The Criterion Collection has allowed six of the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman from Japan in the 1960s to be added to Hulu.com where they can be seen currently for free (the site may require registration). These films, which are funny, poignant and exciting adventures, take the viewer into a world none of us will ever know. They are highly enjoyable, employing "the knight errant" leitmotif so familiar to us in storytelling from medieval times through the tales of the Old West. I'm not normally a chopsocky fan, but these films have their own quirky appeal.
Shintarô Katsu, (seen at the right), who played the character 'Zatoichi' in a total of 26 movies, from 1962-1989, is featured in the lead role as a mysterious wanderer as he travels through Edo period Japan in the early 1800s, plying his trade as a masseur and his avocation as a roving gambler. The actor, who has a slightly doughy face and an unprepossessing manner is surprisingly touching and funny, living by his own code of honor drawn from the yakuza and samurai tradition.
That being said, this perennial outsider, who can be kind and responds gently to others, is also a mercurial fellow, capable of taking his violent revenge on those who deserve it, at least in his view. The emergence of this side of his personality, while momentarily satisfying to the character, also reinforces his isolation from others, since the people he is often trying to protect are occasionally appalled by him as well as grateful. Socially, Zatoichi is at the bottom of the food chain in this feudal society where blindness is looked upon as a failing of character rather than merely a physical handicap. One reason that he is a masseur is due to this profession being traditionally assigned to the blind in Japan of that time. Neither his blindness nor his acquisition of swordplay skills is ever explained; though his keen hearing, sense of smell, and perception of the world around him assists him in his battles.
Thanks to these other senses, Zatoichi knows just how the dice have fallen in a game, (and if loaded die have been substituted), he can perceive the delicate scent of plum blossoms and the smell of sweat on an opponent's brow, knows when an antagonist is about to get the drop on him, and can perceive injustices that need to be corrected and innocents who need protection. Living by the motto, "Darkness is my advantage", Zatoichi often performs a signature gesture as a fight commences with a yakuza or a samurai, swiftly snuffing out all the candles in a room using his sword cane, (traditional swords were prohibited for a time in the Edo period so his needed to be concealed). Despite these superhuman qualities, Zatoichi remains an intriguing figure, with an air of existential melancholy, a sense of the life's absurdities and an ambiguity that makes him all too mortal, especially in the films in the series that were directed by Kenji Misumi. Using far less violence than today's average action flick, I found these films emphasize character, mood and story over the action, though there is plenty of that. I also find the black and white movies far more starkly beautiful at times. If you liked Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), with the great Toshiro Mifune, I suspect that this series will appeal to you as well. Mifune reportedly appeared in on of the later films in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) which I haven't seen, though it sounds intriguing.
There were some recent remakes of the Zatoichi films, but I haven't seen them. One Western film starring that appealing schlockmeister Rutger Hauer* called Blind Fury (1989) was a remake of Zatoichi Chikemuri Kaido (1967), a Japanese film I haven't seen, though Blind Fury was entertaining and hilarious at times.
Here's the list of movies now available on Hulu and a link there:
The Tale of Zatoichi (1962): The legend of Zatoichi begins
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962): Zatoichi discovers a secret that makes him a wanted man, and must face his old foe, the infamous one-armed samurai.
The New Tale of Zatoichi (1963): Zatoichi returns to his home village to discover that his former teacher has been hiring out his swordsmanship skills to kidnappers.
The Fugitive (1963): The blind swordsman is caught between two gang bosses and must fight his way out of an intense territorial
On the Road (1963): Zatoichi helps a servant girl escape a lascivious feudal lord and two deadly yakuza gangs.
Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1963): Accused of theft, Zatoichi must clear his name while being pursued by a maniacal, bullwhip-wielding ronin.
*Please don't get mad because I said that about Rutger Hauer--I've loved the guy since his Soldier of Orange days, but boy, some of his movies! Have you seen Omega Doom?