Friday, May 2, 2008

REVIEW: The Tale of Zatōichi - Kenji Misumi (1962)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

A blind man inching across a log bridge on his hands and knees. You’d hardly look at him and think James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Zorro, but he’s been compared with all of them. There’s nothing about the shuffling, squinting man we follow during the opening credits of Kenji Misumi’s 1962 film “The Tale of Zatōichi” that would indicate greatness, but when it comes to this zatō (lowest rank blind man) named Ichi the bumbling persona masks a razor sharp intellect, much like the sword hidden inside his cane.

Created by law student, journalist and pulp novelist Kan Shimozawa during the early years of the 20th century the character of the blind swordsmen Zatōichi went on to spawn 26 feature films over 27 years, a television series that between 1974 and 1979, a highly successful 2003 reboot starring none other than Takeshi Kitano, and an upcoming reimagining starring actress Haruka Ayase. Just watching the first 10 minutes of “The Tale of Zatōichi” and you immediately see why this became one of the longest running film series in cinema history.

Zatōichi has come to the town of Iioka to meet a man named Sukegorô and finds himself with a group of his men who are gambling with a cup and dice. When he asks to sit in everyone in the room sees dollar signs, or yen… well, in this case mon, but… How easy is it going to be to dupe this blind guy? When Zatōichi proceeds to slap down the cup the dice fall out for everyone to see we wince, but on the next roll he reveals his true colours. He quickly realizes his mistake, “Oh, these must have fallen from my sleeve,” he reveals the real dice underneath the cup. Immediately the men call him a cheat, but… “You bet on the dice outside the cup and you call me a cheat?” Before the angry mob can go after them with their swords Sukegorô enters and orders the gamblers to wash Zatōichi’s feet. Now if that isn’t cool I don’t know what is.

But “The Tale of Zatōichi” isn’t all gambling. In a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” that was released the year before Misumi’s film Zatōichi is enlisted by Sukegorô in his fight against a rival yakuza gang in the town of Sasagawa, but Zatōichi has absolutely no interest in playing sides, especially after meeting his rival in Sasagawa, the consumptive samurai Hirate. The two men strike up a fast friendship, so Zatōichi uses his wits more than his sword to get the two gangs fighting each other while he takes an interest in the plight of the young O-tane, the sister of one of Sukegorô’s men.

Like Yoji Yamada’s much celebrated Samurai Trilogy Misumi takes his time fleshing out not only Zatōichi, but the other characters as well, so that once Zatōichi and Hirate cross swords at the end of the film our stomachs are in our throats. Beyond the clever gags Zatōichi plays and the brilliant swordplay “The Tale of Zatōichi” is simply a beautiful film using stark black and white photography and striking compositions in almost evry shot.

For those who haven’t become acquainted with the blind swordsman yet “The Tale of Zatōichi” is a perfect way to get that first taste. I promise you. You’ll be addicted!

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