Takeshi Kitano reinvented the role, but for purists there remains only one Zatoichi: Shintarô Katsu. Katsu played the blind swordsman through twenty-two films at Daiei Studios and a further three for Toho, the last of which he also wrote and directed. Acclaimed as a masterpiece by Japanese critics, Zatoichi: Broken Stick / a.k.a. Zatoichi in Desperation (1973) concludes with Zatoichi’s hands smashed, his sword-wielding days effectively over. This was conveniently forgotten when Katsu revived him for a long-running television series and for this last hurrah.
Sort of a greatest hits package, Katsu stitches his plot together by recreating familiar tropes from the series. Zatoichi involves himself in a turf war between two, feuding yakuza families. He defends the poor, utilizes his super-hearing at a gambling den, befriends some plucky orphans, romances a femme fatale (Kanako Higuchi), unmasks a corrupt government official, slaughters hordes of yakuza, and bonds with a super-skilled opponent he’ll eventually have to fight. Slow moving and episodic, this isn’t the best starting point for newcomers, but will delight long-term fans. Katsu’s directorial skill pushes over-familiar elements into the abstract: a sensual, bathtub sex scene turns Freudian when Zatoichi reminisces about his mother; his nifty, reoccurring use of a mirror to show downtrodden folk their inner beauty; a bloody massacre transforms into black comedy; and a touching scene where rival swordsman ponder the true nature of blindness.
Bloodier than the early films, with limbs lopped off and bodies exploding into geysers of gore, it’s reminiscent of the Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-74) Katsu produced as a vehicle for his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. Similar nepotism saw Katsu’s son, Ryuutaro Gan, cast as a yakuza leader here, which led to an unfortunate incident. During a fight scene, Gan accidentally stabbed actor Yukio Kato, who later died in hospital. Police ruled it professional negligence and the scandal caused Shintarô Katsu considerable embarrassment. Off-screen, Katsu was a coke and booze fuelled party animal, a notorious womaniser, causing havoc with his rabblerousing posse. He was also a truly beloved, working class hero, a groundbreaking film producer (specializing in star-laden blockbusters), a successful recording artist, and Japan’s most popular film star. He could’ve had an international career, but got into a punch up with Akira Kurosawa during filming on Kagemusha (1980). Cast in the lead, Katsu considered Kurosawa a hack and was fired because he was simultaneously re-shooting scenes with his own camera crew! Aside from Zatoichi, Katsu spent the eighties and nineties making special guest appearances in big-budget blockbusters, but pulled out the stops for his final, critically acclaimed performance in Ronin-gai (1990). He passed away in 1997.
Zatoichi is very much the samurai equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Katsu deftly balances exploitation elements, pathos and slapstick comedy particularly in the spectacular, final battle involving hordes of yakuza, a bouncing baby, and Zatoichi hidden inside a rolling barrel! Stirring stuff. Following ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s Zatoichi (2003), fans may be interested to know another remake is on the way, courtesy of director Fumihiko Sori (who made the sci-fi anime adventure, Vexille (2008), also due for release soon). This time, Zatoichi is… a girl, played by actress Haruka Ayase!