For this month’s review I thought that I would take a cue from Russ and tell you all about some favorite Japanese cinema of mine. Stuff that you can actually share with younger siblings, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews because that’s who this series was geared towards when it was made. While films like Samurai’s Revenge; Throne of Blood; Samurai I, II, and III; Rashomon; and The Seven Samurai are good primers and introduction to the world of Japanese Samurai cinema, they can be a little heavy in tone and to violent for younger children. Also some other titles of the genre can be too Americanized and not really communicate historical Japanese culture. Zatoichi of course was designed as a kids series so it has all of that.
Zatoichi is the main character of a series comprised of 26 films (each around 90 minutes long) that were produced primarily between 1962 and 1973 with a revival film in 1989. The general plot of the series follows Zatoichi and his misadventures as he wonders from village to village, aiding those who are unable to either defend themselves or seek justice. Other than that, there’s not much progression for the character. He’s not seeking revenge against the evil Ronin who killed his master. He’s not there with a goal to overthrow the Shogunate and bring in the golden Tokugawa period. He’s just there wandering the countryside, the loan Ronin, uncomplicated, helping those that he can, and for the most part just wanting to be left alone. If it was set in Europe Zatoichi would be about an orphaned night, traveling the countryside and writing wrongs. If it was set in in the American West Zatoichi would be
about a lonely cowboy/gunman, his family taken from him so he wanders the plains and hills protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Zatoichi is the Jedi Knight protecting the galaxy from evil with a monastic flare. If Zatoichi was a British sci-fi character he would be Doctor Who, always ending up where he needed to be to help people or correct a problem. It’s an archetypal roll with near infinite variety.
Of course there are common themes within the Zatoichi films that keep recurring. Things that provide familiarity to the story while continuing to be just a little different each time. There’s the cutting of the candles so that he has the advantage in a fight, there’s the dice game where he turns the tables on the corrupt gang running the show because he can hear that the dice are fixed, there’s the begging for gruel once he gets to town, and of course there’s the -wink-wink- -nudge-nudge- to the audience when he tells everyone “I’m just a poor blind masseuse. I’m completely harmless. I don’t mean to make any trouble.” But of course trouble always finds Zatoichi whether it’s Raiders from the hills, an extortionist gang of criminals, corrupt regional/village leaders, or a bounty hunter hot on his tail.
Unlike modern films of the same as genre, Zatoichi is relatively bloodless, minimalistic in its portrayal of sexuality, and typically quick in its resolution by violence. Zatoichi is always overtly diplomatic, deflecting the conflict, using misdirection against evildoers so that they forget why they were harassing Zatoichi and his friends, and if that fails, neutralizing the evildoers so they can’t hurt others. Violence is always the last option, even though is usually gets to that point but is over quickly.
With the same actor playing Zatoichi throughout the entire series of films and 100 television episodes, it provides good familiarity with the character. No confusion at least to who the good guy is. Now, I’ve been getting my Zatoichi through Netflix on disc but many of the later titles are either unavailable or have a long wait. So, if you want physical copies there is a Criterion set of the entire series that’s likely worth it if you can put that much money together. There are also VHS copies that float around eBay or Amazon but they’re not usually together in one big set. Otherwise many of the films in the series are freely available via YouTube or Hulu. Please note though that the series is primarily, if not exclusively, available in a subtitled format, not dubbed so if you want to introduce Zatoichi to younger children either you’ll have to wait until they can read themselves or you’ll be reading a lot.
So give it a look-see for some good old writing of wrongs, the good side winning, and Zatoichi walking off down the path to the next village and his next adventure.
When he’s not driving to work, has his hands in his car and/or house, or is attending Film Club events as an #Awesome13 & #Sweet16 alum, Benjamin can be found listening to podcasts and hoping to start his own one day. Reformed Trekker; self-identified Anglophile; and Anime fan by way of Akira, Ghibli, & Gundam. You can find him on the Film Club Facebook page as well as right here planning his next meta review.
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