Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind swordsman, masseur and, when it suits him, a bit of a hustler. He’s certainly not above exploiting his disability at the expense of others attempting to, well, exploit his disability. Indeed, the first scene in the film sees him trick a group of yakuza at a dice game, allowing them to think of him as an easy cash cow before cleaning them out once they’ve bet all their money on what should be a sure thing.
Zatoichi is not a man to be messed with. His actions and glib playing of sides aren’t always what one would expect of a ‘good guy’ but Zatoichi is, thankfully, too complex for tired black-and-white categorisations. ‘Being good at fighting and killing people is nothing to brag about,’ Zatoichi laments. But in a world he can’t see, full of people happy to stab a blind man in the back, what’s a guy to do?
The first entry in the long Zatoichi series is an archetypal samurai film in many respects, but the central relationship between the two samurai-for-hire, Zatoichi and Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), as they bond over fishing, sake and the latter’s terminal illness, gives it a fresh slant compared to similar films like Yojimbo (released in the same year). Zatoichi and Hirate are destined for a showdown; the lovingly developed friendship gives that showdown a well earned payoff. And the denouement that follows, as Zatoichi berates the yakuza boss for continuing to prosper with so little honour while great men’s lives seem to pass by all too soon, is equally moving.
Zatoichi coasts mostly on reputation, delivering on his legend when he most needs it, but Misumi does a great job constructing scenes that hint at the samurai’s skill with a sword that somehow feel more interesting than if we were overfed fight scene after fight scene. During a big gang meeting, one of Sukegorô’s (Eijirô Yanagi) henchmen challenges the boss’ unshakable faith in Zatoichi. ‘You’re the only one who’s seen his skill and I know you were impressed,’ he notes incredulously, ‘but he’s just a blind man. He can’t be all that great.’
Ironically, the man does not see Zatoichi standing in the back of the room who takes umbrage at his comments. He states that a blind man can achieve status in all manner of fields, like music, but concedes that it ‘won’t impress people like you.’ He takes a burning candle, hurls it into the air, and in the blink of an eye (excuse the pun), cuts it perfectly in half. With the room in stunned silence, Zatoichi stands up and leaves as all the men scutter to the fringes of the room. What need is there for sight when everyone already moves out of your way? (7)