Story: A blind masseur named Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) has come to the home of a Sukejoro, a gangster boss he became acquainted with some time before. But the blind man isn’t aware of Sukejoro’s current situation, as a turf war has exploded in the area and Sukejoro’s forces are right in the middle of it all. Although Sukejoro boasts the larger number of gangsters, he has learned that rival Shigezo has taken some special precautions. This involves the hiring of a famous, highly skilled samurai to be at his side and do as he wishes, to attempt to level off the odds against Sukejoro’s more numerous forces. As such, Sukejoro hopes to land the services of Zatoichi, who is also a master swordsman, to combat Shigezo’s own samurai and help him win this intense battle between the gangs. But as he has no interest in the battling factions, Zatoichi refuses and soon after, he even strikes up a friendship with Hirate, the swordsman hired by Shigezo. As it turns out, Hirate is not keen on his assignment either and once Sukejoro discovers this, his forces strike out and attempt to crush Shigezo’s men. But how will Zatoichi fit into this conflict, with Shigezo’s wrath on full tilt toward the blind swordsman?
Entertainment Value: The adventures of Zatoichi have spanned over twenty motion pictures and over one hundred television episodes, but this is where it all started. There is a reason this series flourished and Zatoichi became a cultural icon, as this is just a wonderful character and a series of effective, entertaining pictures. This first installment establishes a formula of sorts that the myriad of sequels would follow, but it is one that works and despite the sheer volume of content, never becomes tiresome or repetitive. But I can see how some might take issue with the revisited scenarios and such, despite how well crafted the pictures are. The Tale of Zatoichi introduces the blind samurai and weaves in lore at times, but doesn’t go too heavy handed with the backstory and that trend continues over the entire series. If you want to learn about Zatoichi, you’ll need to pay attention and latch onto the small bits of his past that come up as he travels the countryside. This volume leans more on character development and narrative push, so action is less of an emphasis at this point. As time passes, the series embraces the violence more, but toward the franchise’s start, the action is less visceral. I appreciate that Zatoichi’s blade skills are obvious in the fights as well, which means often quick, decisive showdowns. I think The Tale of Zatoichi builds a solid foundation and offers a lot of entertainment, with a good story, a great cast, and some fun samurai action.
When you talk about Zatoichi, you have to also discuss Shintaro Katsu, who debuts here as the blind swordsman and would return the role over and over again, much to the delight of audiences. I love that even though this is his first appearance as Zatoichi, he is able to make the character feel lived in, as if this wasn’t the first adventure we have joined him on. That is impressive, to say the least. Katsu has the task of balancing the light and dark within Zatoichi, which are both explored as the series progresses, but we get glimpses even in this first installment. His sense of humor lightens the mood right when we need it and the humanity, flawed as it might be, that Katsu brings to the role is beyond remarkable. I will say the action scenes aren’t that memorable at this point, but it makes sense to have swift battles since Zatoichi is a true master of the sword. I can’t say enough positive things about Katsu’s performance here, he is a pleasure to watch and brings Zatoichi to life so well. The rest of the cast might be overshadowed by Katsu’s legendary effort in the lead role, but we still see some terrific performances around him. The cast also includes Shigeru Amachi, Masayo Banri, and Michiro Minami.