The Tale of Zatoichi was directed by the late, great Kenji Misumi. This, the first installment in the 26-film series, is tight and lean. The screenplay, written by Minoru Inuzuka based on the novel by Kan Shimozawa, is an effective lesson in frugality.
When we meet Ichi (zato is a title indicating his low social status and blindness), he’s a yakuza who essentially cheats at dice and mooches off a local boss named Sukejoro with very little regard to his beneficiary’s wishes. He comes off as a selfish jerk–a most unlikely Japanese hero. There’s a pending war between two bosses, and Ichi agrees to be a hired hand for Sukejoro. The oyabun has seen Ichi’s skill with a sword first hand and knows his abilities make him worth more than any ten men currently in his employ. Complications develop when the rival oyabun’s hired swordsman, Hirate, hits it off with Ichi and the two become friends. There’s also a subplot concerning a young man and his sister, both of whom eventually get involved with the war and the blind masseuse.
The story is interesting enough but it’s the performances that really make the film work. Shintaro Katsu is absolutely wonderful as Ichi. He’s asked to walk the line between buffoon and skilled swordsman and he does so with great aplomb. The supporting cast of Daiei day players is uniformly excellent as well. Shigeru Amachi nearly steals the show as Hirate, the ronin who’s dying of consumption. His stern countenance hides a fierce heart that wins even Ichi over in the end.
Godzilla and Daimajin composer Akira Ifukube contributes a wonderful score that provides the wind for the film’s sails. He made the unusual choice of leaving the fight scenes without any music at all. Whether that choice works or not depends on your expectations, of course, but I thought it made the fights seem less exciting. Perhaps that was the point. After all, Ichi really would prefer not to draw his sword.
Cinematographer Chishi Makiura ultimately fails to wring the most out of his black and white palette. Many shots appear to have been overexposed making the Japanese landscape look more like Antarctica. Interior scenes fare better than exterior ones due to the additional control he had over the lighting, but most scenes could have used a few more setups. Judging from his subsequent work, including several of the beautiful Sleepy Eyes of Death films, I have to assume that the troubles here had little to do with Makiura’s abilities and much to do with his limited budget.
I truly enjoyed this film and can clearly see why the Japanese public fell in love with the blind masseur at first sight. There are some minor story inconsistencies with the rest of the series, but this proved to be a great introduction for the character. Recommended.