THE TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962)
(Directed by Kenji Misumi
(Written by Minoru Inuzuka)
(Starring Shintarô Katsu, Masayo Banri and Shigeru Amachi)
Plot: Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) is a wandering blind masseur, who moonlights as a sword-for-hire, catching the attention of Boss Sukegorô (Eijirô Yanagi). He is about to enter a turf war with Boss Shigezô (Ryûzô Shimada), who has just hired a dangerous fallen samurai named Hirate (Shigeru Amachi). Ichi accepts his offer to be an enforcer, but finds himself conflicted when he befriends Hirate. Can he get himself out of fighting him? Or is fate determined to see them collide? Also known as “Zatôichi monogatari” and “Zatoichi: Volume 1“.
“The Tale of Zatoichi” is probably the best amongst the long-running Zatoichi franchise, even though it’s not necessarily my favorite. You can tell that the budget was minimal compared to subsequent entries (as this was the first), the sword-fighting choreography is awkward, the visual style is unexceptional and Ichi himself is almost underused. Sequels would improve upon nearly every aspect of filmmaking and focus more on Ichi, so why do I hold the original in such a high regard? This franchise has spawned 26 entries, a 100-episode TV Show, two remakes and a handful of spin-offs- many standing out as exceptional, others not- and yet none of them were able to craft such a compelling narrative, filled with intriguing subplots and interesting supporting characters like this one did. “The Tale of Zatoichi” is a little slow paced, but I personally wouldn’t remove or shorten a single scene, as every piece of this puzzle enhances the entire experience. “The Tale of Zatoichi” simply has the strongest story, which also functions as the perfect introduction to its fascinating protagonist, setting up the template that the sequels would follow (arguably to a fault).
Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is an excellently written character, one who would subtly develop throughout the course of the series without drawing too much attention to his gradual changes- letting us notice his development ourselves. But he’s arguably at his most intriguing during this movie, as he seems a lot more…human…in contrast to the more mythical interpretation of the man that sequels would explore. He admits to taking up the sword because he was sick of being looked down upon, but he claims to have only been practicing for three years. While he is humble and pleasant, he shows a certain amount of smugness (that would vanish in subsequent films), as if he enjoys holding power over those who usually would be holding the power. He never bullies anyone who doesn’t deserve it though, championing those who cannot defend themselves and humiliating those who prey upon them. I also suspect that he’s never really killed anybody until the events of the film, or at least has never truly interacted with any of his victims beforehand, explaining why he’s so shaken up about the prospect of dueling Hirate to the death (In sequels- he would be more resigned when facing his friends in battle). He only visited Boss Sukegorô (Eijirô Yanagi) to take advantage of him and his introductory scene surrounds Ichi scamming a group of thugs- who admittedly were trying to scam him. He’s even rude enough to point out that they smell, without any kind of provocation, because he knows he can dice them all to pieces with ease. One gets the impression that it was gangsters whose torment inspired him to become a swordsman, as he sure loves to prod and con these guys. Later films would have him act much more polite and respectful, even towards his foes, only resorting to verbal beatings when they’ve crossed a line. He also doesn’t scam the Bosses as much, or if he does, there are better reasons than just feeding his ego and wallet. But what makes his character arc truly fascinating, even moreso than any future character development, is that his actions have consequences and he knows it. When he’s berating the gangsters at the end, he is displaying a fury that we would never really see again (even his eyes are uncharacteristically open), but I was under the impression that he was really angry at himself. In his eyes- he has become the exact kind of monster that he despises and his story concludes with him rejecting their lifestyle…even though we know that it would eventually catch up with him. None of the sequels, remakes or spin-offs would ever challenge the character like “A Tale of Zatoichi” did and Shintaro Katsu is phenomenal in the role. There’s a lot of nuance in his performance, especially in conveying his blindness and he showcases a variety of emotions that we would not see in the sequels. Katsu’s future portrayals of the character would continue his witty, pleasant and sometimes even bumbling persona, but the deeper emotions would usually be more internal. I’m not saying one choice is better than the other, but “The Tale of Zatoichi” stands out more because Ichi never really acts this way again, probably because of the emotional scar tissue that this story left upon him.
I also really enjoyed the supporting cast and the dilemmas of their characters. Hirate is a disgraced samurai, but he must’ve found humility, as he treats Ichi with the utmost respect. Even though the gangsters fear and admire Ichi’s skills, they badmouth him behind his back, showing that they still look down upon him- even if they acknowledge his use. But Ichi gets the respect of Hirate, who is a person of much higher caliber than they are, adding more to his internal conflict about whether he can kill him. Their relationship occasionally resembles a romance and with Ichi firmly rejecting the advances of the lovely Tane (Masayo Banri), one can even question his sexuality. I don’t think Ichi is gay, but the homo-eroticism is definitely there and “The Tale of Zatoichi” leaves a lot of stuff like that open to interpretation. One of my favorite subplots surrounds Tatekichi (Michirô Minami), Tane’s troubled brother who is assigned by his Boss to assist Ichi. Tate is interesting because during the first half, you can see his own character development going either way, as he seems to be on the fence as to whether he should embrace good or evil. He apparently seduced and abandoned a village girl, who ends up becoming pregnant as a result of their tryst and he does seem genuinely conflicted about this. This humanizes the character and you can see the potential for redemption…at least first…I’ve seen this movie a handful of times, but only during my recent viewing did I notice the strange circumstances surrounding her death. She apparently commits suicide after he refuses to take responsibility for her, but there are some clues that suggest he might’ve killed her. It’s never clarified and I’m glad they never revealed the truth, because so much fun is found in coming to your own conclusion. Regardless of whether he’s a murderer or she took her own life, he becomes a lot more sinister after her death. His arc was brilliantly written and I even enjoyed the romance between Ichi and Tane thanks to their charming chemistry, even though they only share a few scenes together. Their interactions reveal a lot about Ichi’s insecurities and love-hate relationship with the gangster lifestyle, adding another layer of depth to the narrative. Oh yeah, the dialogue is also very funny and witty, boasting some of the best lines of the entire franchise.
Kenji Misumi was one of those directors whom you could never completely tell apart from everyone else, even though he delivered some great work in his lifetime. His styles ranged from minimalist to surreal and his quality varied from exceptional to merely competent, so he never stood out like Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha or Masaki Kobayashi did. “The Tale of Zatoichi” is more simplistic in its approach, with the framing drawing attention to the characters’ state of mind, instead of striving for eye popping visuals. I think this enhanced the power of the story, as too much flashiness would’ve likely distracted us from the plot. Nevertheless, the stark black-and-white cinematography is great, complimenting the script, direction and (especially) the performances nicely. I liked how the lighting captured their facial expressions, being shadowy when someone is hiding something and bright when they’re being honest. Akira Ikufube (known for his work on “Godzilla“) delivers yet another epic score and his thunderous music makes the film seem more action packed than it really is. Speaking of which- there isn’t a lot of sword fighting and the pacing is methodically slow, even though I was still captivated by every scene. As I alluded to earlier, the choreography is awkward because it looks like the actors are afraid they are going to actually kill the people whom their characters are trying to kill. This sometimes works in the narratives favor, especially with the final duel, which is more story than action driven. But I kept thinking that the sound design was lacking, like it needed some clangs or slashing noises, which could’ve given the battles a little more credibility. I really enjoyed the tactics utilized by both criminal factions and how Ichi uses his blindness to his advantage. Throughout the remainder of the franchise, Zatoichi movies would go back-and-forth between action and drama oriented, but this one is a little closer to the latter. I think it accomplishes its goals stunningly well, so I’m perfectly content with the limited and questionable action scenes. “The Tale of Zatoichi” was the perfect start to one of the best cinematic franchises of all time, developing its own formula that subsequent entries would emulate, but still standing out because of its execution and nuance.
Violence: I’m not sure what it’s actually rated, but it’s PG-13 worthy, with the violence being more suggestive than explicit.
Nudity: None, but there is an attempted rape.
Overall: “The Tale of Zatoichi” is excellent and I’ve decided to increase its rating, even though it does contain some imperfections.
DISCARDED MATERIAL (The original review)
Note from Author: This is simply an older review and I’ve improved too much as a writer and critic to let this reflect my opinions of “The Tale of Zatoichi”.
The first Zatoichi film is also one of the best. It has basically everything you can expect from a movie- drama, romance, intrigue, action, sword fighting, hints of film noir, and of course, some spectacular characters. I suppose that’s really what makes this film. The character of Ichi has become an icon, but he began as a fairly relatable person with shortcomings. He’s very human, showing a variety of emotions. We also get some exposition on how he came to be, which is pretty cool. Ichi actually has one of the coolest introductions of all times. Wait till you see his gambling against some yakuza thugs. Great introductions make great characters! Finally, the supporting characters are all unique and interesting, which is a rarity in the genre (especially compared to other Zatoichi films). The witty dialogue also would become a trademark for the series.
Misumi would become one of the main directors of the Zatoichi franchise. Sometimes he excels and delivers masterpieces, but other times he just feels like he wants to get the job done. He mostly serves the story here, which was the smart thing to do. The story is so good, any additional style would be distracting. Nevertheless, he does well with the drama and has a firm grasp on his actors. I also loved Akira Ifukube’s score, which is arguably the best in the series. Oh, and what about the action? Well, it’s pretty standard stuff for a Zatoichi film. However, there is more drama behind the mayhem. The choreography might’ve been more impressive during its time. While I personally didn’t have any problems with the movie, some may find the many names of characters and locations sort of confusing. I’ve heard some complaints about the pacing, but I never had an issue with that.
Shintaro Katsu(Ichi) gives an amazing breakthrough performance. Masayo Banri (Tane) is less annoying than most Zatoichi gals. Michio Minami (Tate) is credible as the scumbag thug. Shigeru Amachi (Hirate) does great as the tortured Yojimbo. Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro) and Ryuzo Shimada (Shigezo) are great as the Yakuza bosses.
Overall: “The Tale of Zatoichi” is a very well-written movie that fans of samurai films and even people who don’t care for the genre will enjoy. It’s a must see for all! My original rating was a 3.5/4.