The Blind Swordsman – Zatoichi (2003): Characters born of life-altering circumstances

Zatoichi

MOVIE: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

RELEASED IN: 2003

STARRING: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa

WRITTEN BY: Takeshi Kitano (screenplay), Kan Shimozawa (novels)

DIRECTOR: Takeshi Kitano

PRODUCER: Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saitō

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Tatsumi Nikamoto

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Are characters’ fates determined by their own circumstances? It seems that only the more memorable ones are, appealing directly to our subconscious need as an audience to connect with them. And for a few of us still sitting on the couch, reliving the past 120 action-packed minutes, we would sometimes go as far as to start relating to them empathically, pondering the emotions and experiences the characters themselves embody. In other ways we relate to these characters, we also wonder what it would have been like had their circumstances played out differently.

What would have happened if, in Kill Bill, Beatrix Kiddo (The Bride) never regained the use of her legs after her coma? What if, in The Big Boss, Cheng Chao-an was shrewd in his promise to his mother to never fight again? What if Rocky Balboa lost the fight to Clubber Lang in Rocky III?

Well aside from the fact that our heroes and heroines would be playing the game with a different hand, events would inevitably take a different course in the narrative. Needless to say that, if an anti-hero had more fortunate beginnings, then their remarkable story, as we know it, would never come to be.

Consider Zatoichi in modern jidaigeki film The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. The 2003 cinematic incarnation of the popular 1960s TV series introduces us to the Japanese Edo period, when a blind, nomadic masseur wanders from village to village to earn a living. What’s soon made obvious (aside from the title of this movie) is that he is also a deadly swordsman who, when crossed paths with an enemy, would draw his blade with lightning-fast speed and wield devastating strokes in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it splash of CG blood and gore.

Zatoichi and his adversary

After wandering into a village found to be at the mercy of three rival mob families, Zatoichi unwittingly attracts their attentions and finds himself at the cusp of a dangerous showdown, while the mysterious gang leader Ginzo and samurai ronin-turned-bodyguard Hattori make every effort to pursue him.

After running into trouble with the operators of the mob-affiliated gambling house, Zatoichi and his client’s hapless nephew Shinkichi encounter a pair of geisha when hiding out from the gangs. They learn that the geisha are actually a brother and sister disguised as a maiko duo who were travelling the country hellbent on seeking revenge for the murder of their parents. The four quickly discover that the gang leader responsible for the massacre at the brother and sister’s home was none other than the same Ginzo who had brought his dangerous influence to another village. Zatoichi, Shinkichi and the two maiko siblings agree to help each other take on their newfound enemies.

In what would otherwise be an ordinary plot, the character development adds some serious value. Between the bouts of sword fights and brutal dismemberments, the film works to establish each of its characters’ stories, and each of them as dark and provoking as each other. And it is the same dark, provoking element to these characters that would otherwise serve no purpose if it weren’t for our desire to relate to them.

Zatoichi seemingly comes across as a man with no past, however occasional flashbacks he experiences also point to a dark past where, for reasons unknown, as many as dozens of men at a time had fallen by his sword. At this point, the audience can’t help but wonder what kind of adversity Zatoichi faced not only as a blind man, but as a notorious swordsman. Or whether Zatoichi would be an equally good, if not better swordsman if he was able to see.

The maiko ‘sisters’ offer much of the same to this thematic formula. It might be safe to assume that if tragedy and ensuing hardship didn’t befall the siblings, Seitaro and Okinu would never have grown up to become such a deadly, unassuming pair of vengeance-seekers.

Zatoichi

The characters, and therefore the film overall, is a lot more subdued and serious when compared to the more light-hearted TV series. Though with many of the films Takeshi Kitano has worked on, this is often found to be the case.

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