Now that we’re over the hump with this series, I wanna step back to the Zatoichi origin story. Back to the movies next week.
Kan Shimozawa’s “The Tale of Zatoichi,” first published in 1948, is a slight little thing. It’s a slim story that started, essentially, as an encyclopedic entry on an actual Edo-era yakuza (Sukegoro Ishiwata) but then veered off to tell a minor bit of mythology from Ishiwata’s reign. You can tell. Zatoichi, a legendary blind swordsman in Ishiwata’s employ, is barely in the story. He disappears for pages at a time. The author sometimes seems more interested in the negotiations and assassinations of the era than in his stated protagonist. At some point, Shimozawa even writes, “But we have gotten sidetracked. Let us return to Zatoichi.”
So, the dude’s kind of a footnote in his own tale. He’s described hazily—Shimozawa’s language is terse and ironic throughout the story—but the key components of the cinematic Zatoichi are mostly there. He’s blind. He’s a master swordsman. His legend is renowned, even though he’s a man of no status and no account. He’s funny. He gambles at dice a lot. He adheres to a code of honor that, in the story, means that he feels bound to leave the dishonorable Ishiwata’s gang at the story’s end. He attracts young women despite himself.
Shimozawa’s story has glimpses of greatness, mostly in his brisk, sly characterization of Zatoichi, but it meanders. It’s fragmented. The voice seesaws from confident, dry wit to the unsure dryness of a sixth-grader’s term paper. The action, what there is of it, feels disjointed. The whole thing’s abstract, almost like notes on a story rather than the story itself. No wonder it took Daiei Studio to flesh it out and fashion a world from it, and for Shintaro Katsu to give the character sketch some depth.
On its own, “The Tale of Zatoichi” is unmemorable, a sliver of mystery wrapped in gauze. That’s partly by design. Shimozawa makes a point of highlighting Zatoichi’s anonymity:
The man drifted in from somewhere and received a sake cup, marking his formal acceptance into Ishiwata’s gang.
Where he was from or who his family was no one knew, but he was a masseur who had traveled all around the Kanto region. “Zato” was a title given to the blind; whether “Ichi” was short for Ichitaro or Ichigoro, or whether it was just made up, nobody knows.
And here’s the last paragraph of the story in full, which deepens the mystery rather than wraps things up:
Zatoichi and Otane, and her father, Takizo, as well, were never seen again in Iioka. There is no way of knowing for certain what became of them, but one theory has it that they lived out their lives peacefully as farmers in Ashikaga. Others say they went as far as the northern province of Iwashiro and lived atop a little hill near Lake Inawashiro, at the foot of Mount Asaka. Perhaps, as Zatoichi’s wife, Otane felt sad on nights when the moon was reflected in the lake, but who can say?
Shimozawa wants his protagonist to be mysterious, as indeed the source material came to him from mysterious and unreliable sources, and the whole thing whiffs of the apocryphal. He’s trying to create a modern myth, hence the irony, streetwise dialogue, and indirection. Still, I wish he’d been less opaque about the character, since he’s so detailed about everything aroundZatoichi. To put it in the hands of theorists, “The Tale of Zatoichi” has lots of subtext and context but not much, you know, text.
So, in a bizarre way, though Shimozawa’s story is the origin of the Zatoichi filmic universe, that story is just the wind that the character blows on—Daiei Studio provided the actual feather. All of which just goes to show, once again, that great books can rarely be forged into great movies but that mediocre literature often serves as the ore for great cinema.
A few months ago, around Zatoichi #3 or #4, I wrote this note but—like Shimozawa—never did much with my doodle:
How did Shintaro Katsu keep from going crazy? Even Minoru Inuzuka, who wrote or co-wrote five of the first nine installments, got breaks in-between pictures. Directors changed out like new reels in the projector. But Katsu, man, he’s always there, always laden with the burden of keeping this role fresh or at least intriguing. It’s hard to think of an equivalent outside of TV. (Think of Kelsey Grammer playing Frasier Crane continuously for twenty years, over the course of two hit shows. And then try to think of anyone else like that.) There have been several actors portraying James Bond, of course, and oodles of Sherlocks, Watsons, and Doctor Whos. But the closest Western equivalent I can think of to Katsu’s Zatoichi is Peter Falk playing Colombo. For cinema, though, maybe you have to go back to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stonefaced hero to see a single actor taking one character through so many iterations.
Katsu had little to work with, which meant he had everything. He (and Daiei Studio’s stable of producers and directors) were free to make Zatoichi up as they went along. And so he shifts, subtly or savagely, with each film, depending on who’s directing it, who’s writing it , who’s lighting it, and how Katsu’s feeling. Katsu invests so much of his body into Zatoichi. The character is a man of fleshly pleasures and pain—deep laughs, flopsweat, broad slapstick, touching and feeling, slurps and sighs and burps, rice and food debris all over his face, scars and blood, stumbles and slices. Katsu brings his body, more than his head, into whatever half-assed screenplay and camera setup the crew brought forth that day. Because he had a basic foundation, but not much more than that, Katsu had room to play.
In Shimozawa’s story, there’s precious little playtime for Zatoichi. The language is succinct and abrupt. Though it’s implied that he’s capable of plenty, Ichi doesn’t actually have much to do in the story. Even his departure from the yakuza, at story’s end, involves more resignation than swordplay. Shimozawa brings postwar ennui into the swashbuckling past. The Zatoichi film series does the opposite. Its codes of honor, gender roles, overt sentimentality, and derring-do—though tinged (and sometimes slathered) with melancholy—feel old-school, like returns to an Edo past that probably never was. Katsu plays his character as broadly as a vaudevillian, at a time (the 1960s and 1970s) when method acting and naturalistic styles were becoming more common, even in Japan. (Indeed, the actors around Katsu almost always seem to be underplaying by comparison.) Shimozawa’s story is cold, modern. The series that erupted from it is hot-blooded and sloppy-kissing. The two need each other but it’s Katsu, not Shimozawa, that we’ll remember.