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Review: The Tale of Zatoichi
4 out of 5 stars
The Tale of Zatoichi was a cultural phenomenon in Japan in the 1960s, spawning 25 sequels, a 112-episode TV series and a remake.
Set toward the end of the feudal Edo period (1603-1868), the film stars Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, an itinerant blind masseur/swordsman. He stops into the town of Iioka one day to stay with a yakuza boss, Sukegoro, who he had met on an earlier journey.
Zatoichi is humble, but has a quiet intensity. Even though he is blind, he perceives more in the situations around him than the participants themselves. In an early scene, Sukegoro's gangsters try to take advantage of Zatoichi in a game of dice, but he uses their underestimation of him to his advantage, and hustles the gamblers out of all their money.
Zatoichi insists his impressive skills with the katana are nothing more than parlor tricks, but Boss Sukegoro hires him to stay on, as he his planning to go to war with a rival gang in nearby Sasagawa. Sasagawa boss Shigezo hires a ronin samurai, Hirate, to counterbalance Sukegoro's Zatoichi.
Zatoichi and Hirate develop a sort of friendship, but their affection toward each other has less to do with their love of fishing or drinking than on their common code of honor. Even though they know they will be expected to fight to the death in the war between Iioka and Sasagawa, this doesn't stand between their personal friendship.
So it follows that the most interesting conflict in the movie is not the yakuza warfare between the Iioka and Sasagawa gangs, but the conflict between Zatoichi and Hirate. Hirate is dying of consumption, and clearly wants to die by Zatoichi's sword rather than let his illness or an unworthy gangster take his life.
The Tale of Zatoichi was both fun and stylish. But rather than being a by-the-numbers action flick, the filmmakers took the time to develop characters the audience can actually care about, which elevated Zatoichi to a higher level of film.