[Marxism] The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 28 09:42:57 MDT 2004


In Hollywood, the blind are represented in film either as pitiful 
victims, such as in "Wait Until Dark," or as comic figures like Mr. 
Muckle, who tears apart W. C. Fields's shop in "It's a Gift." Leave it 
to the Japanese to come up with somebody like Zatoichi, the blind master 
swordsman who was played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu in 26 films 
between 1962 and 1989, as well as 100 television episodes based on the 
character.

The name Zatoichi is a conflation of "Zato-No-Ichi," which translates 
literally into "Ichi the Masseur." In feudal Japan, the blind were often 
enlisted as masseurs, but Zatoichi's fighting skills allowed him to 
transcend the rigid class restraints of Japanese society.

After Katsu died in 1967, Chieko Saito, an elderly female strip-club 
owner who had acquired the rights to the character as collateral to a 
loan to the actor, proposed to Takeshi "Beat" Kitano that he write, 
direct and star in a new film based on Zatoichi. "Beat" Takeshi is one 
of Japan's most innovative directors, who specializes in ultra-violent 
films set in Japan's criminal underworld. Before launching a film 
career, he was one of Japan's most popular TV comedians and host of his 
own long-running show. Takeshi's "The Blind Swordsman," which is playing 
now in New York City, can best be described as a happy marriage between 
the original product and his own uniquely off-kilter style.

In keeping with the earlier films, Takeshi's Zatoichi is an itinerant 
masseur who happens on a town brimming over with villains in need of 
vanquishing. As is the case with classics such as "Yojimbo" or "Seven 
Samurai," the powerful villains are busily exploiting the local 
peasantry. In contrast to these films, Zatoichi is not a samurai himself 
but a kind of feudal version of a lumpen element who supplements his 
income by gambling. With his super-sensitive hearing, he can detect 
whether thrown dice come up odd or even. Like nearly everything else in 
this narrative, this must be taken with a grain of salt. When Zatoichi 
cuts apart a small army of sighted assassins with his cane-sword, you 
have to accept his prowess as an article of faith. That being said, in 
the final moments of Takeshi's film, you are left with the impression 
that he might be sighted after all.

Whether or not you are persuaded by the spectacle of a blind man carving 
up his foes, Takeshi's film is impressive solely on esthetic terms. As 
one of his most visually ambitious film, it includes an almost surreal 
tap dance production number at the conclusion. As postmodernist 
pastiche, it rivals the interjection of Janis Joplin's "Freedom's Just 
Another Word" into the conclusion to Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz."

For comparison's sake, I also watched "Zatoichi the Outlaw," a 1967 
film--the first one directed by Shintaro Katsu himself. You can find 
this film and others in the series at your better video stores or on the 
Internet. They are also shown with some frequency on the IFC cable 
station on Saturdays, which are devoted to classic Japanese samurai 
films. Jazz musician and Zatoichi-enthusiast Tatsu Aoki writes in the 
notes to one of the DVD's, "He is a blind wanderer who refuses to walk 
on the sunny side of the street, an outlaw-Yakuza who respects others 
regardless of rank within the feudal system."

In this film, the blind swordsman once again finds himself in a familiar 
situation. The owners of a gambling den and corrupt officials are 
cheating innocent peasants out of their savings and throwing them off 
their land. While taking up their cause, Zatoichi joins forces with 
Shusai Ohara, a sword-less samurai based on a real-life, 18th-century 
peasant leader named Yagaku Ohara. Ohara persuaded his followers to give 
up gambling and follow efficient farming practices. The film is filled 
with exciting action scenes and droll humor.

For example, a drunken overlord begins throwing gold coins at Zatoichi, 
who is focused on playing a shamisen (a stringed instrument used in 
Kabuki, etc.), in order to bribe him into crawling around like a dog. 
Without missing a beat, Zatoichi deftly swaps his pick for the coins in 
midair and keeps playing.

-- 

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