A final tear for the blind warrior
Zatoichi is a Japanese folk hero. He’s the Robin Hood type, taking the side of poor villagers crushed under the might of powerful yakuza gangs, whose appeal lies in his simple trappings. Though an expert swordsman and lethal warrior (not to mention serviceable masseur), he doesn’t have any airs. He’s a simple guy, naturally humble, an outcast by his lack of sight. He’s emphatically not a samurai, but a commoner. Since wearing katana was outlawed for anyone but samurai in the Edo period, Zatoichi carries a hidden cane sword. It doesn’t make him any less deadly.
Many actors have taken the role of Zatoichi in dozens of films. The series goes back decades (1962 saw the first outing) and one of the more recent, simply named Zatoichi, starred world-famous Kitano Takeshi. It premiered on the 2003 Venice film festival and won several awards. In Zatoichi the Last, the blind masseur is played by Shingo Katori. I adore Katori. He made a reputation as a singer for Japanese boyband SMAP and as a comedian. His cross-dressing character ‘Shingo Mama’ is a household regular there. But he’s more than just a funny pretty boy; he shined as Kondo Isami in the 2004 NHK costume drama Shinsengumi!. In Zatoichi the Last, he brings a tenderness to the role which is more than fitting for what appears to be a conclusion for the character.
The film starts with an insurmountable drama. Zatoichi’s wife is murdered by bandits. He couldn’t save her. Devastated, he wanders off to a small coastal village, seeking to disappear. But wherever he goes, trouble follows. The village is frequently raided by a budding warlord, a thug desperate for power. As is always the case, Zatoichi is given little regard. After all, a blind man is of no concern. They couldn’t be more wrong and before long, the snow-covered winter vistas are colored red. Zatoichi takes a little prodding to start off this time around. Of course he does; he has effectively lost the will to live. Regaining it is quite out of the question. Zatoichi dreams of walking into the ocean and sinking away forever.
Melancholy rests heavily on Zatoichi the Last. Though the soundtrack, infused with Australian didgeridoo, is original and upbeat, the overall tone of the movie is like the final breath before death. There is a bittersweetness to this ending, a pondering motif. Though Zatoichi pulls himself up to vanquish evil yet another time in his endless career, his heart isn’t into it. He knows he has been defeated from the beginning.
This is a portrait of depression. If you don’t understand that, you might find the movie unexpectedly heavy and the character soft and distant. That’s the whole point: Zatoichi is slowly phasing out of existence. His one last hurrah is a prelude to passing away. The film registers it with grace and knows to speak softly about it. Though violence and swordsmanship abound, this film is ultimately a delicate portrayal of the closure of a life.
Will Zatoichi rise up another time after this? A question for an answer: Does Robin Hood ever truly leave?