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Top 10 most essential Zatoichi films

We look at the best of the famous, long running Zatoichi series…

With the 2013 release of Criterion’s impressive Zatoichi box set, it seems that the adventures of blind swordsman and masseur Ichi have finally found their way into Western pop culture. Before, the series had already been enormously popular in Japan. Indeed, in its home country Zatoichi stands as the second longest running jidaigeki (“period film”) series of all-time being only surpassed by actor Utaemon Ichikawa’s “Bored Hatamoto” series (30 films over the course of more than 30 years!).

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Initially, the series was produced by the Daiei production company. Until 1973, no less than twenty-five entries were released. In 1989, one last feature film aired on the big screen. Twenty-six films in total, united by one actor: Shintaro Katsu (1931 – 1997). His Zatoichi was a goofball and a killing machine. A hopeless romantic, yet deeply plagued by inferiority complexes. Worshiped by the peasants, yet despised even by the common folk. He hated killing, yet was constantly forced to murder again. In short, one of the most complex and vivid characters in cinema history.

As with every long running film series, a well-established formula of repeated, and by fans always anticipated, elements ensured its longevity. Soon every Zatoichi film should contain a gambling scene in which the titular character would outsmart his opponents with his incredibly heightened sense of hearing, at least one evil oyabun (“yakuza boss”) threatening the life of the poor and a mysterious ronin, who often forms a bound with Zatoichi, but is always forced to fight him in the end.

This list tries to track down not only the greatest, but also the most essential Zatoichi films which brought this formula to live, tried to improve it or varied it intelligently. Of course, the choices here are merely subjective. If you like the formula, every film will hold its share of great entertainment for you. In the end, there are no bad Zatoichi films – some are just better than others…

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The Tale of Zatoichi (1962, Zatoichi monogatari)

Story:
In his first adventure, Zatoichi finds himself caught in the middle of a turf war between two yakuza clans. After being recruited by the oyabun Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi), he befriends ronin Hirate Miki (Shigeru Amachi) who is suffering from tuberculosis. Unfortunately, they are fighting on opposing sides. Thus, the two master swordsmen know they eventually have to compete against each other in a duel of life and death…

Why You Should Watch It:
Despite being the first film in the series, “The Tale of Zatoichi” already contains many trademark elements of the series. A gambling scene in which Zatoichi is tricking his opponent using his perfect sense of hearing or nasty yakuza bosses oppressing the poor. Here, however, the relationship between Zatoichi and the ronin Hirate Miki forms the emotional core of the film. Two lonely underdogs of society find peace in each others company; one blind, the other seriously ill. “The Tale of Zatoichi” may have been the first film in the series, but it remains memorable as an independent work thanks to this tragically short-lived friendship.

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New Tale of Zatoichi (1963, Shin Zatoichi monogatari)

Story:
In Zatoichi’s first outing in color, Zatoichi returns to his home village. Arriving, Zatoichi meets up with his mentor and sword teacher Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu) and promptly falls in love with the latter’s daughter, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi). Zatoichi decides to settle down and marry Yayoi, but her father can’t overcome Ichi’s low social standing. Soon the tensions between Ichi and his old master threaten to escalate…

Why You Should Watch It:
After the second film in the series, “The Tale of Zatoichi Continues” (1962), was not much more than a hurriedly filmed throwaway sequel to cash in on the success of the first film, Daiei shifted down gears to further develop the personality of the eponymous blind gambler in this third entry. More than ever, Zatoichi appears as a tragic character whose low status as anma (“blind masseur”) prevents his pursuit of happiness. What follows is the most emotionally complex film of the series. Shintaro Katsu shows here that he was not only a great martial artist, but also an excellent actor. It’s his performance, and the grim direction of Daiei contract director Tokuzo Tanaka, that elicits many moving and profound moments from this little masterpiece.

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Zatoichi On the Road (1963, Zatoichi kenka-tabi)

Story:
In the the fifth Zatoichi adventure, Ichi has to guard a rich merchant’s daughter (Shiho Fujimura) to safety. Threatened by two opposing yakuza clans and pursued by violent samurai for refusing their lord’s advances, the girl is in grave danger. After having saved her from the girls’ certain doom, Zatoichi vows to bring her back home.

Why You Should Watch It:
Despite excellently choreographed scenes of swordplay, many funny antics and an entertaining plot, “Zatoichi on the Road” nonetheless doesn’t manage to gain quite the same momentum as its impressive predecessors. However, the film gains importance as the first completely routine entry in the series. All the trademark elements of the series are in place: A well executed combination of comedy, thrilling fights and drama. Thus, while not being particularly memorable, “Zatoichi On The Road” finally established the formula, which should make Zatoichi into one of the most enduring and beloved franchises in Japan of all-time.

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Zatoichi And the Chest of Gold (1964, Zatoichi senryo-kubi)

Story:
The sixth entry has Zatoichi trying to retrieve a chest of gold containing the taxes that a poor town’s folk had to pay to corrupt government officials. Supported by the legendary outlaw Chuji Kunisada (Shogo Shimada), he tries to help the villagers. However, his mission dares to fail when he encounters a cruel ronin (Tomisaburo Wakayama) who plans to kill Zatoichi.

Why You Should Watch It:
“Zatoichi And the Chest of Gold” was the first Zatoichi film shot by brillant cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (cameraman, for example, on “Rashomon”). He paints the moving tale in poetic images of nature, energetic tracking shots and deeply saturated colors. Moreover, while being one of the most beautiful looking Zatoichi entries, the film also convinces in terms of action. In what is the most breathtaking setup for an action scene in the entire series, Ichi has to survive his most dangerous fight until now being dragged through the mud by the whip of an arrogant samurai (Katsu’s real-life brother Tomisaburo Wakayama).

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Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964, Zatoichi kessho-tabi)

Story:
The eighth entry in the series follows Zatoichi’s quest to protect a newborn baby after the baby’s mother was killed by members of the yakuza who attacked a palanquin believing it to be carrying Ichi. The blind swordsman meets the pickpocketed Ko (Hizuru Takachiho) who agrees to join Ichi on his way to return the baby to its father.

Why You Should Watch It:
From its premise, “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight” may seem like the most sentimental, if not outright clicheed film in the series. True, the story about a reluctant tough guy caring for a baby had been done a Million times before, yet due to the impressive talent of Shintaro Katsu it acutally manages to become the most moving entries. First, Zatoichi only reluctantly agrees to care for the boy, but soon develops deep affection for it. What follows is a bittersweet journey full of joys and sorrow showing Ichi at his most soft and tragic. An outstanding entry, which in the end emerges as probably the greatest showcase of Shintaro Katsu’s acting ability in the entire series.

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Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967, Zatoichi royaburi)

Story:
In entry number sixteen, Zatoichi helps a group of farmers organised in a labor union to fend off a yakuza clan in favor of the seemingly reform-minded yakuza boss Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni). After returning to the village to save the young girl, Oyuki (Kayo Mikimoto), from prostitution, Ichi learns that Asagoro has begun to oppress the peasants and decides to take up arms to end the latter’s evil deeds.

Why You Should Watch It:
“Zatoichi The Outlaw” doesn’t enjoy a high reputation among Zatoichi aficionados due to its more grim tone and violence. Shot in grainy greens and browns, the color palette is muted making for a rather depressing film. It was the first Zatoichi film co-produced by Katsu’s own production company and it soon becomes clear that Katsu wanted to go in a different direction with the character. Thus, the fight scenes are much more violent featuring seas of blood and even a gruesome beheading, while the story with its marxist-like evocation of class struggle becomes outright political. Unsurprisingly, the film was directed by noted leftist director Satsuo Yamamoto, who became famous in the 1950s directing socially critical condemnations of Japanese neo-feudalism and modern capitalism.

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Samaritan Zatoichi (1967, Zatoichi Chikemurikaido)

Story:
The nineteenth entry has Zatoichi kill an indebted man for an evil yakuza clan in order to clear his own debts. As soon as he has cut him down, however, the young man’s spouse (Yoshiko Mita) emerges to pay off her husband’s loan. Angrily, Zatoichi steps in when the gang member decide to prostitute the girl as interest for her dead lover’s loan…

Why You Should Watch It:
“Samaritan Zatoichi” stands out as one of the funniest and at the same time thrilling Zatoichi adventures. At this point in the series, the story may seem clichéd, but the film delivers on all fronts. It begins grim with Zatoichi being persuaded to kill an innocent man, but soon develops into a pitch-perfect combination of hilarious comedy and heart rendering drama laced with thrilling and brilliantly choreographed fight scenes. Indeed, “Zatoichi Challenged” may not be the most poignant entry, but it brings everything we love about Zatoichi to perfection.

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Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970, Zatoicho to Yojimbo)

Story:
In the twentieth Zatoichi film, the titular blind gambler encounters a cynical ronin (Toshiro Mifune), who works as yojimbo (“bodyguard”) for a yakuza boss planning to overtake the fortune of his greedy merchant father (Osamu Takizawa). Soon Zatoichi finds himself embroiled in a life-threatening turf war…

Why You Should Watch It:
With a running time of 115 minutes, “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” overstays its welcome. Being rather unevenly narrated and hampered by a slow burning pace, the film only deserves mentioning for being likely the most anticipated entry for many newcomers to the series. The reason for this is Toshiro Mifune reprising his role as the stinking ronin of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Sanjuro” (1962). Being helmed by masterful director Kihachi Okamoto and shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, the film is without a doubt the most elaborately mounted entry in the entire series. Yet, seeing the end results, it nonetheless disappoints as one of weaker entries, promising much, yet delivering only half of the expected fun.

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Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970, Zatoichi Abare Himatsuri)

Story:
In entry twenty-one, Zatoichi faces off against the devilish blind oyabun Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori), who controls every other yakuza clan in the region. Furthermore, Zatoichi also has to fight off a psychopathic ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) who wrongly believes that Zatoichi has slept with his wife and has to show the flamboyant yakuza son Umeji (Peter) “how to be a man”.

Why You Should Watch It:
The first film co-scripted by Shintaro Katsu himself, “Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival” is narratively a mess with far too many coincidences and hanging plot threads. On the other hand, it may just as well be the most entertaining Zatoichi film there is, offering beautiful cinematography (again by Miyagawa), shrill comedy scenes and a multitude of impressive guest appearances. Famed character actor Masayuki Mori gives one of his most menacing performances as blind oyabun Yamikubo, while none other than Tatsuya Nakadai plays the part of the mysterious ronin. “Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival” also is one of the most daring entries. Featuring a revealing cameo by celebrated Japanese drag queen Peter as well as a thrilling bathhouse scene where Zatoichi has to fight his adversaries butt-naked, the author’s prefered title for this film would be “Zatoichi’s Big Gay Adventure“.

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Zatoichi In Desperation (1972, Shin Zatoichi Monogatari: Oreta tsue)

Story:
In entry number twenty-four, Zatoichi promises to bring an old woman’s shamisen to her daughter in a nearby village after he has witnessed the woman’s demise. Arriving there, Ichi learns that the daughter has to work as a prostitute for a yakuza clan. Ichi decides to free the girl from the hands of her cruel pimps.

Why You Should Watch It:
From 1971 onwards the last few Zatoichi films are mostly routine, the exception being “Zatoichi In Desperation”. Directed by Shintaro Katsu himself, this is the most violent and depressing Zatoichi film. Shot in claustrophobic close-ups, the avant-gardist cinematography seems to evoke the disorientating world of the blind, while at the same time focusing on the gruesome aspects of Japan’s Edo period. Over the course of the film, a kid’s head is smashed in, much blood is splattered and Zatoichi’s hands get graphically impaled. Like every Katsu-scripted Zatoichi film, “Zatoichi In Desperation” lacks a coherent plot, yet it is truly a film that has to be seen-to-be-believed and shows just how far the series as evolved from its initial outing. After having witnessed this soul-shattering monster of a film, it truly seems unbelievable that Zatoichi started as a family entertainment series just 11 years before…

The Criterion Collection Zatoichi – Blind Swordsman Box set, featuring all 25 original films in dual Blu-ray and DVD format is available now.

About the author

Pablo KnotePablo Knote Pablo Knote
A film critic and researcher on Japanese film. Founder of www.nippon-kino.net, Germany's largest website solely dedicated to the classic Japanese cinema... More »

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5 thoughts on “Top 10 most essential Zatoichi films

  1. Joe says:

    One of the greatest series of all time. You cannot stop watching. Many moral values are taught here. A series for the ages. You cannot go wrong, a must buy.

  2. Vidya says:

    Any thoughts on the soundtracks? Ikufube’s work on New Tale of Zatoichi cements it as my favorite, though I’ve seen only a scattering of the series so far.

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