Zatoichi (Ã¥ÂºÂ§Ã©Â ÂÃ¥Â¸â€š ZatÃ…Âichi) is a fictional character featured in one of Japan's longest running series of films and a television series set in the Edo period. The enduring popularity of the character has been likened to that of James Bond in Western countries. However, Zatoichi has become almost synonymous with one actor: Shintaro Katsu. The only other actor to portray Zatoichi on film is Takeshi Kitano, after a hiatus of almost 15 years.
Zatoichi is seemingly only a harmless blind masseur who wanders around the country making his living by gambling, however, he is also highly skilled in swordsmanship, specifically iaijutsu, his sword concealed within his cane. Cane swords, or shikomizue, were generally straight, lower-quality blades, which stood no comparison with regular katanas, but as revealed in Zatoichi's Cane Sword, his weapon was created nearly superior by a master swordsmith just before his prime. A recurring theme of both the films and television series episodes concerns Zatoichi protecting the innocent from oppressive warring clans and general injustice.
The character's name is actually Ichi. ZatÃ…Â is a title, the lowest of the four official ranks within the TÃ…ÂdÃ…Â-za, the traditional guild for the blind, which was abolished in 1871. The three other ranks, in ascending order, were kÃ…ÂtÃ…Â, bettÃ…Â, and kengyÃ…Â. Ichi is therefore properly called ZatÃ…Â-no-Ichi ("Low-Ranking Blind Person Ichi", approximately), or ZatÃ…Âichi for short. Giving massages was a traditional occupation for the blind.
The original series of 26 films featured Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi. The first film was made in 1962 in black and white. The third film, in 1963, was the first to be filmed in color. The twenty-fifth film was made in 1973, and there was a pause of some 16 years before Katsu's last film, in 1989, which he directed himself.
The original series of movies features other popular fictional characters of the genre on two occasions: Zatoichi and the One Armed Swordsman (1971) connects with the Shaw Brothers series of Hong Kong produced movies directed by prolific director Chang Cheh. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) features Toshiro Mifune reprising his role from the Akira Kurosawa films Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
The series has also had wide spread influences on non-Japanese films. The 1989 film Blind Fury featuring Rutger Hauer as a blind swordsman in contemporary America is based on the screenplay of Zatoichi Challenged (1967) with elements of other films of the series.
Nevertheless, Zatoichi is but one of a surprising number of blind heroes with superhuman fighting skills that have emerged throughout history, and while predated by such characters as the pulp fiction and comic book heroes Black Bat and Doctor Mid-Nite respectively, is followed by the likes of Daredevil. The 1970s television series Kung Fu features a blind Shaolin priest also possessing amazing martial arts skills.
Note: The English title is not necessarily a direct translation of the Japanese title. Note: The 14th film in the series is near impossible to find as a legal Region 1 DVD with English subtitles, as Miramax bought the rights to it several years ago and production of it has ceased. However, it can be obtained as a legal Region 2 DVD, without English subtitles, in Japan.
The majority of the films were produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company: from the first film, The Tale of Zatoichi, to the 22nd film, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman, released in 1971 when Daiei went bankrupt. However, starting with Zatoichi the Outlaw in 1967, Shintaro Katsu's own company, Katsu Productions, coproduced the films (as well as producing the TV series and his last Zatoichi film). After Daiei was out of commission, Toho Company took over the films in 1972 starting with Zatoichi at Large, the 23rd film, until Zatoichi at the Blood Fest in 1973, the 25th (and the last "old school") film. Shochiku distributed Katsu's last Zatoichi film in 1989, as well as the new 2003 Zatoichi film starring Takeshi Kitano.
Home Vision Entertainment was granted United States distribution rights to the original Daiei films (except for the 14th-see above), and has released them on DVD. AnimEigo has released seven of the films on DVD: Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967), Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970, incorrectly listed by AnimEigo as Ã‚Â© 1965), Zatoichi at the Fire Festival (1970, as Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire), Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971), Zatoichi at Large (1972), Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), and Zatoichi at the Blood Fest (1973, as Zatoichi's Conspiracy). Tokyo Shock has released the 1989 film and (as of March 14, 2006) the first twelve episodes of the TV series.
In 2003, Takeshi Kitano produced a new high-budget Zatoichi film, called Zatoichi (Ã¥ÂºÂ§Ã©Â ÂÃ¥Â¸â€š ZatÃ…Âichi). Kitano plays the role of the blind swordsman himself. The film's plot follows a traditional theme, with Zatoichi coming to the defense of townspeople caught up in a local gang war, and being forced to pay excessive amounts of protection money. Zatoichi befriends a local farmer, helping her gambling nephew and two geishas who are seeking revenge for the murder of their parents.
The film features computer-generated blood throughout, which is becoming increasingly popular in Asian cinema, as it is cheaper than using practical special effects. Yet, unlike most other instances of this in recent films, Kitano often utilizes it in a very stylized manner, in order to bring more visual beauty to the scenes of violence.
Also notable in the film is the choreography of tap dance troupe The Stripes, which is featured throughout