Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman

25 Movies

Japan (1962-1989), each approx. 95 minutes
Starring: Shintarô Katsu as Zatoichi
Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Genre: Martial Arts
Rating: 5

A fifteen-year old boy walks along the winter streets, thinking his fifteen-year old thoughts, looking for a theater to sneak into so he can get out of the cold and enjoy whatever movie randomly appears on the screen. This youngster, whom I suppose used to be me, came across some dilapidated movie house and succeeded in slipping in. What was playing? I had no idea, though the hope that perhaps porn was the main course excited me, as it would any male of my age. Finding a seat, I noted with some disgust that the movie was foreign and had hard to read subtitles. To make matters even worse, the hero was fat, blind, and apparently an idiot since he kept falling into ditches along the side of the road. Nevertheless, when the movie ended I remained in my seat for quite a while. I couldn’’t believe what I had just witnessed, but there was absolutely no doubt that I was completely hooked.

I returned to that Asian theater many times after that, often sitting through the same movie over and over, tirelessly absorbing every nuance of the culture, loving every word of unintelligible dialogue, and feeling my heart beat out of control when my blind “god” pulled out his cane-sword and destroyed 20 to 80 villains single handedly.

Twenty-five movies, all staring the late Shintaro Katsu in the lead role, were made about Zatoichi, spanning eleven years (1962 – 1973). A twenty-sixth, again staring Katsu (who also wrote and directed), was made in 1989. I should add that a Zatoichi TV series (once again starring Katsu) aired 100 episodes from 1972 – 1974. Many of these episodes are just as good as the movies!

Set in the early 19th century, the blind hero is a masseur who also happens to be an honest yakuza gambler. Walking from town to town, his walking stick tapping away in an effort to avoid falling on his face, Zatoichi is always looking for a little massage work and an exciting game of dice. Invariably, what he does find is corruption, people in need, and violence as the body count of the assembled villains grows with each wave of his blade.Zatoichi puts on quite a few extra pounds in his later films, which actually makes the role even better; his bedraggled appearance serves to humanize a man that could easily slip into superhuman, and therefore unreal, status. It’s this down to earth feel that makes him such a beloved character, and in some ways reminds me of Peter Falk’s Colombo, another kind, unpretentious hero that seeks justice behind an inept façade.

Here is the list of Zatoichi movies. I’ve watched each and every movie from 3 to 10 times and never tire of them. However, if you are looking for one Zatoichi film to “test the waters” with, may I recommend Zatoichi Challenged! (1967) and Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968). Either way, you’re in for an incredible treat.

BE WARNED: once you are exposed to these adventures of the blind swordsman, your chances of acquiring a severe Zatoichi addiction are extremely high!

The Tale of Zatoichi – 1962
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues – 1962
New Tale of Zatoichi – 1963
Zatoichi the Fugitive – 1963
Zatoichi on the Road – 1963
Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold – 1964
Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword – 1964
Fight, Zatoichi, Fight – 1964
Adventures of Zatoichi – 1964
Zatoichi’s Revenge – 1965
Zatoichi and the Doomed Man – 1965
Zatoichi and the Chess Expert – 1965
Zatoichi’s Vengeance – 1966
Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage – 1966
Zatoichi’s Cane Sword – 1967
Zatoichi the Outlaw – 1967
Zatoichi Challenged – 1967
Zatoichi and the Fugitives – 1968
Samaritan Zatoichi – 1968
Zatoichi and Yojimbo – 1970
Zatoichi, The Festival Of Fire – 1970
Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman – 1971
Zatoichi at Large – 1972
Zatoichi in Desperation – 1972
Zatoichi’s Conspiracy – 1973
Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman – 1989