Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman has been taking up a fair amount of my time lately, thanks to Hulu.
I grew up on these movies. Shintaro Katsu made this role his own, and turned these movies into his own legacy. Blending chambara and Yakuza movies into a seamless and both touching and brutal whole.
The Blind Swordsman, or Ichi the Masseur, is a wandering gambler and sometimes masseur. A bakuto, a gangster and unlikely hero. He embodies much of what makes Yakuza film great. Ichi has accepted his role in life, but he does so with dignity, grace, and without compromise. He is both a figure of rebellion, and lynchpin of justice. Which makes him classic Yakuza film goodness.
Yet, the films are chock full of the chambara, or samurai film conventions too. Tales of honor, but seen through the eyes of a wandering gambler and rapscallion. An honorable gangster, Ichi gets into trouble, and fights his way out of it with a heavy heart. Not heavy for the fools who throw themselves at him, but for the waste of it all.
There is the heart of the Ichi films right there. Ichi desires only to gamble, and drink, and maybe enjoy the company of the odd good time girl who finds his blend of wry humor, and self deprecation to be sessy, and somehow, trouble finds him, and those who want to use his prodigious skills with the sword.
Shintaro Katsu played this role for years. 26 films in total. He pretty much owns the franchise. Played with a tenderness and often subtlety that Beat Takeshi's simply titled, Zatoichi, missed, it is a series of films, and even a television series that took the Blind Swordsman to adventures across Japan, and even to meet Yojimbo and the One Armed Swordman of the Shaw Brother's fame, I can't dislike the homage that Takeshi Kitano made in 2003. A big budget film, it still had the spirit of the Katsu films, of the reluctant swordsman, the gambler and wanderer.
And, to be entirely fair, Takeshi Kitano's film has one of the best dance scene end credits of any film that I know of.
And while Rutger Hauer may not have had Katsu's grace, I did like his Blind Fury.
If you get a chance, check out what Hulu has pulled together for a collection. They are a great series of films, and a great blend of styles, fun stories, touching performances, and a huge ball of fun and joy in film making. And check out Takeshi Kitano's homage when you get a chance too.
Me, I'm deep in The Tale of Zatoichi Contiues...