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The itinerant blind swordsman/masseur/compulsive gambler Zatoichi is something of a cinematic institution in Japan. The meek, blind masseuse defending the helpless from evil (using a samurai sword hidden in his walking stick with preternatural skill) and putting the smack down at the local gambling hall (using his acute hearing to “see” the dice) became the functional equivalent of Hollywood’s “Man With No Name” during the 1960′s and ’70s. The character, first played by Shintaro Katsu, and more recently by ‘Beat’ Takeshi in the “Zatoichi” remake, has been the subject of no less than 27 feature-length films as well as a TV series.
“The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi” is the first of the 27 films, and introduces us to the pudgy, unassuming Ichi (Katsu), a wandering vagabond who shambles across the countryside trying his best not to fall off of bridges that he comes across. Released only a year after Akira Kurosawa’s seminal “Yojimbo”, “Life and Opinion” can’t help but share a similar plot. The movie follows Ichi as he wanders into a town seeking a past acquaintance in order to get a place to stay. As the film progresses, we learn that the acquaintance is in fact a local mob boss who is gearing up for a showdown with a rival mob boss in town.
Familiar with Ichi’s skill with a sword, the friend-cum-mob boss takes the opportunity to try to hire Ichi to fight with him. However, these plans are thrown asunder when Ichi befriends another ronin (a masterless samurai of ancient Japan) who may have been hired by the opposing boss. There are also several side stories where Ichi manages to get himself involved in the affairs of some of the gang members, righting their wrongs and bringing peace through lightning-quick swordplay.
Actually, the plot synopsis above provides the framework for pretty much every Zatoichi film to follow. Ichi is rarely the main character, but rather the catalyst for bringing out the seedy secrets of the people he finds himself with. Ichi is often the moral center, bringing order from the evil and chaos around him. This defines the character, but unfortunately it also keeps the viewer from ever really getting to know who Ichi really is aside from the deadly sword skills and the penchant for gambling. Admittedly, I’ve only seen five or six of the Zatoichi films, but none of them have ever shed much light on Ichi’s past, except little hints that the history of our blind hero was not a very pleasant one.
Aside from being the first in a series of movies, “Life and Opinion” also has a very episodic feel to it, often coming across as more of a pilot for a TV series rather than a feature-length film. The movie is also very deliberately pace, and Ichi doesn’t even unsheathe his sword till nearly halfway through. However, the final showdown between the two gangs is surprisingly violent, with the smaller gang’s members being mercilessly cut down in some intense close quarter melee combat.
Unfortunately the gruesome battle comes a bit late, with the exposition leading up to the showdown much too pedestrian. Too much time is spent on the peripheral characters and their soap opera-esque problems rather than on Ichi, where the focus should be since, after all, this is his movie. The other Zatoichi films I’ve seen seems to have remedied this somewhat by keeping the movie focused on only one or two characters, instead of spreading the running time too thin.
In “Life and Opinion” we have the gang conflict, the ronin’s story, and a philandering gangster and his sister’s abusive boyfriend. And into this mess of personality comes Ichi, who summarily gets involved with all of them in various ways. With a running time of only 95 minutes, there isn’t enough time for a satisfactory exploration of all these various vignettes, let alone a satisfying conclusion that rewards all the time we’ve spent with them.
“Life and Opinion” ends with a traditional Japanese ending, involving corny, melodramatic monologue ruminating about honor among thieves and morality among amoral people. All potent stuff, to be sure, but they do tend to ring somewhat false, since these great lines are being uttered by blood-splattered killers.
Overall, “Life and Opinion” is a decent start for the Zatoichi series. It’s engaging enough to hold your attention for its running length, but not as interesting as many of the later installments. On its own merit, “Life and Opinion” is an average chanbara movie, but fortunately it’s not alone, and has the rest of the Zatoichi cannon to back it up.
Kenji Misumi (director) / Minoru Inuzuka (screenplay), Kan Shimozawa (short story)
CAST: Shintaro Katsu …. Zatoichi/Blind Man Ichi/Masseur Ichi
Masayo Banri …. Otane/Tatekichi’s sister/Seisuke’s ex-lover