THROUGH THE FIRE: Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman

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By BILL WATANABE

I’ve always liked Zatoichi movies. When I retired from the Little Tokyo Service Center about 7 years ago, I found I had more time to indulge in some idle activities. I started to watch old Zatoichi films on Youtube, starting with the earliest movie starring Shintaro Katsu in 1962 (in black and white) and every movie he made after that (there are about 25 Zatoichi movies starring Katsu).

I was attracted to the Zatoichi character because there are some interesting themes that run through many of the movies, even though the very idea of a blind swordsman is ludicrous — but then no more ludicrous than someone getting a spider bite and turning into a super-hero called Spider-Man!

I’m not fond of the samurai fighting scenes where many people are killed by the sword, and true to form, Zatoichi often ends up slashing and killing dozens of hapless lesser-skilled swordsmen. But Zatoichi never initiates the violence and he never kills women and others who might be considered vulnerable or powerless – this goes along with the advice Spider-Man’s uncle gave, saying “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi.

Zatoichi often shows restraint in his great powers of swordsmanship and displays a very kind heart, especially towards children and babies.

Zatoichi is generally portrayed as a comical underdog. He is not handsome and virile like Toshiro Mifune – he is in fact rather pudgy and plain-looking. He is not a samurai but describes himself as a vagabond yakuza and earns money as a masseur, a trade common for blind people in old Japan to make a modest living.

But underneath the poor and blind-man image is the fearless and awesome master swordsman whose skill and speed are superior to any other swordsman (who are usually the villains and therefore ultimately deserving of a final fatal climactic cutting-edge dispatch).

Beautiful ladies are drawn to him too – perhaps another reason I was attracted to Zatoichi when I was a young, single male overflowing with hormones. He never imposes himself or hits on the women and is caring and strong, which seems to be a magnet for the Japanese women of the day.

There are a number of episodes where, like the Lone Ranger, after saving the lady in distress, he walks off alone into the sunset as the wandering vagabond — the only thing missing is someone saying, “Who was that blind (masked) man?”

Often in Zatoichi stories, there are people who make fun of him because he is blind or because he seems vulnerable and weak. I think the idea of being ridiculed or made fun of is something we all can relate to, and it makes us empathetic towards Zatoichi. People who underestimate Zatoichi don’t realize that he has honed his abilities to hear and smell and sense what is going on and therefore actually has the upper hand when facing confrontations – a lesson for all of us to never underestimate those who are considered handicapped or disabled.

If you’ve never seen a Zatoichi movie starring Shintaro Katsu, check it out on Youtube! These are classic, off-beat samurai movies and a lot of fun (if you don’t take the slashing scenes too seriously).

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 Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near Downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I’ve only recently ‘discovered’ these movies. I watched all 26 (The last one was made in 89) and enjoyed the series. I’m now trying to find a good print of the TV show….hard to find!

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