So I watched all of Zatoichi…

Posted: February 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

I don’t have any children, I have cats. Specifically, I have one cat that is MY cat. This is going somewhere. So at Christmas, I decided to allow my cat to get me a nice present. She decided to get me the Zatoichi Boxset from The Criterion Collection. See, I don’t have kids, so Syd can’t get some something and put their names on it. I’ve got to go on Amazon for the cat, and find something she would think I would like, and buy it for her. Cats, as you may have heard, are lazy creatures. So that’s how I came to own most of the Zatoichi movies, I already owned recent films under the brand name (more on that later) and I acquired the latest and the one film Criterion didn’t put in their boxset (again, later) so I could have them all. I then decided to watch all of them during January. I watched all the original movies during January, but life got in the way for the last three films. I watched them during the first few days of February.

So what it is?
The Zatoichi movies are an action series that spanned both movies and TV. There are 25 movies in the original set of films (which were made in only 11 years) and then it went to TV for four seasons. Then, in 1989, one more movie came along. All of these stared Shintaro Katsu in the title role (all the movies had the name Zatoichi in the title) which means it’s really not the James Bond of Japan, since those losers drop out after four or five movies. Even Dr Who tends to get a new guy to be its lead after three seasons.

Who Is This Guy?
The main character is a blind masseur, who wanders from place to place, getting in adventures. It’s okay that he’s blind though, because he has a cane with a sword in it and Mad Skillz (with a Z damnit) that even Daredevil would find impressive. He’s also part of the yakuza, even though he’s not part of any particular group. Yakuza have a different relationship to mainstream culture in Japan than The Mafia have in America, evidently. Zatoichi is very specific about how things should be done, and has no time for any yakuza boss who works with a corrupt official or victimizes people who aren’t asking for it. He’s got no problem with gamblers and even tolerates thugs, but if they break The Rules, then they are toast. Thing is, he’s not very high ranking, the Zato part of the name indicates that he’s the lowest rank of masseurs. He’s supposed to be just one step above a beggar, he’s the lowest rank of the lowest legal profession.

What Surprised Me
What I found most surprising is that the series never started to feel stale. There was only one movie in the original 25 that I didn’t like and that was Zatoichi Meets he One-Armed Swordsman. Every other movie was great, and I really enjoyed each and every one of them. I was also a little surprised at the fact that it wasn’t the same thing over and over again. Certain themes cropped up, but there are repeated themes just within the Samurai movie genre as a whole. That a few things seem to come up over and over again wasn’t a failing of the movies, so much as the beat of their rhythm. That there were regular badasses for Ichi to fight, or that Ichi would guess the dice by the sound they made was just part of the movies.

The thing is, the stories at the heart of the movies was always something a little different, and they were actually developed. A local boss would have a scam, and he would have reasons for the scam, and the people who would be helped and hurt are generally shown and fleshed out within the movie. It would have been very easy for this series to get lazy, but I never felt like it did. I always felt like the movies had fully realized stories and characters that you could actually care about. And at the heart of the whole thing is a fantastic actor playing a really captivating role. Katsu is sort of amazing as Zatoichi, and he’s incredibly fast. There are several action scenes I had to watch over to really catch everything.

I was also taken aback at how modern the movies felt. They’re shot with a style that was less prevalent then, but is more so now. This was kind of a trendsetting series though, so it’s easy to see how this might be the case.

The first 25 come in such quick succession that it was like watching a TV show (which the series later became) but one where a little more time and money was lavished than the average show. It’s a really excellent series, and very populist. The poor people, the exploited masses, these are the heroes, while the rich are corrupt bastards. Ichi is a tough guy, and a sweetheart, so he was adored by yakuza and grandmothers alike. You can see how the series was as popular as it was, and why it gave Katsu the power it did.

The last movie (the 26th) came some 16 years after the previous film, and is so 80s it kind of hurts. The movie itself it fine, even if it comes off as Zatoichi’s greatest hits. The music is super 80s pop though, as is much of the rest of the movies. I liked it though, and it’s got no shame in standing next to its brothers.

Now, in 2003 Kitano Takeshi made a new movie, with himself in the title role. He’s often the star of movies he directs, so there was nothing odd there. And Katsu directed two of the original Zatoichi movies, so that’s okay. The movie was weird though, because it was very much a Kitano Takeshi movie and those two styles don’t naturally suggest each other. Also, while paying tribute to the originals, they are also sort of a parody as well. Several things are made jokes, while other things are followed along exactly as they should be. It was sort of the perfect mix in a world that grasped that kind of humor.

In 2008 a movie with a woman starring as Ichi (the blind swordswoman). This movie played the whole thing far more seriously, and had a plot that followed Ichi more than it examined the bad guys. The movie was different than any of the Zatoichi movies, but I felt like that was in a good way. It was inspired by the original, but it wasn’t a slave to it. It was also longer than any of the others. Most the Zatoichi movies clock in at under 90 minutes, this one went a full two hours.

Finally, at the end (and I’m exhausted by the way) come 2010s Zatoichi: The Last. To be honest, less said about that the better

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