Shintaro Katsu (1931-97) was shaping up as the Bob Hoskins of his day when this seemingly modest programmer made him a true star and launched one of the most beloved and enduring series in Japanese genre cinema. The blind Zatoichi (once a masseur, but his origins are left deliberately vague) has trained himself to use his heightened hearing and sense of smell to become a superbly skilled swordsman. He roams late-feudal Japan as an unusually principled yakuza, discreetly engineering justice, redistributing wealth, validating honour and breaking the hearts of women who see in him an alternative to the scummy men around them. This inaugural film (there were ultimately 26 features, in colour from the third onwards, plus a long running TV series) sets much of the pattern. Zatoichi stumbles into the turf war between the Iioka and Sasagawa clans, contrives to avoid fighting on behalf of his dishonest employer, and agrees to a duel with the dying ronin Miki Hirate (Amachi, wonderful) effectively to perform a mercy killing. He also jilts the waitress Tane, but sees off her malign and hypocritical brother. It's the combination of Katsu's idiosyncratic performance and the historical-realist background (not just the period detail; Iioka, Sasagawa and Hirate all existed) that makes it extraordinary. Misumi's unhurried direction emphasises character over action and gets the most from the heartbreaking bond between Hirate and his executioner to be.
Cast and crew