Believe it or not, since posting my 11/13 Martial Arts in Media column, I’ve had some requests to see the liner notes I wrote for the now hard-to-find U.S. DVD release of Shintaro Katsu’s final Zatoichi film, then titled simply Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman.
Here then are those liner notes as originally written:
More than forty years after his creation, Zato Ichi remains one of world cinema’s greatest characters – in large part due to the fact that the exciting, emotional, and passionate films were not just about a blind swordsman, but about blindness in general: blind greed, blind hatred, blind lust and all the rest. On a conscious level, the Zato Ichi (or Zatoichi) movies were exotic, unique thrillers. But below the surface, they worked because all the antagonists were essentially more blind than the sightless hero, creating a frission unmatched by any other series. In the country of their origin, there was an added dimension in that Zatoichi existed as a living condemnation of the strict, unrealistic, ultimately corrupt Bushido samurai code … which was blind to most human reality.
The films cemented the stardom of Shintaro Katsu, who became one of the most powerful and important filmmakers during the golden age of Japanese action cinema (roughly 1960-1975). Born Toshio Okumura on November 29, 1931, this son of a musician took on his stage name when becoming a singer in the early 1950’s. Although far from what was generally considered handsome, Katsu’s charisma and memorable voice led to a film career. But it wasn’t until 1960, and the huge success of Hakuoki (a.k.a. Samurai Vendetta), however, that he became a major attraction. He made a powerful impression in at least ten more features (including Shiranui the Blind Court Masseur in 1960) before the first Zatoichi film appeared in 1962.
Although his origin would mutate throughout the series, the basic fact is that Zatoichi was not born blind, but lost his sight for reasons that were, fittingly, never made clear. The audience, like the lead, was kept in the dark. Eventually being forced to kill his own brother as well as his sword sensei (thereby also losing the love of two women he most adored), there was even a suggestion that he simply no longer wished to see. He seemed doomed to wander Tokugawa Era/Edo Period Japan – outwardly a homeless, humble, kind, gentle, even pathetic, gambler and masseuse. But once his name was revealed, his well-known infamy as an avenger of injustice and a supra-naturally skilled swordsman with radar-like hearing held sway as power- and money-mad men (not to mention women) sought to fool or better him.
At the time of this film’s release, it had been fifteen years since the previous movie in the series (the rarely seen Zatoichi’s Conspiracy, 1974). The Japanese cinema was moribund, and apparently it was hoped that a well-produced, high-budget new Blind Swordsman film might help resurrect the glory days. Katsu, too, needed a kick-start. Although he appeared in a long-running Zatoichi TV series and produced many other movies – including the internationally popular Baby Cart/Lone Wolf & Cub films starring his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama – his ignominious departure as star of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark 1980 film Kagemusha (Katsu had wanted to videotape the entire filmmaking process against the director’s wishes) stalemated his career.
So Zatoichi 26, a.k.a. Zatoichi ’89, a.k.a. The Legend of Zatoichi finds the blind man chunkier, but otherwise much the same, despite having had his palms pierced during Zatoichi in Desperation (1973) and even regaining his vision in the final episode of the TV series (Zatoichi’s Journey Into Dreams, 1979)! Here, however, he’s back to being blind, and a demon with his cane sword. At the time of its release, however, the film’s quality was overshadowed by controversy. Katsu’s son, Yuta Okumura, who played a villain, was charged with criminally negligent homicide for accidentally killing an extra during the final fight scene.
Although Yuta was ultimately found not guilty, the tragedy necessitated a reworking of the climatic battle. It remains thunderously effective, however, as you can see. Just a year later, Katsu was arrested at Honolulu Airport for hiding a small amount of pot and cocaine in his underwear. Although he would subsequently appear in such films as Hong Kong’s Saga of the Phoenix (1990) these setbacks and misfortunes essentially ended his major screen career.
In the summer of 1996, four years after his brother died of a heart attack, Katsu was diagnosed with pharyngeal cancer. He passed away on June 21, 1997 at the age of sixty-five. 5000 people attended his wake and 30,000 flowers decorated the altar. But his, and Zatoichi’s, fame continued. The series remains one of Japan’s most popular and enduring. In fact, during 2003, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano – one of the world’s great filmmakers and “star” of Spike TV’s cult hit Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (which is culled from Beat’s [a.k.a. “Vic Romano”] famous Nippon TV show Takeshi’s Castle) – directed and starred in a 27th Zatoichi film, which is already a worldwide hit.
As long as there is unseeing evil, and film fans, the Blind Swordsman will fight on.