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Publication information
Created by Kan Shimozawa (子母澤 寛 Shimozawa Kan?).
In-story information
Abilities swordsmanship
powerful hearing
acute observation and personal insights
intense concentration and self-discipline
professional masseur
occasional freelance-yakuza
shogi (chess) master
hand-to-hand combat
sumo wrestling
thrown weapons and archery
shamisen player

Zatoichi (座頭市 Zatōichi?) is a fictional character featured in one of Japan's longest running series of films and a television series that are both set during the late Edo period (1830s and 1840s). The character, a blind masseur and blademaster, was created by novelist Kan Shimozawa.

This originally minor character was developed for the screen by Daiei Studios (now Kadokawa Pictures) and actor Shintaro Katsu, who created the screen version. A total of 26 films were made from 1962 to 1989. From 1974 to 1979, the television series Zatoichi was produced, starring Katsu and some of the same stars that appeared in the films. These were produced by Katsu Productions. One hundred episodes, with episodes 99 and 100 being a two-part story finale, were aired before the Zatoichi television series was cancelled.[1]

Film number 17 of the original series was remade in America in 1990 (by TriStar Pictures) as Blind Fury, an action movie starring Rutger Hauer.

A 2003 film, Zatōichi, was directed by Takeshi Kitano who also starred as Zatōichi in the film. The film was awarded the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion for Best Direction in 2003.

A stage version of Zatoichi directed by Takashi Miike starred Show Aikawa.[2]


Zatoichi at first comes across as a harmless blind anma (masseur) and bakuto (gambler) who wanders the land, making his living by chō-han (playing dice) as well as giving massages, performing acupuncture and on occasion, even singing and playing music. However, secretly, he is very highly skilled in swordsmanship, specifically Muraku-school kenjutsu and iaido and is equally skilled in the more general sword skills of Japan, as well as Sumo wrestling and kyujutsu.

Little of his past is revealed, other than that he lost his sight as a child through an illness. His father disappeared when he was about five years old, again for undisclosed reasons. He is described by his kendo instructor as having practiced constantly and with extreme devotion when he was a pupil in order to develop his incredible swordsmanship. Zatoichi says of himself that he became a yakuza (gangster) during those three years he spent training (which immediately precede the original The Tale of Zatoichi) and had killed many people by then, something he later came to deeply regret. This is reflected in his willingness to involve himself in the affairs of others- chiefly, those suffering from oppression/exploitation, or some form of corruption. Despite that moral re-assessment, his new perspective and remorse (and most often because of them), he usually has a bounty (sometimes quite large) on his head from one source or another throughout the movies and series. However, his earnestness, wit, and natural sense of empathy, many people who have encountered him during his travels grow to respect and even care for him.

Unlike a bushi, he does not carry a traditional katana. Instead, he uses a well-made shikomi-zue (仕込み杖, lit. "prepared cane" or cane sword), as the use or possession of true fighting blades was formally outlawed for non-samurai during the Edo period. Though, the decree was virtually impossible to enforce, as evident by the fact that the Yakuza enforcers are shown wielding katanas throughout the films. The blades of Shikomi-zue were generally straight-edged, of lower-quality, unfolded-steel, which could not compare with even a low-end katana. As a result, the blade in Ichi's cane sword is broken during the climactic battle in Zatoichi the Fugitive (the fourth film). The sword has a new blade by the next film, which he wields until the fifteenth film Zatoichi's Cane Sword, the blade (which breaks during the film) and the blade that replaces it were especially forged at very great expense and with far more than the usual care, time and effort by master bladesmiths and were both of exceptional quality, superior to the swords of even most samurai. At the beginning of Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, his swordblade (presumably the same) inexplicably breaks and is sold to a blacksmith along with its hilt and scabbard. Its replacement isn't a shikomi-zue, but a jotō (杖刀 lit. a "staff sword") of unrevealed origin that's like a short, thick bo staff, which also soon breaks. In the very next film, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire, he's once again using his trademark canesword, outfitted with a new blade of unknown origin and quality.

The principal recurring thematic formula of these films and the television series is that of the ever-wandering and sentimental drifter who protects the innocent and the helpless from oppressive or warring yakuza gangs, stops the worst of general injustice or predation and aids the misfortunate, and often, through no real fault or choice of his own, is set upon by ruffians or will stumble into harm's way. Zatoichi's saga is essentially one of an earthy but basically good and wise man almost always trying to do the decent thing, to somehow redeem himself and perhaps atone for past failings. Yet, he believes himself instead to be a stained, corrupted and evil man, irredeemable and undeserving of the love and respect that some show and rightly have for him. This self-described "god of calamities" is routinely a magnet for troubles of one sort or another. Death is his only constant companion, as he pragmatically doesn't allow other people, especially those he loves or thinks highly of, to get close and stay there for long - such would lead to eventual tragedy. Death does seem, like a shadow, to actually follow an often reluctant Zatoichi almost everywhere he goes, and despite his mostly compassionate nature, killing truly does appear to indeed come entirely natural to him.

His lightning-fast fighting skill is incredible, with his sword-grip in inverse manner; this, combined with his unflappable steel-nerved wits in a fight, his keen ears, sense of smell and proprioception, all render him a frighteningly formidable adversary. He is also quite capable with a traditional katana, as seen in Zatoichi's Vengeance and the bath house scene in Zatoichi and the Festival of Fire. Similarly, he displays considerable skill using two swords simultaneously, in Musashi-like Nitō Ichi style in Zatoichi and the Doomed Man. Deadly dangerous with blades to an almost preternatural degree, he is fully capable (whether standing, sitting or lying down) of fighting and swiftly defeating multiple skilled opponents simultaneously. Though some have come close to besting him in combat, in particular the final dual in Zatoichi Challenged where extenuating circumstances played a role.

A number of other standard scenarios are also repeated through the series: Zatoichi's winning of large amounts at gambling via his ability to hear whether the dice have fallen on even or odd is a common theme, as is his catching loaded or substituted dice by the difference in their sound. This frequently culminates in another set piece, Zatoichi's cutting the candles lighting the room and reducing it to pitch blackness, commonly accompanied by his tag line "Kurayami nara kocchi no mon da"|暗闇ならこっちのもんだ (roughly meaning "Darkness is my advantage") or "Now we are all blind".

The character's name is actually Ichi. Zatō is a title, the lowest of the four official ranks within the Tōdōza, the historical guild for blind men. (Thus zato also designates a blind person in Japanese slang.) Ichi is therefore properly called Zatō-no-Ichi ("Low-Ranking Blind Person Ichi", approximately), or Zatōichi for short. Massage was a traditional occupation for the blind (as their lack of sight removed the issue of gender), as was playing the biwa or, for blind women (goze), the shamisen. Being lesser Hinin (lit. "non-people"), blind people and masseurs were regarded as among the very lowest of the low in social class, other than Eta or outright criminals ; they were generally considered wretches, beneath notice, no better than beggars or even the insane — especially during the Edo period — and it was also commonly thought that the blind were accursed, despicable, severely mentally disabled, deaf and sexually dangerous.

The original series of films[edit]

The original series of 26 films featured Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi. The first film was made in 1962 in black and white. The third film, in 1963, was the first to be filmed in color. The twenty-fifth film was made in 1973 followed by a hiatus of 16 years until Katsu's last film, which he wrote and directed himself in 1989.

The original series of movies features other popular fictional characters of the genre on two occasions. Zatoichi and the One Armed Swordsman (1971) connects with the Shaw Brothers series of Hong Kong produced movies directed by prolific director Chang Cheh; and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) features Toshiro Mifune as Imperial Shogunate Secret Agent Sassa Daisaka. This character resembles the title character of Akira Kurosawa's films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The earlier films, in which Mifune's character used the pseudonym Sanjuro (thirty-year-old), are alluded to when Sassa is jokingly called Shijuro (forty-year-old).

List of original films[edit]

No. Title Year Japanese Romanization Director
1 The Tale of Zatoichi 1962 座頭市物語 Zatōichi monogatari Kenji Misumi
2 The Tale of Zatoichi Continues 続・座頭市物語 Zoku Zatōichi monogatari Kazuo Mori
3 New Tale of Zatoichi 1963 新・座頭市物語 Shin Zatōichi monogatari Tokuzo Tanaka
4 Zatoichi The Fugitive 座頭市兇状旅 Zatōichi kyōjō-tabi
5 Zatoichi on the Road 座頭市喧嘩旅 Zatōichi kenka-tabi Kimiyoshi Yasuda
6 Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold 1964 座頭市千両首 Zatōichi senryō-kubi Kazuo Ikehiro
7 Zatoichi's Flashing Sword 座頭市あばれ凧 Zatōichi abare tako
8 Fight, Zatoichi, Fight 座頭市血笑旅 Zatōichi kesshō-tabi Kenji Misumi
9 Adventures of Zatoichi 座頭市関所破り Zatōichi sekisho-yaburi Kimiyoshi Yasuda
10 Zatoichi's Revenge 1965 座頭市二段斬り Zatōichi nidan-giri Akira Inoue
11 Zatoichi and the Doomed Man 座頭市逆手斬り Zatōichi sakate-giri Kazuo Mori
12 Zatoichi and the Chess Expert 座頭市地獄旅 Zatōichi jigoku-tabi Kenji Misumi
13 Zatoichi's Vengeance 1966 座頭市の歌が聞える Zatōichi no uta ga kikoeru Tokuzo Tanaka
14 Zatoichi's Pilgrimage 座頭市海を渡る Zatōichi umi o wataru Kazuo Ikehiro
15 Zatoichi's Cane Sword 1967 座頭市鉄火旅 Zatōichi tekka-tabi Kimiyoshi Yasuda
16 Zatoichi the Outlaw 座頭市牢破り Zatōichi rōyaburi Satsuo Yamamoto
17 Zatoichi Challenged 座頭市血煙り街道 Zatōichi chikemurikaidō Kenji Misumi
18 Zatoichi and the Fugitives 1968 座頭市果し状 Zatōichi hatashijō Kimiyoshi Yasuda
19 Samaritan Zatoichi 座頭市喧嘩太鼓 Zatōichi kenka-daiko Kenji Misumi
20 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo 1970 座頭市と用心棒 Zatōichi to Yōjinbō Kihachi Okamoto
21 Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival 座頭市あばれ火祭り Zatōichi abare-himatsuri Kenji Misumi
22 Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman 1971 新座頭市・破れ!唐人剣 Shin Zatōichi: Yabure! Tōjin-ken Kimiyoshi Yasuda
23 Zatoichi at Large 1972 座頭市御用旅 Zatōichi goyō-tabi Kazuo Mori
24 Zatoichi in Desperation 新座頭市物語・折れた杖 Shin Zatōichi monogatari: Oreta tsue Shintaro Katsu
25 Zatoichi's Conspiracy 1973 新座頭市物語・笠間の血祭り Shin Zatōichi monogatari: Kasama no chimatsuri Kimiyoshi Yasuda
26 Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman 1989 座頭市 Zatōichi Shintaro Katsu
  • Notes: The English titles shown are the common commercially used titles, thus not direct translations of the original Japanese titles.

The television series[edit]

The television series of Zatoichi ran for four seasons—a total of 100 episodes—with Shintaro Katsu in the lead role:

  1. 26 episodes, in 1974
  2. 29 episodes, in 1976
  3. 19 episodes, in 1978
  4. 26 episodes, in 1979

Most of the stories in the television are original dramas, but at least one (Season One, Episode 16, "The winds From Mt. Akagi") is a sequel to one of the films, and a couple of others, such as Season One, Episode 14, "Fighting Journey With Baby in Tow," are essentially redacted remakes of full-length Zatoichi films of the previous decade.

The first season of television shows has been released with English subtitles from Media Blasters / Tokyo Shock.

Remakes and Spin-Offs[edit]

Blind Fury[edit]

In 1989, TriStar Pictures released a remake called Blind Fury starring Rutger Hauer as the Zatoichi character. Here, Hauer is a Vietnam War vet who is blinded, then taught to fence by a local tribe before returning home to America. This film is based on Zatoichi Challenged (1967, the 17th film in the original series).

Beat Takeshi's Zatoichi[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Zatoichi (2003 film).

In 2003, Takeshi Kitano wrote, directed and appeared in a new high-budget Zatoichi film, called simply Zatoichi (座頭市 Zatōichi). It premiered on September 3, 2003 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Silver Lion award, and went on to numerous other awards both at home and abroad. It also stars Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Okusu, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka, Daigiro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, and Akira Emoto.

Zatoichi discovers a small, remote mountain town that has been overtaken by a bullying gang that is extorting money from the townspeople. As Zatoichi seeks to liberate the town, he encounters a ronin seeking employment to pay for his ailing wife's needs, and two geisha who are seeking to avenge the murder of their parents, but he soon discovers they are not what they seem to be.

The soundtrack features contributions from Keiichi Suzuki (formerly of the Moon Riders) and The Stripes.


In Ichi, a blind female musician who is rescued (and later trained) by Zatoichi travels Japan to find her mentor.[3][4]

Zatoichi: The Last[edit]

Toho released a new Zatoichi film, titled Zatoichi: The Last on May 29, 2010, starring Shingo Katori as Zatoichi.[citation needed]

Production companies[edit]

The majority of the films were produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company: from the first film, The Tale of Zatoichi a/k/a The Life and Opinions of Masseur Ichi), to the 19th film, Zatoichi Samaritan. Toho Studios picked up where it had left off[clarification needed]—the 16th film, Zatoichi the Outlaw—with the 20th film, Zatoichi and Yojimbo. The 22nd film, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman, was released in 1971—the year Daiei Studios went bankrupt.

However, starting with film entry 16, Zatoichi the Outlaw in 1967, Shintaro Katsu's own company, Katsu Productions, coproduced the films (as well as producing the TV series and his last Zatoichi film). After Daiei was out of commission, Toho Company took over the films, including 1972's highly popular Zatoichi at Large, the 23rd film, through to Zatoichi at the Blood Fest in 1973, the 25th film. Shochiku did Katsu's last Zatoichi film in 1989, which was produced by Katsu Productions. It was re-released (and retitled Darkness Is His Ally) in 2004; this was no doubt sparked by the new 2003 Zatoichi film, Zatoichi, starring Takeshi Kitano, which Shochiku also released.

Chambara Entertainment/Video Action of Honolulu held the original VHS release rights to the Zatoichi film series numbers 1-20, though it only released some of them. Chambara eventually expired its North American release license. AnimEigo held the remainder of the VHS rights.[5]

Home Vision Entertainment (not Criterion as is often misstated) was granted United States distribution rights to the original Daiei films (except for the 14th, and the 16th was in possession of AnimEigo), and released them on DVD: films numbered 1-13, 15, and 17-19. AnimEigo released seven of the films: Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967), Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), Zatoichi at the Fire Festival (1970, as Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire), Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971), Zatoichi at Large (1972), Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), and Zatoichi at the Blood Fest (1973, as Zatoichi's Conspiracy).

Media Blasters (under their Tokyo Shock label) released the 1989 film. The first season (26 episodes) of the TV series was released on February 7, 2007.

Criterion Collection released the first twenty-five films as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD boxed set on November 26, 2013.[6][7]

In other works[edit]

The character of Zatoichi finds homage in the character of Zato-Ino (also known as "the Blind Swordspig") in Stan Sakai's long-running anthropomorphic comic series Usagi Yojimbo. This iteration of the character uses his keen sense of smell to find his way and to combat his enemies.

The Crimson Bat film series was an unauthorized variation, with a blind woman named O-Ichi, played by Yoko Matsuyama, as the sword-wielding hero. This series of films was not well received; only four films were produced and the producers were chastised for stealing from the Ichi character.

Blindman was a spaghetti western variation on the Zatoichi formula starring Tony Anthony as a blind gunman.

The 1989 movie Blind Fury starring Rutger Hauer was inspired by Zatoichi Challenged, the 17th film in the series. In this movie Hauer plays a blind Vietnam War veteran trained to use a sword cane in battle, thus giving his remake character a more American background.

In the 2006 movie Devil's Den, while being trapped in the strip club by female ghouls, the main characters have a fantasy scenario of how Zatoichi would deal with the ghouls himself.

In the Shogun update of the multiplayer first-person shooter Team Fortress 2, a katana called "The Half-Zatoichi" was introduced for use by both the Soldier and Demoman, alluding to the fact that the Demoman uses an eyepatch and is half-blind, while the Soldier wears an improperly fitted helmet and therefore has impaired vision.

The Italian heavy metal band Holy Martyr released a song titled "Zatoichi" on their 2011 album Invincible, based on the character. The cover artwork of Invincible depicts Zatoichi in combat against 2 rival warriors.

In the episode of the Boondocks titled "Grandad's Fight," Huey has a dream where he fights Col. Stinkmeaner, a blind and cruel elderly man who had beaten his grandfather earlier in the episode, as samurai. Later in the episode, Huey shows his grandfather footage of animated Zatoichi in action, comparing Stinkmeaner to the blind swordsman.

In the second season of the 1985 animated series Thundercats, a character named Lynx-O shares many similarities as Zatoichi. Having been blinded by volcanic gasses during his escape from his dying home world of Thundera, Lynx-O develops his other senses to "see" the world around him. He is a formidable fighter, and can use pressure points to disable and defeat foes.

In the long running manga One Piece, the marine admiral Fujitora is based upon Zatoichi.

In the Quentin Tarantino film Death Proof, Jungle Julia calls Stuntman Mike "Zatoichi" sarcastically when he fails to notice a billboard. Mike responds with a wide grin similar to Ichi's.

In the online co-op game Warframe, there is a katana stance called "Blind Justice", which causes the katana to be held in reverse grip. Its first attack combination is called "Zatos' Creed", all of them being references to Zatoichi.

See also[edit]



  • Silver, Alain (1983) [1977]. "5. The Alien Hero I. The Blind Swordfighters: Zato Ichi and the Crimson Bat". The Samurai Film. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. pp. 76–83. ISBN 978-0-87951-175-3. 

External links[edit]