Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and Me

Zatoichi
Zatoichi (from the first movie)

This morning I was getting dressed and I happened to grab an old T-Shirt that I had made at CafePress. It features a picture of Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman and the phrase “What would Zatoichi do?” That got me reminiscing about about the Zatoichi series of movies which starred Shintaro Katsu back in the 60’s.

Up until recently, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) showed movies, un-cut. In fact, that was their slogan “always uncut” or something along those lines. Now, they’re just another commercial laden cable channel. But more on that later.

IFC used to have a “Samurai Saturday” during which they would show an older Samurai

Zatoichi Drawing his Sword
Drawing his sword

movie, usually released through Janus Films. Fortunately for me, the Janus film collection apparently includes the Zatoichi series of films.

The quick-n-dirty on Zatoichi goes like this: Zatoichi is a blind swordsman whose other senses have made up for his lack of eyesight. So much so, that he has become and adroit swordsman who uses his skill to write wrongs along Japan’s countryside. He travels the countryside using the cover story of being a masseuse. We also get to see that he enjoys gambling, sake and a rollicking good time. Often, the local citizenry is besieged by a bad or corrupt crime boss who is bullying the townspeople. Zatoichi, being a defender of the downtrodden, usually comes to the rescue and forces the bad guys to relent to his superior skill with a sword.

In the first two movies we see him fall in love with a woman who is subsequently killed. This leaves him unable to truly love another until later in the series when he proposes marriage to a woman who, again, gets killed.

Zatoichi with Child
Zatoichi has a soft spot for kids

Like any good traveling good guy, Zatoichi has a soft spot for children. In at least one movie, Zatoichi is in charge of a young boy and we see Zatoichi forgo some rice balls so that his charge can get a meal. If there is one thing that we learn, is that Zatoichi loves to eat, so in that scene, we see that his heart truly goes out to that boy.

We also learn, in another film, that he was born with sight, and that he lost his sight when he was about six or eight years old (I’m writing this from memory, so I may be off a bit here). But that he can’t really remember “colors” anymore, as an adult. It makes one think about the concept of losing something like sight or hearing and later not being able to remember “color” or “sound.”

Then of course is his iconic “cane sword.” Since Zatoichi travels as a masseur he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. So he carried a straight sword encased in a sheath that looks like a simple, straight walking stick or cane. Everyone is unsuspecting, until trouble starts. Then Watch Out! When he brings the sheath up to his face and begins drawing out the sword, you know that mayhem is coming, and soon!

Since he is blind, Zatoichi uses a unique fighting style in which he often handles the blade in a reverse/inverse fashion. That is, he holds the sword upside-down such that it is pointing down and back with the sharp edge facing front. From this position Zatoichi can swing the blade using what kind of resembles a punch which causes the blade to swing around and strike his opponent. Hard to describe. You need to see it for yourself.

In the end, we see a battle-worn Zatoichi triumphant, yet realizing that he must move on, since the bad guys will be coming for him.

These movies brought me a great deal of enjoyment. The stories are simple: good guy vs. bad army, with the good guy always winning. And on Saturday morning, that’s a nice thing to wake up to.

You can find the movies on Amazon and elsewhere. I hope that you take the time to see one. Hopefully you will enjoy them as much as I have.

Here’s a link to the first movie on Amazon (several delivery options): The Tale of Zatoichi

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