In the mid 1960s, with the support of a large ethnic community, several of the major Japanese film studios sponsored flagship cinema screens in Los Angeles. Pre-eminent among them was the powerhouse Toho Co. home to the marauding, cinematic money machine, that supreme of all the Daikaiju — Godzilla. Toho was also the studio of the films of Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, and High and Low, all starring Toshiro Mifune — a relationship of director to studio reaching back to his debut, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943. Toho’s Los Angeles movie house (now a Korean church) on La Brea Blvd. below Wilshire was a necessary weekly stop for a generation of film students from USC and UCLA. The Toho La Brea films were projected on an enormous screen, mostly in the studio’s proprietary anamorphic format, Tohoscope. Even the non-subtitled Japanese newsreels that preceded the evening’s feature were shot in anamorphic aspect ratio in a proto shaky-cam mode.
Further south, at the corner of La Cienega and Adams Blvds., stood the Shochiku Theater, home to many art films, especially those of Yoshiro Ozu, but also of the beloved “Tora-san” series. East and a few blocks north was the Kokusai, a theater that ran many films from Daiei Studios, the studio that had captured international attention with the stunning color cinematography and costume design of Gate of hell.
Daiei’s largest franchise was its cycle of films about a mid 19th century, late Edo, itinerant swordsman named Zatoichi. Starting in 1962 with the black and white debut feature, The Tale of Zatoichi, Daiei Studios began an adventure franchise that survived even after the studio’s bankruptcy, when it was taken over by the Toho Co. An early and predictable product of this deal is the twentieth film in the eponymous series — Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.
Toho Studio with Mifune and Shochiku Studio with “Tora-san” star Kiyoshi Atsumi may both have held the greater popular high ground, but it was the Daiei Studio, with its beloved Kokusai Cinema on Crenshaw Blvd. near Jefferson — close to the USC Cinema campus — that was the home of the long running Zatoichi series: the charismatic but humble, taciturn, blind swordsman known simply as “Ichi.”
The Kokusai screen was modest compared to the larger cinema barn of the Toho La Brea. As a leading man Shintaro Katsu lacked the charismatic braggadocio of Toshiro Mifune. But Zatoichi was a more human hero than either the Yojimbo or Sanjuro ronin, and following the blind samurai’s journeys every year as new films were released (four of them in 1964 alone) is one of the fondest memories of my generation of LA’s 60s film school brats. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were like-themed companions in those years, but the Zatoichi films were more prolific. At the time, regarded as low wattage cinematic pulp, both Zatoichi and the “Spaghetti Westerns” have maintained an enduring rank among cineastes. The Leone films have become, in fact, cultural lodestones, while the Zatoichi films (made under mostly more journeyman directors) have remained the province of dedicated fans trolling in the waters of the chanbara genre, outside the mainstream of cinema history.
In a long overdue but perhaps not so surprising turn, the always wonderfully unpredictable folks at The Criterion Collection last November issued a lavish box set of the twenty-five Zatoichi movies. A twenty-sixth film, directed by Katsu, and made after a fifteen-year gap, and about one hundred Zatoichi TV episodes, is not included, nor is the 2003 misguided effort to resurrect the franchise by actor/director Taskeshi Kitano.
Criterion’s trailer gives a look at the heroic, the melodramatic, the comic, the tragic—the sheer exuberance of the entire series. In the trailer’s final shot, “Ichi” splits a single candle, showing what a formidable opponent he is.
(In one of those bizarre phenoms that you find on YouTube, there are several “Unboxing” videos of the Criterion Collection set, including one by a fan who even offers his own embossed cane sword as a "supplement.")
Several long-running series of feature films rival Zatoichi: those of 007, MI-6 agent James Bond — which to date has twenty-three entries — but with multiple actors in the role, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. In Japan, there are also the near 30 adventures of Godzilla, and the 48 “Tora-san” installments, all starring Kiyoshi Atsumi. With the exception of the Kitano re-boot in 2003, all the Zatoichi films star Shintaro Katsu.
In the 1962 initial episode, The Tale of Zatoichi, Katsu is already thirty years old and looks to be an unlikely movie star. Standing one inch shorter than Toshiro Mifune, Katsu seems diminutive next to Mifune in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo from 1970. Katsu’s bow-legged, shuffling, even uncertain gait, prodding the ground with his sheathed cane sword, always throws his adversaries off guard. It is a private pleasure for the audience to listen and watch as a gang of raucous, inept yakuza and ruffians ridicule and taunt the seemingly hapless, blind masseur — only to have their bodies scattered on the ground a few minutes later, cut down by Zatoichi’s plain, unadorned blade---harvested like so many stalks of bamboo. “Ichi” flawlessly slides his blade back into its scabbard, blinks, sniffs the air and moves on, stumbling on a log or rock as he goes. One of the inevitable guilty pleasures of each new episode is the first encounter Zatoichi has with the bad guys. The fifth film, Zatoichi: On the Road, opens over a black screen, the sound of dice rattling in a cup, fading in to a close-up of Zatoichi’s hand grasping a player’s wrist. “You switched the dice," he intones, "I can tell by the sound. You can fool my eyesight but not my ears.” Faster than you can blink, his cane sword cleaves a nearby burning candle in half, plunging the room into the black. “Darkness is my ally, come find me if you can,” Zatoichi pronounces, as the Daiei Studio logo and music blare forth.
Although it is to be expected that the Zatoichi films would feature many directors and cinematographers, it is surprising that there are so many repeat ones on the roster. Directors Kenji Misumi and Kimiyoshi Yasuda each piloted six episodes; Tokuzo Tanaka directed four. Series star Katsu directed the penultimate one, Zatoichi in Desperation.
Cinematographers were even more consistent. Chikashi Makiura photographed eight of the films, beginning with the first installment with director Misumi. Makiura bookended the series by also photographing the last one, Zatoichi’s Conspiracy. But to my mind, the most arresting credit of all is that of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who photographed six of the films. Miyagawa’s career began pre-WWII and reached a high point in the 50s with his work on seminal art films like Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Baliff, Chickamatsu Monogatari, Floating Weeds, Yojimbo and Conflagration — with directors Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa Yasujiro Ozu and Kon Ichikawa. Miyagawa brought more than a measure of stylistic gravitas to the Zatoichi series. He and Mizoguchi were known for their long, fluid dolly shots; it is an object lesson in the flexibility of a great cinematographer that Miyagawa’s first entry in the Zatoichi cycle is the sixth, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. Earlier episodes had been photographed in a classical style, especially that first one in black and white; it featured long takes, even in the climactic swordfight with the tubercular samurai, Hirate--- with several low angle extreme close-ups of Katsu evoking memories of Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Young director Kazuo Ikehiro was engaged for Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. With the veteran Miyagawa alongside, a new style emerged, with more fragmented action, longer lenses—and even the first hint of blood in the fight scenes.
I met Kazuo Miyagawa at the Toho Studios in 1984 while I was in prep for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters with director Paul Schrader and production designer Eiko Ishioka. Miyagawa was still working, having recently completed MacArthur’s Children for director Masahiro Shinoda. Miyagawa had photographed films for Daiei Studios for decades. I spoke no Japanese, he no English. My camera operator (now cinematographer) Toyomichi Kurita served as our translator. The deference that the young Kurita gave Miyagawa showed me the reverence this master cinematographer garnered within the Japanese film industry.
I wasn’t exactly a tyro cinematographer back in 1984, but I was in awe of Miyagawa. Yet he looked and spoke with no less humility and softness than that of the blind swordsman that he had photographed in those six Zatoichi film, movies that seemed to be the antithesis of the high art of Miyagawa’s work with Mizoguchi.
A twelve-minute YouTube video titled The World of Kazuo Miyagawa (taken from a longer documentary) offers a fascinating window into the personality of this gracious artist. He and director Kurosawa recount the difficulties of shooting in the deep woods for Rashomon, their first film together, including an analysis of the long tracking shot of the woodsman in the forest. If you click on the “CC” icon you will be able to read English subtitles:
Looking now at many of the Zatoichi films on the wondrous Blu-Ray remasterings issued by Criterion, it is easy to track the aesthetic evolution of the films. Also, on the simple level of following the intricacies of Katsu’s developing character “Ichi” throughout the series, we see the masseur/gambler, a societal outcast of the lowest order, forge an ever more complex, even dark, identity.
Geoffrey O’Brien writes of the evolution of the Zatoichi character in his notes to the box set: On the Road with Zatoichi:
O’Brien cites the unvarying plot frame of most of the episodes:
The Zatoichi cycle may, at first glance, look more like easygoing and formulaic entertainment, coasting from episode to episode with variations on the same set of situations and character types. Take one or two vicious yakuza bosses, a benevolent peasant or innkeeper weighed down by debts, a virtuous daughter threatened with concubinage, a hotheaded brother attracted to a life of crime or vowed to bloody revenge, and an orphaned infant, and you have the makings of pretty much any Zatoichi vehicle.
The ever-fascinating cross fertilization of the Japanese jidaigeki films and the American genre of the Western, The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven being one example, has an equal in Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, the fourteenth film in the series. Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro (whose first entry was Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold) — it has often been compared to High Noon, especially in Zatoichi’s showdown with Boss Tohachi’s gang of yakuzas, the townspeople cowering behind the shoji of their abodes and shops. Zatoichi faces a larger horde of bad guys than Marshall Will Kane does with the Miller gang at the end of High Noon. One of the uncanny, subtle moments is Zatoichi’s walk along the village street to his encounter with Tohachi’s horde — as his acute ears pick out the whispers behind closing windows and doors of the frightened villagers. A profile, close-up dolly shot catches Zatoichi’s preternatural ability to hear, to smell — even to just sense the presence of others (especially his enemies.) Such moments are the abiding delights of each episode.
Criterion has made it possible to watch the first episode of the series, The Tale of Zatoichi, in good resolution and at anamorphic aspect ratio, free on Hulu:
You may find it impossible, like me, to resist this humble man probing the earth with his simple cane sword, his, eager, devouring of rice balls, his impossible loves for young women, and especially his Chaplin-like walk down the road toward his next adventure — at every fade out. If so, these twenty-five films beckon you.