Shintaro Katsu was far from a household name in Japan in the late fifties, but following a role in Kazuo Mori’s 1959 chanbara, Samurai Vendetta, Katsu really found his feet and fame as a blind masseur seeking power at any cost in Mori’s follow-up picture with the actor, Shiranui Kengyo. In this film Katsu played a pretty unlikable character, but the public took to him as an actor and in 1962 he teamed up with director Kenji Misumi to play another blind masseur; this time one with an incredible talent with the sword and an even greater skill for telling the difference between right and wrong.
The Tale of Zatoichi introduces us to the character of Ichi (Katsu) – following an opening credits sequence in which we see him struggling to cross a bridge – arriving at a house and taking part in a game of dice. He volunteers to roll the dice and when he turns the cup over he ‘accidentally’ reveals the dice that the group will be betting on. The first time this happens he doesn’t appear to notice, but the second time he realises and reveals that these are not the actual dice and simply fell out of his sleeve. This is all a con of course and Ichi is out to hustle these guys that he has only just met. But the con only works because they are all happy to take advantage of the fact that Ichi is blind.
What this reveals about Ichi is that he has found a way to turn what could be a disability into an asset – despite his lack of sight, he has highly attuned hearing – and also that he can be something of hero for the weak and oppressed against those that seek to take advantage. Although he’s also not above profiting from this.
Ichi is actually in town to visit a local yakuza boss, Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi), who it transpires is planning a war with the boss of another local gang. This rival, Shigezo (Ryuzo Shimada), has enlisted a ronin, Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), to fight for him and Sukegoro hopes to even the fight a little by having Ichi on his side. Hirate has tuberculosis though and over the course of the film he and Ichi develop something of a friendship and a great deal of respect for each other. Whilst The Tale of Zatoichi may be something of a cheapish chanbara picture, but its key themes and subplots – such as this doom laden foe for Ichi and the code of honour that they both follow – add depth to the story and a bleak fatalism to the film’s ending.
The Tale of Zatoichi could perhaps best be described as a character piece and this is why it’s easy to see why the film was so successful and led to so many sequels in cinemas and a one hundred episode television series. Katsu as Ichi is ludicrously charismatic and in just ninety minutes the character that would come to be so intrinsically linked to Katsu is so clearly defined. Katsu is also on fine form in this first installment, conveying a great deal, despite frequently not even having his eyes open. He’s an actor that at his worst is very hammy, but at his best can bring an audience into the thoughts of his character and help them understand his motivations without saying a single word.
His somewhat broad and physical acting style suits the character of Ichi, but not simply for when the character is making it very obvious to everyone watching that he has heard an incredibly quiet sound or can smell something distasteful, but also when the film calls for something more internal and emotional. His feelings when casting aside a love interest – a nuanced turn from Masayo Banri as Otane – or when the war is over but casualties are numerous are evident in his face and the way in which he holds himself. The latter sees Katsu rage in anger, head lifted and brow furrowed as he lays out the cost of war.
Misumi understands that the film is all about character too and whilst he shoots the film’s late action scenes in a thrilling manner – including an inspired three hundred and sixty degree pan through a town being attacked from all sides – it is the quieter character moments and plot driven dialogues scenes in which his and cinematographer Chikashi Makiura’s sensitive framing, elegant lighting and intelligent blocking really shines.
The Tale of Zatoichi ends on a sombre note and with Ichi giving up his sword, but it was not long before Daiei, who produced the film, realised that they had something of a gold mine with this simple tale of a blind masseur who wanders the countryside. Audiences were really taken with the character of Ichi and wanted to see more. And even sixty-five years on, it’s very easy to see why.