Do yourself a favor and try the Zatoichi films

by Martin Hafer

From 1962 to 1989, Shintarô Katsu played the inexplicable character, Zatoichi in 31 films.  I say inexplicable because Zatoichi is an amazing swordsman who manages in each film to defeat scores of evil baddies who are exploiting and killing the poor in these dramas.  Oh, and did I mention that he’s blind!  Of course this is completely ridiculous but Katsu and the filmmakers managed to make it work and in many ways, the films seem a lot like the so-called ‘spaghetti westerns’ of the 60s, though instead of being set in the old west, the Zatoichi films are set in the feudal era. The Italians attempted to copy this success with a character named Blind Man, but the idea of a blind guy out-shooting everyone just seemed too ridiculous and the films never caught on like these Japanese films.

The films are exciting and very much like the old B-movies — fun, simple entertainment.  Fortunately, Netflix has most of the Zatoichi films and they are also available from Amazon and other outlets.  But which films should you watch and which films should you avoid?!  Three different actors eventually ended up playing this strange hero and there is one other Zatoichi-like film. Where to begin?

As for the Katsu films, they all are very watchable though you may want to skip his 1989 film.  If you can, see his first film The Tale of Zatoichi.  But if you can’t, this isn’t a serious problem as all the films work even if you see them out of order.  As for Katsu’s final film, there is a huge gap between this and his previous film.  Ten years does make a difference and the final Katsu performance was a big disappointment and it’s ultra-depressing.  Truly the expression ‘you can never go back’ is appropriate in this case and you might want to skip this one, it’s really up to you.  In addition to these 31 films, Katsu also starred in a Japanese television series.

There are also three more Zatoichi films made without Katsu that I should mention. In 2003, Takeshi Kitano directed and starred in a new incarnation of the blind do-gooder.  It isn’t exactly the old Zatoichi and in some ways I preferred this newer and bloodier film and wish they’d make more.  It had a goofy spirit to it as well as a very interesting and complicated plot that kept me guessing.  There also is the last Zatoichi film, appropriately named Zatoichi: The Last and, unfortunately, it’s a terrible film that seems to have very little to do with the old series. The final Zatoichi film I want to mention is an odd one.  Ichi is about Zatoichi, but he never appears in the movie!  Instead, a female blind swordsman is looking for her hero, Zatoichi, but ends up pretty much doing what good old Zatoichi did, killing tons of evil baddies who sure have it coming.  It’s not a bad film at all, but might just be one you want to see after you see the other films.

So give the films a try and let me know what you think.