by Byron Bixler
From the December 2015 IssueFor those unaware of the magic of the samurai genre, “Zatoichi” is the James Bond of Japanese Jidaigeki cinema as far as longevity goes. Spanning nearly three decades with a 26-film series as well as a popular television show and multiple remakes and rip-offs, the adventures of Zatoichi concern a blind master swordsman affectionately nicknamed “Ichi.” Working as a masseur as he travels the countryside, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a noble protagonist—a man with good intentions and an amiable disposition who, over the course of the franchise, repeatedly finds himself drawn into conflict, usually by an obligation to defend a terrorized innocent. The audience is told very little of his past, but we come to know him very quickly by his selfless actions and his intensifying list of spoken regrets.
In the context of other samurai films, the Zatoichi series occupies a comfortable middle ground between the bloody extremes and pseudo-fantastical backdrop of Lone Wolf and Cub (1972-74), and the stiff melodrama and formal aesthetic tendencies of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-56). Of course, as one might expect from a franchise of such length, the films wavered in tone and content from somber character drama to high-camp fluff over the years.
The third entry in the series, New Tale of Zatoichi may contain a higher body count than its two predecessors, but do not be mistaken: the action is secondary.
With the vibrant opening image of a crackling fire, the Zatoichi series is thrust into the world of color for the first time. While the previous two installments’ beautiful black & white cinematography is sorely missed, New Tale of Zatoichi quickly proves that the franchise hasn’t missed a beat—either on a technical or storytelling level—and also proves that the shadows distressing the heart of our protagonist are still very much present. It’s a big step up from the first hastily conceived sequel.
After encountering a childhood friend on the road and treating him and his family to a bathhouse visit, Ichi, along with all the other customers, is robbed of what little money he has. Our hero doesn’t act in the moment to preserve the safety of those around him, but makes his move the next day, avenging the poor villagers and getting their money back from the bandits.
Following this is a trip to his old village, where he meets his old master—a stubborn and spiteful man who holds a suffocating grip on his younger sister—forcing her to marry a reasonably well-to-do man she doesn’t love. The young woman is of pure spirit and soon attaches herself to Zatoichi, quickly falling in love with him. The feelings are mutual for the blind masseur, but he’s hesitant to give himself over to them, doubting his worthiness. Tortured inside, he yearns for a calm life, free of violence. At the same time this is happening, a rival samurai, the brother of a man Zatoichi once slayed, seeks revenge, stalking him regularly and pressing for a duel that the master swordsman is reluctant to engage in.
New Tale of Zatoichi dives right back into the kind of rich morality tale territory that was seen in the first film. As such, there’s a preference for heavy drama over action and the way it plays out is beautifully tragic.
Ichi is struggling to come to terms with the pain he’s caused (directly and indirectly) and sorely wishes to escape that past by settling down with a woman who accepts him for his sins and supports him in his quest for a renewed sense of inner peace. The act of drawing a sword becomes a bitter struggle and having the temerity to reject that urge even when faced with injustice or an enraged challenger is what Zatoichi strives for. But, he faces difficulties everywhere he goes, looked down upon by those of higher social status and angrily rebuked by his former master when his intentions of marriage are announced. The details of our troubled hero’s character are soundly fleshed out and the strong combination of writing and performance make for a captivating character study.
Elsewhere, themes of forgiveness and self-serving greed are harshly contrasted as one character’s evolution from single-minded killer to empathetic soul is crossed with another’s increasingly devious demeanor. It all climaxes with a series of events and a final line that left me absolutely devastated.
Good deeds are not always fairly repaid, but cruelty will always find the end of a sword, and the one who holds it must live on with the bitterness of the memory, forever groping for serenity on a lonely path. Poignant lessons from what could easily have been a simplistic tale of heroic warriors and their impressive, flashing steel.