In today’s film landscape, where we have everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to films like I, Frankenstein looking to pull in enough cash at the box office to justify turning it into a franchise, that’s the one word studios seem hell bent on seeing tossed around with regards to any number of their releases. However, there are franchises, and then there is a series of films known as the Zatoichi series.
A collection of 25 films and even a lengthy TV series, this series all began with the modest of intentions.
Released in 1962 by Daiei studios, a company best known for their historical epics, The Tale Of Zatoichi was never intended as the spawning ground for one of the longest running film series in cinema history. With director Kenji Misumi at the helm, the picture stars Sintaro Katsu in what has become one of the most iconic character portrayals in all of film. He takes on the role of Zatoichi, a blind masseur with a penchant for gambling and a skill with his cane sword that is truly unrivaled.
For this entry, the first of the series, we are introduced to Zatoichi as he becomes friends with a fellow yojimbo, Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), only to have their friendship upended by their joining of rival clans in a local village. Toss in a love story involving the sister of yet another, much more evil, yakuza, and you have ostensibly the log line for what plays out as a single off story but would ultimate go on to launch one of cinema’s most legendary franchises.
And what a beginning it would cement.
Multiple-time Zatoichi helmer Misumi crafts a real stunner here with this, the first film surrounding the character of Zatoichi, a character himself created by novelist Kan Shimozawa. One of the handful of black and white entries in this franchise, Misumi’s film is a visual glory, really setting the language for this franchise, even if it were never intended to do so. A visually brooding picture that would see continued in Misumi’s later Lone Wolf And Cub pictures, the film may ostensibly be billed as a samurai film with various comparisons to names like Kurosawa, it’s far more a living, breathing, tactile character study of a man simply looking for a place to lay his head. The film itself is full of gorgeous tableaux after gorgeous tableaux, with stunning close ups coming about as often as beautifully choreographed action set pieces that allow the viewer to step back from the action and watch it and all of its entrancing dance like aesthetic, all while being not much more than a slice of life looking at a gambling swordsman looking to turn his life around. Toss in a hellacious score from Akira Ifukube, and you have a film that may end on an odd note given the overall history of this franchise, but you also have a film that has been given new life thanks to Criterion’s new Blu-ray box set.
Starring Shintaro Katsu, this is the film that has since made him a household name for those with an interest in samurai cinema. Embodying this character with a wonderful blend of pure brooding bad-assery and a delicious sense of melancholy, this is one of the more deep and intriguing character portraits this genre has to offer. Shigeru Amachi and Chitose Maki are both equally as great, but the real show stopper here is Masayo Banri who plays Zatoichi’s love interest in this film. Their relationship is really interesting, as is Katsu’s chemistry with Amachi, who plays Hirate. These two relationships really add a great deal of depth to a film that could simply fall into the normalcy of this type of samurai picture. Add in some real groundwork for some great mythology going forward, and while the film wasn’t intentionally a spark for this lengthy franchise, it’s as great a kickstart as one could ever hope for.
Come back next Friday for a look at the second Zatoichi film, The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues.