[Marxism] The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi
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
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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