This is actually a review-overview of the Zatoichi films–and there are 26 of them. Yup, that’s a lot. The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi mongatari) was the first, released in 1962, and the final film Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman (Zatoichi) was released in 1982 (some released by Daiei Studios, now Kadokawa Productions, and some from Toho Studios). The character was originally created by novelist Kan Shimozawa. All 26 films and 100 episodes of the TV series take place during the Edo period in Japan (in the mid 1800s) and feature actor Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi.
Ok, finished with housekeeping.
As you can guess, the films revolve around Zatoichi, who is an impoverished, blind masseur and gambler. He is also an infamous swordsman. When people find out who he is they exclaim “Zatoichi! The Blind Swordsman!” and then they run, cuz he slices bad guys and doesn’t even bother to take their names.
Zatoichi is kind of a Robin Hood figure. He walks from village to village with his cane sword trying to make a living giving massages and gambling (which he is good at because his super-heightened sense of hearing allows him to tell which side the dice have landed on). When he encounters gangsters and damsels in distress he doesn’t leave until he’s disposed of the baddies and saved the ladies. However he’s pretty unassuming–usually trying to hide the swordsman side of his identity–and is reluctant to resort to violence…but he cannot let an injustice stand!
Every film follows that same basic formula–Zatoichi goes to a new town, is pulled into the center of a problem whether he wants to be or not, meets a pretty girl, and then solves the problem, nobly walking off into the sunset. (He never actually ends up with the girl, for one reason or another.) The films require a certain level of disbelief-suspension, but they’re always fun. While some may not consider these to be “samurai/ronin” films because technically the character Zatoichi is neither (yes, such pedantry does exist), they have all the hallmarks of the genre. So that’s where I’ve filed them in my DVD books. Yes, I organize my DVD collection by genre; no, I don’t own all 26 of the films.
A notable entry in the saga, particularly for fans of samurai films, is Zatoichi and Yojimbo (Zatoichi to Yojimbo, the 20th film, released in 1970). Zatoichi comes head to head with Sassa the bodyguard, played by the totally epic Toshiro Mifune. It’s kind of a wink-nod that Sassa is basically Mifune’s yojimbo character from the Kurosawa films (Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which I highly highly recommend for those who want an introduction to the samurai film sub-genre). Lots of character-license-free fun to be had.
Beat Takeshi’s 2003 Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman is not a part of the 26 film “canon”. I like this film well enough, even if it is a bit self-indulgent. Beat Takeshi, a.k.a. Takeshi Kitano, both directs and stars as Zatoichi. And Zatoichi has bleach blond hair (in Edo era Japan!?)…did he do it himself? Did he go to a hair-dresser? Overall, I don’t think it added much to the “big Zatoichi picture,” if there is such a thing, and was basically just another Zatoichi movie. But it’s worth watching–a good actor by the name of Tadanobu Asano plays opposite Kitano, as a samurai.
The Bottom Line: Good clean fun. If you enjoy comic book films and/or martial arts films (and somehow haven’t come across these yet) you’ll probably enjoy them.