Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zatoichi's legacy is beautiful

When I was more or less a young man, I was introduced to the Japanese screen character, Zatoichi. The basic premise of Zatoichi films was that though blind, he could see right and wrong with faster clarity than the sighted; with heightened sense of hearing, he ably compensated for not seeing as he cut down his opponents in massive scale; and, with his bow legged gait and plain face, he was decidedly unheroic.

On a recent flight to Asia, I was surfing through the menu of films selections when "Ichi" caught my attention. The film began with a woman in rags stumbling alone in a blinding snowstorm. It was not immediately apparent that she was connected to Zatoichi.

As the story unfolded, the woman turned out to be a beautiful blind young girl who had been kicked out of the “goze” troupe. In medival Japan, goze troupes went around northern Japan entertaining gatherings with their singing and while strumming the shamisen. In flash backs, it was revealed that the manager of the troupe who was male and not blind had raped her. When he tried again, she accidentally killed him with her sword sheathed in her cane.

The movie actually started with her wandering in the countryside and ended up in a temple. One of three members of gangsters had sex with another blind goze woman and did not pay as promised. When she protested, they beat her and then they saw Ichi and started to harass her with obviously evil intentions. This is when a young good looking samurai came along and offered money to the gangsters in exchange for leaving Ichi alone.

Make long story short, the young samurai, Toma, had a psychological block and cannot pull out his sword from the scabbard and Ichi had to killed the three gangsters herself. The villagers thought it was Toma who killed the gangsters that had been terrorizing them. The rest of the gang of bandits too thought it was Toma who killed their comrades.

Ichi has been searching for a blind masseur (the film implied that this was Zatoichi but never said so) who raised her and taught her how to fight. She wanted to know if he was her father. Banki, the gangster leader, before defeating her and taking her prisoner told her that the blind masseur was the one person he wanted to meet who had died of natural causes.

Toma who was hired by the village to defend them was a colossal disappointment because he never could pull his sword from the scabbard. Banki was rejected by society because of his severely disfigured face. Everybody suffered from psychological problems.

There was a final bloody, sword-play confrontation between the villagers led by Toma and Banki and his gang. Of course, having fallen in love for Ichi, Toma was finally able to unsheathe his sword but the climatic ending is typically Japanese and not western.

The cinematography was exquisite and the story line more complex than the old Zatoichi stories. I hope we will see more of Ichi in the future.