Saturday, April 29, 2006

The blind swordsman

Readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by Japanese cinema. But that’s only partly true, since a majority of my love for Japanese cinema comes from admiring Akira Kurosawa’s consistent cinematic brilliance, Toshiro Mifune’s fantastic screen charisma, and the wonders of Japanese anime, especially the creations of Hayao Miyazaki. But there certainly is more to Japanese cinema than just that.

There’s also a fascinating world of amazingly entertaining B-grade films that fit either the “period/Samurai” genre, or the improbably (and almost C-grade) Sci-Fi genre, particularly with monsters walking out of the sea to destroy Tokyo (Godzilla, anyone?). One of the all time most popular series of films, that would define “Easterns” (as opposed to Westerns) was Zatoichi, the story of the blind swordsman.

Though this series of films were ragingly popular in the sixties, seventies and eighties in Japan, I’d hardly heard of them, but then Netflix decided to educate me. Being a regular borrower of Japanese films, my recommendations always had a range of Japanese film suggestions. And some time back, one of the recommendations suggested one of the Zatoichi movies. I was intrigued, watched it, and became hooked.

What’s it all about, you ask? The plot of all the two dozen odd movies (I’ve seen only about ten of them, but I guess that’s a decent sample size) is practically identical. It is the saga of a blind man, Ichi, in Medieval feudal Japan (the Edo period). Unlike the legendary Kurosawa creation, Yojimbo, Ichi is not a Samurai or a Ronin (a masterless Samurai). He’s just a masseur, of the lowest rank for the blind (yes, even the blind masseurs had ranks). He is a Zato, and hence his name, Zatoichi. And in every movie, he wanders in to some town, which is either being (a) oppressed by a ruthless and greedy feudal lord or (b) the people are being manipulated by a shrewd and violent merchant or (c) is being run down by the Yakuza (Japanese organized gangs) or (d) Zatoichi is himself an outlaw and is on the “run”. And Shintaro Katsu, who charmed audiences without the swagger of a Mifune, almost always played the role of Zatoichi.

Though blind, Zatoichi had the ears and reflexes of a panther. And he carries a cane, with a hidden secret. It holds a fine sword, which he wields with ferocity. Though cane swords were traditionally no match for good Samurai swords, we learn that his cane sword was actually crafted by a master sword craftsman. You can see easily, this is a cinematic goldmine. There are just endless possibilities for Zatoichi movie makers to come up with ingenious situations to trap Zatoichi, and then figure out even more ingenious ways of getting him to escape, and vanquishing his opponents. Take for example one of my favorite scenes. Ichi is running on a small log bridge, and a plank slips, and he falls in to the swamp. But it’s not just a swamp, it’s quicksand. What can a blind man do in quicksand? Well, here’s what he does. He holds the cane in his mouth to free his two hands, and then manages to loosen the chord that holds his robe. He then draws the sword, ties the chord to it, and hurls the sword. Obviously, it goes and sticks to a tree. And he starts pulling himself slowly towards the shore. But it’s not over yet. As I bite my nails in excitement, the sword is pulled out of the tree, and he’s back to being stuck in the swamp. Then he throws the sword again, and this time it wedges against two poles (or two rocks or something), and as he draws himself out slowly, you think he’s safe. But no, the chord slides down the handle of the sword, and the blade rips it. And as he falls, you think all is lost, when the rope is grabbed by this girl (who has a soft corner for Ichi), and he is saved! Talk about excitement. Or the standard dice games, where Zatoichi always wins, because he can hear the dice roll! And the standard brawl that will follow after that.

And then, there are the more than ingenious fight scenes. How many different ways can a blind swordsman fight? As he slashes and whirls furiously, and opponents fall down like ninepins, there are always little scenes that amaze even my fertile imagination. Like when he’s locked in to a rice storehouse by the henchmen of a lord. They slowly open the door and charge in, to only find that he’s disappeared! Then they hear his voice, and half a dozen large sacks of rice fall down. Aha! So, he’s inside one of the sacks! They walk up from one bag to the next, stabbing them with their swords. All of them just have rice. Finally they reach the last one. As the peer closer, a whirling blade rips through it, Ichi arises, and hacks down all of them, (with blood spraying around like fountains).

Throw in to this mix some “sentiment”, just like a good ol’ Tamil movie. There’ll be a long lost friend that Ichi finds, or a sister, or some struggling but kind hearted peasants, or some bandits with hearts of gold, who help Ichi.

Awesome, or what?

How can one resist heady “Easterns” such as these? Zatoichi rules.


Bora Zivkovic said...

Zatoichi totally rocks! I'll have to rent it and watch it again since it's been years...

Jabberwock said...

The Zatoichi films, alas, have been a big gap in my movie-watching career. Wasn't there one titled Zatoichi meets Yojimbo or something such, co-starring Mifune?

Sunil said...'s high time then for some mindless classic entertainment!

Jai......yes indeed, there is a Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (with Mifune playing his old role).......and it's on my netflix queue. I'm pretty sure it'll be anticlimactic, but it'll soon be seen. I wonder though if you can lay your hands on the Zatoichi films in India. Somewhere, someplace...? I've never found them any where there.

apu said...

I love your writings on film. Although I havent seen any of the titles you mention.

Sunil said...

Thank you Apu.

Zatoichi movies are on netflix, but if you just want to get a more hollywood feel for the kind of movies these were, there's this mainstream movie from ~10 years ago that was directly *inspired* by Zatoichi movies. It's called "Blind fury" (with Rutger Hauer in the lead, as a Vietnam veteran gone blind, now with a cane sword). It's not tooooooo bad (though it doesn't have the feudal charm, subtle underplay or feel of the Zatoichi flicks).

sathish said...


I have watched one Zatoichi movie in Bangalore, India. I found it in one of the pirated dvd shops.. surprisingly, this was original - he probably got it from some one and decided to hire it..

Sunil said...'re really lucky to find movies like this in B'lore. I've looked for years, and never found anything like this. Even the kurosawa's are hard to find!