Don't Call the Blind Man's Bluff
Bucking big odds in competition against a marquee NBA visiting player and the Hope for Haiti telethon, Zatoichi, the Fugitive/Zatoichi kyojo-tabi held its own. This second in Japan Society’s monthly “The Double-Edged Sword: The Chambara [sword fighting] Films of Shintaro Katsu & Raizo Ichikawa” attracted mostly, though not exclusively, a bit older audience.
The 1963 film is the fourth, the second in color, of the popular Zatoichi series of twenty-nine, extending to a remake this century and 110 episodes for TV. With less mayhem and no blood, no superhuman leaps, sword- and fist-swish sounds or grunts or magical intervention or ooh-ah settings, it frees itself to round the protagonist’s personality, sly humor and dignity and thus is not what many younger viewers seek in the way of samurai stuff.
Renowned as a master of samurai -- more precisely, simply swordplay -- action, Tokuzo Tanaka pulls back on the reins here, keeping the one real, if downsized, confrontation until the end. Instead, superstar Katsu fleshes out his peaceful-till-pushed character in small, sometimes comic incidents and oddities: a duckwalk and crouched fighting stance with a backhand sword grip, washing his own smelly underwear and crawling to escape admirers, slicing a sake bowl, remembering his ladylove as “seventeen forever,” white-lying to the mother of man he has killed, or besting undersize sumo wrestlers.
The blindness that limits his occupational choices -- hence alternate title Masseur Ichi, the Fugitive -- is compensated for by sensitivity of hearing, but he styles himself as “nothing but a blind Yakuza criminal” who must keep moving on the lam. The inept young Kisuke he is forced into killing discloses motivation in the bounty placed on the wanderer’s head, so Ichi/Zatoichi walks to Monju village to give that amount to the man’s mother, Maki (Sachiko Murase), and find out who offered the reward.
The bounty increases, as he quietly defies and foils the yakuza bands vying for the town and its once-prosperous gambling den. Connections with American Westerns lie in this kind of Eastern warrior-wanderer stranger-in-town, even if characters are confusing in this case, in part because white subtitles get so lost against grayish white backgrounds.
The dirty always sweating newcomer stays at the inn which used to be the lucrative gaming place. Its owner resents having lost control of his land to a recently deceased man whose heir Sakichi is weak-willed and scared of the various gangs’ bosses. Love between Sakichi and the innkeeper’s adopted daughter Nobu (Miwa Takada) is secret but sensed by Ichi/Zatoichi, as is the presence upstairs of his own love from the past, Tane (Masayo Banri), now the paramour of hard-drinking ronin, or independent swordslinger-for-hire, Tanakura.
Other Japanese period-heroes or –villains would occasionally have gimmicks to their undisputed prowess, like being one-armed or aged but flinging decapitating saucer projectiles. Along with a sightlessness that uses a sword-scabbard as a cane, and bandage-wrappings as shin guards, Katsu’s hero is gifted with an understanding of others’ motives and fears and a calm character with which to exploit those weaknesses. The past crime that made him a fugitive is neither explained nor important, for this is a Japan in which brute strength is in control until the brave and good show up to set things right. As he says to a bowing Maki and the two united lovers, “Good luck.”
(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)