The “Zatoichi” series has long been an entry point for non-Japanese into Japanese films. Guys from Bonn to Buenos Aires who nod off after 10 minutes of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Monogatari” (“Tokyo Story”) devour the 25 episodes of the original series of films (1962-1973), as well as the 1989 revival directed by series star Shintaro Katsu, and Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 revisionist take featuring Kitano himself as the blind swordsman hero.
There was also a TV series that aired for four seasons (1974-1979), as well as various takeoffs and rip-offs, including the flashy yet forgettable “Ichi” (2008), starring Haruka Ayase as a female Ichi (the hero’s real name, “Zato” being a title signifying the lowest rank in the feudal-era blindman’s guild).
One reason for Ichi’s popularity, here and abroad, is that the character is easy to understand. Unlike samurai living and dying according to a bizarrely masochistic (in Western eyes) code, Ichi was just trying to make a living as a masseur and gambler, while wandering the country alone. Giving massages was a traditional occupation for the blind in his era, but gambling was his true moneymaker, thanks to super-sensitive hearing that enabled him to accurately call the dice’s roll.
Also, unlike the stainless samurai types that were then the genre’s standard, Katsu’s Ichi was a dirty hero par excellence — rough, crude and less inclined to noble crusades than payback against those who mocked him for his blindness — until they tested the edge of his cane sword, an unconventional weapon that he wielded with an unconventional underhand grip. His nearest equivalent in the West was Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name,” who gunned down his opponents with cold, scornful glee.
Junji Sakamoto’s “Zatoichi: The Last,” the latest revival, doesn’t feature Katsu, who died in 1997 after a wild, riotous life. Instead it stars the hyper SMAP singer Shingo Katori, who has mostly appeared on the big screen in comedies (“The Uchoten Hotel”) or kiddie actioners (“Saiyuki”).
Also, instead of portraying Ichi as an outcast and loner, the film gives him a wife, friends, a community — and strong feelings for all of them.
None of this sounded promising going in, but “Zatoichi” is a better film than expected. Fans can rightly complain, however, that it lacks much of the rude swagger of the original series as well as its feats of legerdemain, such as Ichi slicing and dicing various airborne objects.
Sakamoto has compensated with the sort of spare, striking stylistics and strong, elemental emotions found in Yoji Yamada’s acclaimed samurai trilogy, particularly the 2006 “Bushi no Ichibun” (“Love and Honor”), whose swordsman hero, played by SMAPster Takuya Kimura, was also sightless. At the same time, the film is loaded with action sequences that try to be more hard-breathing, blood-soaked substance than choreographed, CG-assisted style — though the whole idea of one blind swordsman, however accomplished, taking on hordes of sighted opponents is frankly fantastic.
The story begins with Ichi pledging to his wife Tane (Satomi Ishihara) that an upcoming fight will be his last. At its end, with Ichi bloody but triumphant, a cowardly late-comer rushes in to stab him, but Tane unwittingly steps in between Ichi and the blade. The late-comer flees, Tane dies — and Ichi is left seething with grief and anger.
Instead of hunting down the killer, Ichi returns to his native village, where he finds a home with his friend Ryuji (Takashi Sorimachi), a humble farmer, and his family. There he leads a quiet life while becoming close to Ryuji’s young son Goro (Seishiro Kato) and big-hearted mother (Chieko Baisho), who cares for him as if he were her own flesh and blood.
But the local big man, Tendo (Tatsuya Nakadai), is despotic and ruthless. Together with corrupt local officials, he and his minions run roughshod over the villagers, using any means necessary to enforce obedience and compliance — from threats to murder. Zatoichi is finally stirred reluctantly to action, but Tendo proves to be a wily and dangerous opponent.
Shingo confessed that he had never seen Katsu’s Zatoichi films prior to taking the role — which may be heresy to the series’ fans, but at least enabled him to bring a fresh perspective to the character instead being overly influenced by Katsu’s charisma.
He plays Zatoichi with a headlong, physically risky commitment. Watching him slip and slide on the snow with his eyes closed as he battles dozens of opponents, I imagined the bumps and bruises he must have accumulated in the retakes. Emotionally, he is all there as well, minus the goofy smirks of his usual on-air persona, though his performance is on the sweaty and over-wrought side, as though he were channeling Toshiro Mifune instead of Katsu.
Meanwhile, Nakadai elevates the film beyond the genre standard with his over-sized, hollow-eyed presence. His Tendo is not only intelligent and amoral in the usual villainous mode, but also scarily remote, unknowable and capricious — more like a demon god than a man.
For all its pretensions to tragedy, “Zatoichi The Last” is ultimately chanbara (sword-fighting) entertainment, similar to “The Dark Knight” and other Hollywood comic book movies that try for darkness and depth but still have CG action at their center. As such it delivers the goods, but I can’t help preferring Katsu’s more straightforward and definitely cooler approach. Or maybe I just like watching a blind guy slice a buzzing fly in half with a barely perceptible flick of his sword. Call me old-fashioned or simple-minded.