Directed by Kenji Misumi
I’ve finally begun to embark on this long journey after getting the Criterion set with the first 25 films. Already being a fan of the genre and familiar with the legacy of this series, first getting interested upon figuring out that he had a cross over with Yojimbo then becoming determined to acquire it when I learned of the One Armed Swordsman cross over, this has been a long time coming.
So how was it, you ask? Oh you didn’t ask… Well… I’m going to tell you anyway.
It was quite good. Nothing spectacular but a solid entry to the genre and a more than adequate first entry in this absurdly long series. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the casting of Shintaro Katsu as the titular Blind Swordsman. This is not because Katsu is a particularly strong actor, though I suspect he truly dedicated himself to the role as he never opens his eyes and creates a generally disarming stumbling quality to his graceful swordplay, but rather because of his physical appearance. A far cry from the gruff and masculine Toshiro Mifune or the young and sly Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsu is round-faced, chinless, and hardly in shape. The result is a swordsman so un-intimidating that he need not even have lost his sight to have caused skepticism in the character around him and it is there that the beauty of the character seems to shine.
Like the One Armed Swordsman, Zatoichi is a character defined by the age old theme that strength and power are often found in the most unassuming of places, yet unlike OAS, who was played by Jimmy Wang-Yu, a good looking and suave actor, when Zatoichi reveals his power it really does feel surprising. Katsu must also be praised for his ability to fake (or is he really that good?) prowess with his blade as he truly sells the fast, abrupt fights which his character engages in, whether it be slicing enemies or a candle falling through the air in the blink of an eye.
Most surprisingly, to me, is the nonchalant and mild homoeroticism in the movie. It is used in a fairly provocative manner as well as his friendship with a Ronin hired by an opposing clan is used to juxtapose Zatoichi’s desire for a woman. The contrast is great as he finds himself sharing intimate details of his life with the Ronin and even massaging him for an extended scene yet can hardly bear to touch the face of a young woman who fancies him. This seems to be a fairly unique aspect to this swordsman as its used to emphasize his frustration and disgust with his life as a Yakuza henchman. They are in a misogynist, patrimonial society that only allows him to engage with men. Violence has replaced sex because he is a man of honor who would be unwilling to use a woman the way others in the film are shown to do.
SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH
This is taken to a logical conclusion in the films final moments where he is pit against his friend. The two fight and he kills the Ronin with a blow while turning his back to the man. The Ronin falls onto the back of Zatoichi, mounting him. They remain like this for a purposely extended amount of time and when he removes his blade, he quickly catches and embraces his dead friend. This level of intimacy is almost immediately contrasted with his abandonment of the young woman as she waits on a road for him. He travels through dense forest to avoid the road and she can be seen, isolated far in the distance. The distance juxtaposed with the closeness of the kill is undeniably intentional and it creates for cinema of surprising power.
The movie is quality genre stuff. It doesn’t transcend it or redefine it the way Yojimbo did, but there is more meat to its bones than one may expect. Its somber tone and slow pace do make the film drag more than most of its peers, but it is certainly quality and even has some shots of stunning beauty, like a scene of warriors arriving on boats then running through reeds.
So, if you like movies like this, it’s probably worth your time and luckily, it stands on its own well enough that even should the massive size of this series intimidate you, you won’t necessarily feel the need to dive all the way in.