The Blind Swordsman
February 21, 2010 5:56 PM   Subscribe

One of the longest-running and most-revered Samurai series of Japan, Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman, played by actor Shintaro Katsu, produced 25 films and 112 episodes of a popular television series. It was a popular favorite, and concerned the titular character Zatoichi, a poor blind mendicant masseur who carried with him a deadly secret: a hidden cane sword and complete mastery of swordsmanship, despite his blindness. Zatoichi was by far the great antihero of classic samurai cinema. Often low-budget, sometimes schlocky, always thrilling, the Zatoichi series has slowly become more well-known outside Japan in later years. Criterion has just debuted a Hulu channel offering six of the greatest feature-length Zatoichi classics – the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh – completely free of charge: The Tale Of Zatoichi Continues [1962]; New Tale of Zatoichi [1963]; The Fugitive [1963]; On the Road [1963]; and Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold [1964].
posted by koeselitz (40 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
~ via Playing D&D with Porn Stars.
posted by koeselitz at 5:59 PM on February 21, 2010

Holy shit koselitz.

Thank you very much for this.
posted by nixerman at 6:11 PM on February 21, 2010

If you can't get on Hulu, Google video search currently finds a few movies (including one on Hulu).
posted by filthy light thief at 6:11 PM on February 21, 2010

Between these films and Hogan's Heroes I couldn't ask for anything more.

The next Zatoichi film, though I hope not the last.

And from 2008: Ichi
posted by zombieApoc at 6:13 PM on February 21, 2010

(Those are only the 20+ minute clips found via Google Video, there are probably more that are segmented).

It's times like this that I really want to know Japanese. Why is Akira Kurosawa wearing TWO LA Lakers shirts? As one commenter points out: "Considering the time of this interview, he was a "Show time" Magic Johnson Lakers fan."
posted by filthy light thief at 6:14 PM on February 21, 2010

I've got the 2003 version in my bittorrent queue as I write this, so thank you for the background on the franchise.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:20 PM on February 21, 2010

and don't forget Zatoichi meets Yojimbo although inexplicably Toshiro Mifune isn't in the cast list on this entry?
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:24 PM on February 21, 2010

I definitely did not see a Hulu channel going. Awesome and thanks!
posted by ignignokt at 6:32 PM on February 21, 2010

To say nothing of the American adaptation, Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer.
posted by Bromius at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2010

Thanks for the info koeselitz. Shame it's on Hulu. I'm finding that the only way to actually watch Japanese movies here in Japan is, unfortunately, downloading them elsewhere, with the notable exception of the Beat Takeshi version of Zatoichi, which inexplicably has English subtitles.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:38 PM on February 21, 2010

I recommend Takeshi Kitano's Zatôichi from 2003. My tivo has slowly been slowly accumulating the older ones, but it's a slow job. This should help immensely. Thanks for the hulu links.
posted by beowulf573 at 6:42 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

People outside the US may have some luck with Hulu following this method (using, of course, a US rather than a Chinese proxy.) But I won't claim that that method is anything but wonky. Sorry I can't offer more.
posted by koeselitz at 6:46 PM on February 21, 2010

Sorry, I meant this method.
posted by koeselitz at 6:47 PM on February 21, 2010

To say nothing of the American adaptation, Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer.

I was hoping nobody would say anything about that travesty.

IFC was running these every weekend for a long time. I saw most of them there. They are an awesome series of films. Most of them are done really well, except for the last one that was filmed in '89. That one is a bunch of previous Zatoichi films all remixed together.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:48 PM on February 21, 2010

Know that I think about it, I'll have to go back and check to see which ones I missed, but I believe I may have seen all of them on IFC. Thanks for the reminder!
posted by P.o.B. at 6:49 PM on February 21, 2010

I'm anti-recommending Kitano's Zatoichi. Really didn't do it for me, and the digital swords bugged me. The real business is in Chest of Gold or Darkness Is His Ally. But hell YES I love this.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:54 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I kind of liked Beat Takeski's Zatoichi, but mostly for the completely ludicrous dance number at the end.
posted by signalnine at 7:04 PM on February 21, 2010

Minor corrections..
There are 26 Zatoichi films with Katsu-shin. The Hulu channel has the 1st through the 6th films, consecutively (not 2 through 7). I particularly recommend watching the first two films first, as they set up the whole series, and benefit from the B&W treatment. Be sure to watch "The Tale of Zatoichi" (Zatoichi Monogatari) first, then #2, "The Tale of Zatoichi Continues" (Zoku Zatoichi Monogatari). Oddly, you have to go to the second page of film links on the Hulu page to get to the first film.

Having seen 24 of the 26 Zatoichi films, I feel qualified to say that the Beat Takeshi and other modern remakes are utter abominations. If you really must see a modern remake, you should see "Zatoichi, Darkness Is His Ally," made in 1989. Katsu-shin came back out of retirement from the role after 16 years, to direct and star in the film, it has relatively modern filmmaking production values, and is his vision, both behind and in front of the camera. And oh, this is the ONLY Zatoichi film where... oh I can't spoil it for you.

Well anyway, sorry to jump in with pedantic corrections for my very first post. But you can probably tell I take Zato very seriously. And if you knew how broke I am, yet I signed up and paid my $5, after years of lurking, now, just to tell you this, at a time when I am utterly broke and unemployed, well, let's just say, I thought it was important.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:09 PM on February 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

...Or you might like the one form '89.*shrug* If I recall correctly he did borrow heavily from the earlier films.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:19 PM on February 21, 2010

While I've enjoyed watching quite a few of the Zatoichi movies, I need to tell you that 1970's era Japanese TV is the best! It's cheesy, but never fails to entertain. I grew quite fond of watching weekly reruns of the Zatoichi television series while living in Nagoya.

Speaking of fun watches from classic Japanese television, there are a few episodes of Mito Kōmon (水戸黄門) floating around the internet. It's a low budget gem, also set in the Tokugawa time period, but with a larger fixed cast and more antics.

Also awesome, but completely different, is Yōkai Ningen Bem (妖怪人間ベム). It's a pretty dark plot-wise, but with an animation style similar to Scooby Doo. Plus, the theme song is a good Japanese karaoke crowd pleaser.
posted by Alison at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2010

P.o.b., all the films borrow heavily from the earlier ones, that's why I recommend you see the first ones first, while all the stunts are fresh.
I decided to watch the first film again, I'm at intermission now. I had forgotten, it starts with a classic stunt. Oh it's hilarious, he cons some gamblers out of all their money and then makes them feel bad for having tried to take advantage of a poor blind guy. I'm sure I've seen this stunt a dozen times in the other films, or perhaps, it just feels like it. And that is not a bad thing.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:28 PM on February 21, 2010

Holy crap, a Criterion Hulu channel and not one but six Zatoichi movies?

Best FPP ever.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:54 PM on February 21, 2010

all the films borrow heavily from the earlier ones,

I meant he lifted whole scenes from the earlier films. I remember specifically watching the gambling scene and the hot spring scene, and thinking those were exactly the same in earlier films, but I could be remembering that wrong. But yeah, I agree. Watch all of them, preferably in order.

if that's what you're saying, if not - that's what I'm saying ;)
posted by P.o.B. at 9:49 PM on February 21, 2010

The Zatoichi films are great, I watched as many as I could before the quality on some of the less well known episodes began to get pretty spotty, but you can't beat the premise. Zatoichi is total man of the people, humble, funny, irreverent, he loves to gamble and there's nothing that he very little he can't sense without his eyes and at times even makes seeing seem like a disadvantage. Also, he's got a big heart and besides his drinking and gambling is very much a force for good.

It's fascinating also that blind men earned a living as masseuses in ancient Japan it would seem and I think that's based on actual tradition.

Any Criterion, once again, delivering a karate chop to the INterwebs.
posted by Skygazer at 1:27 AM on February 22, 2010

These movies provide an excellent role model for blind people everywhere.
posted by srboisvert at 3:28 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

And massage therapists who like swords.
posted by koeselitz at 3:56 AM on February 22, 2010

And blind massage therapists who are gamblers
posted by P.o.B. at 4:18 AM on February 22, 2010

> It's fascinating also that blind men earned a living as masseuses in ancient Japan it would seem and I think that's based on actual tradition.

Ichi is his name. Zato is his rank/title

Wikipedia has a good description of this:

"The character's name is actually Ichi. Zatō is a title, the lowest of the four official ranks within the Tōdōza, the historical guild for blind men. (Thus zato is also Japanese slang for a blind person.) Ichi is therefore properly called Zatō-no-Ichi ("Low-Ranking Blind Person Ichi", approximately), or Zatōichi for short."
posted by zombieApoc at 5:14 AM on February 22, 2010

Day—nay, year made.
posted by sidesh0w at 6:42 AM on February 22, 2010

I'm pretty much giddy with excitement, and my plans for this evening are made. The only drawback here is the lack of slow motion available on hulu. Ichi is so fast!
posted by fuq at 7:04 AM on February 22, 2010

Great post! I found it on Hulu just before koselitz's excellent exposition and promptly added all of the discs into my Netflix queue as well. Netflix even has Zatôichi to Yôjinbô (Zatoichi meets Yojimbo)!
posted by hrbrmstr at 7:42 AM on February 22, 2010

Thanks! Best news since the Kung Fu channel folded and my supply was cut off.
posted by asusu at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2010

zombieApoc, there is one film that explores the Zato system a bit, I wish I could remember which one. Ichi meets a group of a dozen zatos while traveling. I only vaguely recall the plot, but ISTR they were all named Ichi. The bad guys can't figure out which is the Zatoichi, so they hide in terror of these feeble old guys. I guess this was sort of an "I am Spartacus" theme.

Oh there are so many good plots, in even the worst of the films. I particularly remember one plot where Ichi defends an artist who is blackmailed into painting pornographic images on ceramics, which is illegal under penalty of death. In those days, pretty much everything was punishable by death.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:44 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bromius : To say nothing of the American adaptation, Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer.

There is a scene in this movie where, near the climatic finish, by way of testing his abilities, a hired samurai approaches Rutger Hauer's character, takes a bite out of an apple and tosses it at him. Rugter (because he fucking rules) naturally hears the bite, and quickly draws his sword cane, neatly slicing the apple in half in the air, the two pieces of which fall neatly onto the ground slightly touching one another.

I watched this scene over and over, studying it, noticing the little irregularities and how it was all put together. Over time, I developed this habit with lots of films, but Blind Fury was the first.

And I took that information a few years later to class on editing and production, which I aced, largely (I believe) to having spent so much time watching scenes like this one.
posted by quin at 12:31 PM on February 22, 2010

Thank you so much!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:05 PM on February 22, 2010

I didn't know whether to post this here, or in the other sword thread up the page, but...

I Love My Zatoichi Sword!

Paul Chen Armory out of China makes some really nice hand forged blades.
Full hamon, San Mai steel.
It makes me want to go blind and dispense justice!
But, just my luck, it'll look like this.
posted by Balisong at 11:03 PM on February 22, 2010

Having seen 24 of the 26 Zatoichi films, I feel qualified to say that the Beat Takeshi and other modern remakes are utter abominations.

Maybe so. But the Beat Takeshi one is definitely a fun film, and it's definitely a Beat Takeshi film. I don't think you can think of it in the same way as the others.
posted by dubitable at 8:27 PM on February 25, 2010

Hmm.. dubitable, I'm a fan of Beat Takeshi (well, most of his films) but I didn't think his Zatoichi film was good even by his standards. And his standards can be really weird sometimes (which I like sometimes, but not in this case). The film just seems intended to mutilate the Zatoichi concept.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2010

Yeah, I can see your point. I will be honest in that I like his more silly, light-hearted stuff like "A Scene at the Sea," and his Zatoichi had enough random things in it that reminded me of that so that I enjoyed it. And I get kind of turned off by some of his more (at least what I see as) nihilistic stuff, which I guess some would say is kind of what characterizes some of his best or at least most successful films (Violent Cop, Hana-bi...I wanted to shoot myself at the end of that one). Although I really liked Sonatine for some reason, maybe more because of the random silly moments rather than the blood-shed. But his Zatoichi ended with that totally weird dance scene and I dug it.

Um, I'll end this total digression by just acknowledging that I don't know my Zatoichi films worth crap. So listen to charlie don't surf for authoritative advice on that folks.
posted by dubitable at 7:48 PM on February 28, 2010

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