I picked up Zatoichi at Large at random at the library. I was in the mood for a Japanese film and was willing to branch off to something new. Thus I discovered Zatoichi, a fictional hero whose life is chronicled in a series of 26 films. This was film 25.
Zatoichi is a character that draws you in with his contrasts. Paradoxically, he’s blind, but he’s a master swordsman. He’s gruff but follows social dictums fervently. Well, often, if not all the time. He likes to gamble and consorts with prostitutes but he’s highly moral. Sometimes he’s naive, while often he’s worldly and wily. Yet I was drawn to him because he lives in a society where the deck is stacked against him and the poor and champions the underdogs.
In this chapter, the wandering masseuse Zatoichi happens upon a pregnant woman who’d been attacked. She’s dying and in labor. Zatoichi delivers the baby and learns from the mother where his family is. He goes in search of the family’s town to give them the newborn.
Thanks to a courageous, honorable constable, the town has rid itself of a yakuza clan that’s controlled them. That makes it ripe pickings for another yakuza gang to step in and it does as Zatoichi arrives.
Zatoichi finds the baby’s aunt working in an inn. Soon the yakuza arrive and take over the town turning the inn into a brothel. Zatoichi earns the wrath of the kingpin by announcing that performers won’t have to pay the yakuza’s tax to perform at the upcoming festival. Now Tetsugoro, the kingpin, puts a price on our hero’s head. As if that’s not enough a young boy who saw Zatoichi delivering the baby tells that the masseuse cum master swordsman killed the pregnant woman.
The film features improbable, yet amazing sword fights, betrayal, corny humor, and plenty of sentamentality. I can’t believe I liked it, but this combination does work. It’s so hard to believe that a blind man could reveal cheaters at the dice table or fight off a dozen yakuza at a time, but in this film I bought it even while thinking, “yeah, right.”
I can’t highly recommend the film because it’s so bloody and violent, but even with my high level of squeamishness I enjoyed the hero’s humor, skill and morality. No matter the cost to himself, Zatoichi will put his life on the line for the underdog. I had to love him for that. Katsu Shintaro is remarkable as Zatoichi. I’ve already ordered the first Zatoichi film.