Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Masayo Banri (Otane, the girl), Michiro Minami (Tate, her wayward brother), and Shigeru Amachi (Miki Hirate, the slyly handsome opposing samurai).
Featuring startling high-contrast lighting and compositions that are mathematical in their precision, The Tale of Zatoichi is first and foremost a visual feast. In terms of shot variety, the film does it all—flicking from medium-range and long-range establishing shots to extreme close-ups (usually of Zatoichi, sensing things that he can’t see), from low camera positions (looking up from the floor, gazing across the distance from the vantage height of a table) that Ozu favored to birds-eye views, from arresting stillness to roving shots that insinuate their ways around corridors and into secret corners. Director Kenji Misumi edits these shots into a leisurely rhythm, even when things get tense (and they get really tense), and savors long pauses and lengthy conversations.
Indeed, most of this samurai flick is talk, good talk, with the action being muted and backloaded to the final reel. So far, that’s standard for a samurai film. In, say, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Takashi Miike’s fascinating update, 13 Assassins, there’s the slow buildup of tension, and then furious release. But the release isn’t furious in Zatoichi. The showdown between the rival samurais is curiously quiet and shot from a distance. Indeed, the film intimates that Zatoichi and Harate (Shigeru Amachi) would be dear friends in a kinder world, and Zatoichi cries after killing his opponent. (That’s no spoiler alert: This is the first of 25 Zatoichi films.) Neither samurai wants, exactly, to participate in this war between rival gambling clans in the first place, because neither man respects the clan for whom he’s working. By the movie’s end, Zatoichi senses, and so do we as viewers, that he hasn’t changed this town for the better at all. There’s petty cruelty throughout the movie, and it’s not going away. A man impregnates a girl, and leaves her to her fate—either she commits suicide or he snuffs her out; it’s unclear and it doesn’t matter. Corrupt mafias rule the region at the film’s beginning, and they rule it at the end, too. A kindhearted and lovely woman (Masayo Banri) is stuck living in this place, even though she screams to be let out, and that will continue, too. A few obvious villains die, sure, but the villainous world that created them will continue. Nothing changes here, even when someone as odd, endearing, and deadly as Zatoichi passes through.
So, it’s a bleak start to what would become a blockbuster franchise of 25 films, a long-running TV series, and oodles of assorted merchandise. Zatoichi’s a household name in much of Japan but I can’t imagine an American franchise of this sort that begins with darker roots, outside of the horror genre. In fact, at movie’s end, there’s a clear sense of finality. Zatoichi throws his sword into the river, metaphorically both giving up his power and acknowledging his ultimate powerlessness in the same action. It seems clear here that Daiei Studio didn’t realize it had a franchise on its hands at all. Even this movie’s sequel, which appeared less than a year later, ends abruptly. These first two movies forego any sort of continuation, along with the idea that continuing this ugly world is desirable at all.
That’s odd in itself, since one of this movie’s key themes is the utter sensuousness of the world, and Zatoichi ironically is the person most capable of understanding all this luscious beauty. He hears all—Zatoichi is a marvel of sound design, effectively conveying through isolated audio and careful editing how the blind swordsman “sees” the world. The sound is as crisp as the high-contrast black-and-white photography, so clear that I leaned closer to the screen, hoping not to miss anything… with my ears. Whether it’s showing a quiet afternoon of fishing or a late-night dice game at a gambling den, the photography shivers with beauty, and the sound design follows suit. The visual design is largely deep-focus, with many scenes in which everything onscreen shimmers with clarity and everything’s worth looking at. The aural design, though, takes the opposite tack, becoming pointillist and hyper-acute, so that I trained my ears to observe what Zatoichi is noticing and from direction it comes. It’s a movie that teaches you how to watch it, and how to hear it. In doing this, we as viewers become as intuitive and sensitive as the blind swordsman, at least for an hour and a half.