The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatôichi monogatari) Review

26 feature films, 4 seasons of a television series and multiple remakes and reinterpretations but it all had to start somewhere. Originating from a character created by novelist Kan Shimozawa, the blind swordsman and masseuse Zatoichi made his feature film debut in 1962 with Kenji Misumi directing and Shintaro Katsu starring.

The Tale of Zatoichi is quick to introduce the main character of Zatoichi. First glimpsed in the opening credits, his inability to see is quickly identified. His character is also quickly defined in early scenes in which we see him tricking local gamblers, in a game of Cho-han, who try to take advantage of his perceived disability.

Zatoichi arrives in the small town having been promised work with his sword by Sukejoro (Eijiro Yanagi), who is having a feud with another man of power and influence, Shigezo (Ryuzo Shimada), who resides in a nearby town. Shigezo also hires a ronin, Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), and it quickly becomes clear that Zatoichi and Hirate will meet on the battlefield and only the greater swordsman will live to walk away.

As mentioned above, there are a great number of Zatoichi films and there are variations throughout but what is probably most striking about the early films, and the first in particular, is how sombre they are. The Tale of Zatoichi presents a moody and often dark story of two men, Zatoichi and Hirate, who form a bond, a genuine friendship, but must ultimately come together to fight. Coupled with this rather fatalist plot is the fact that Hirate appears to be dying anyway and the moments the two men share together feel precious and actually rather touching.

Katsu’s mischievous grin is still there though and there is some humour present, the early gambling scene at least begins that way, but the rather oppressive outlook, which is occasionally evident in the direction – low ceilings and high angle framing – makes this an oddly touching and rewarding character piece.