|Created by||Kan Shimozawa (子母澤 寛 Shimozawa Kan?).|
acute observation and personal insights
intense concentration and self-discipline
shogi (chess) master
thrown weapons and archery
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.
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 even, on occasion, singing and playing music. Secretly, however, he is very highly skilled in swordsmanship, specifically Muraku-school kenjutsu and iaido along with 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 for undisclosed reasons when Zatoichi was about five years old. 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 killed many people, 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 and 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, because of his earnestness, wit, and natural sense of empathy, many people who encounter 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. The decree was virtually impossible to enforce, however, as evidenced by the Yakuza enforcers being 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 specially forged at great expense and with far more than the usual care 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 resembles a short, thick bo staff, which also soon breaks. In the next film, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire, he's once again using his trademark cane sword, 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 unfortunate, and often, through no fault of his own, is set upon by ruffians or stumbles 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. Nevertheless, 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 appears to come entirely naturally to him.
His lightning-fast fighting skill is incredible, with his sword held in a reverse grip; this, combined with his unflappable steel-nerved wits in a fight, his keen ears, sense of smell and proprioception, all render him a 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. Almost preternaturally dangerous with blades, he is fully capable (whether standing, sitting or lying down) of fighting and swiftly defeating multiple skilled opponents simultaneously. Some, however, have come close to besting him in combat, in particular during the final duel 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
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
|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
The television series of Zatoichi ran for four seasons—a total of 100 episodes—with Shintaro Katsu in the lead role:
- 26 episodes, in 1974
- 29 episodes, in 1976
- 19 episodes, in 1978
- 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 Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, 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
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
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.
Zatoichi: The Last
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.
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.
In other works
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.
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 in which 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.
In the Guilty Gear video game series, there is a character named Zato-1, who also happens to be a blind assassin. Although his name is pronounced Zato-one, the Japanese word for one is ichi, hence Zato-ichi.
- "Frequently Asked Questions about 'Zatoichi'". The Momii Company. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
- "Sho Aikawa gets first starring stage role in Miike's 'Zatoichi'". Tokyograph. 26 July 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
- Silver, Alain (1983) . "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.
- Zatoichi's Musical Journey (CDs of the original film music) - Volumes 1 2 and 3
- The Momii Company's Zatoichi site—a commercial site selling Zatoichi on VHS and DVD, with comprehensive background information/history on the films and television series
- The Digital Bits' DVD Review Index - Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman on DVD
- Zatoichi region 2 disc mix-up—review of the infamous Artsmagic box set
- Rev. Antonio Hernandez's two-part history of Zatoichi: , 
- About 18 of the earlier movies can be viewed for free on Hulu.com
- CD soundtrack compilation of Zatoichi film music from La-La Land Records, with comprehensive album notes by Randall D. Larson
- The Official Forum for the UK Arrowdrome DVD Release