of a mythical figure. A sightless drifter without a past, possessing inhuman skills with “sword drawing.” He’s treated both as a hired gun and a lowly masseur in equal measure. Respect for his skill, should it be to someone’s advantage, but denigrated and despised when judged at face value. This potent on-screen judgment carries much weight — as a legendary swordsman without peer, we, the audience, are always well aware of Zatoichi’s value as a man. So when those without tact or kindness lash out in fear and/or ambiguous anger, they immediately mark themselves a villain. Their backstories have been written with a few simple lines of dialogue. And in these films, there are both villains of intent and villains of convenience. The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues have a strict moral dichotomy. Even more importantly perhaps — villains can also be heroes, depending upon their particular code. Katsu perfectly embodies the man as legend in these first two films. Stoic, thoughtful, a spirit evolved beyond the need for the ugly emotions of jealousy and hatred.
The friendship with the rival clan’s samurai Miki Hirate (played by Shigeru Amachi) emerges as the heart of The Tale of Zatoichi. Not the warring clans that form the liner-notes narrative. The friendship born of empathy and shared morals — becomes forced into inevitable conflict by their employers. Hirate respects Ichi. Ichi respects Hirate… despite knowing that each has been charged with killing the other. They fish along the river and talk and share plenty of sake. Their friendship blossoms while yakuza members squabble and bicker and kill over perceived disrespect and petty grudges.
Without going too far into narrative retelling, I’ll stop here to reflect on the nature of the Zatoichi films and the character itself based on what I’ve learned through four films. Of course, I was struck by the immediate comparison to James Bond as a longstanding cinematic icon. 25 films for Bond. 26 films for the original Zatoichi franchise. Both series of films began in 1962. Like Bond, Zatoichi was the creation of a novelist, in this instance Kan Shimozawa, before the films eclipsed the popularity of the source material.
Little of Zatoichi’s past has been revealed through four films. I suspect that little will ever be revealed (and a quick bit of research into the series confirms this suspicion). Like Bond, this malleable, unwritten backstory amplifies the mythology of the character. (I won’t go into how recent dalliances into Bond’s backstory have undermined the character as I’ve written about this at great lengths elsewhere.) Legend is born of truth and fiction. Without concrete information, the audience is allowed a creative license to embellish and imagine.
This limited backstory also allows filmmakers more storytelling freedom. Without having to consider all manner of specific narratives, Bond and Zatoichi explore the world in which they inhabit. Bond’s limited backstory has allowed him to explore 50+ years of shifting politics and all manner of global threats without reboot or retelling. (Don’t even consider bringing up that Casino Royale “reboot” nonsense.)
In Zatoichi 3 (A New Tale of Zatoichi), the character is treated more like a stray dog — a jarring bit of discord after the upstanding moral citizen in Zatoichi 1 and 2. Onscreen characters constantly allude to his past indiscretions. His gambling, his way with liquor, the innocent people he’s murdered. Katsu adjusts the character accordingly. Taken within the individual film, the accusations work. What do we know that could possibly discredit these characters? All we have is perspective offered through prior films.
This marks a shift from a legend to grounded human. Zatoichi 3 paints a troubled human who acknowledges his murderous past, his gambling problems, etc, whereas we originally viewed Zatoichi as an unwavering moral compass. His murders merely self-defense against the representatives of a moral wasteland. It’s no coincidence that Zatoichi 3 is also a lesser film. Zatoichi projects none of the confidence; he appears affected by the negativity of others, always retreating into himself when scolded. He also meets this resistance after visiting his old home and the master who trained him. If this doesn’t scream Bond’s surrender to his past in Skyfall, I’ll eat my licence to blog. For the first time, Skyfall‘s Bond appears to break beneath the weight of his occupation — the past encroaching on the present, likewise Zatoichi’s past proves equally humbling. Dismantling these legends serves only an individual narrative, but it fails the character.
Zatoichi finds a happier middle ground between kicked puppy and mythical badass in Zatoichi 4 (Zatoichi the Fugitive) but still resists the mythos Zatoichi 1 and 2. It’s the Pulp Fiction of Zatoichi films, tossing out dozens of characters and hazy motivations. It’s messy and confusing and not always focused storytelling. However, in this film he appears less burdened, more at peace with his past. It’s the better film — especially as it balances the two halves of Zatoichi.
Like Bond, it’s not necessarily the quality of narrative backing him; maybe it’s about the quality of character. The moral relativity. The untarnished sheen on our knight’s armor.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from the world of Zatoichi.
Ongoing and official ranking of the Zatoichi films:
- Tale of Zatoichi (1)
- Zatoichi the Fugitive (4)
- The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (2)
- A New Tale of Zatoichi (3)