Zato, Zato…: Singing the Praises of the First Four Zatoichi Films (1962–1963)

I’ve been asked the question many times throughout my research on James Bond and the media franchise: have you seen the original Zatoichi films starring Shintaro Katsu? Well, now I have–the first four, that is: The Tale of Zatoichi (Misumi, 1962), The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Mori, 1962), New Tale of Zatoichi (Tanaka, 1963), and Zatoichi the Fugitive (Tanaka, 1963). The entire run of films is available on the Criterion Channel.

The series was launched by the Japanese major Daiei, which, with one or two exceptions, released the first nineteen installments. Daiei then sold the production rights to Katsu’s independent company. Katsu Productions put out six additional films before spinning the franchise off into a TV series (1974–1979). It ran for four seasons and 100 episodes. A manga based on two of the films was released in 1966. The original series came to a close with a send-off film, Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally (Katsu, 1989), the first and only installment directed by Katsu himself.

The visual style of the series alone deserves praise. The films are consistently shot in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with directors Kenji Misumi, Kazuo Mori, and Tokuzô Tanaka exploiting the screen size and shape for expressive effect. In the first film…

Figure 1. The Tale of Zatoichi (1962).

…a high angle gives us a conspicuously depopulated frame, enhancing our sense of Zatoichi’s emotional state. The second film is more frantic, at times even visually agitated…

Figures 2 and 3. The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963).

…but it has subtle moments. Director Mori articulates tension between characters through foreground objects that sharply divide the spaces they occupy (fig. 2) and uses empty intervals to surround them in a void (fig. 3).

The third and fourth films, directed by Tanaka, add color but continue to play with the horizontal expanse of the frame. In the third…

Figure 3. New Tale of Zatoichi (1963).

…a low angle shot situates characters against a blue sky. It also creates a graduated emphasis, placing foreground figures (left) on a higher plane, both perceptually and emotionally, as Zatoichi enthusiastically greets an old friend. In the fourth film…

Figure 4. Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963).

…Tanaka crafts Zatoichi’s besting of a luckless young mercenary into an almost abstract display of contrasting verticals (Zatoichi himself, the bucket, the umbrella, and the vertical signs that pop up from the ground on the left side of frame) and horizontals (the mercenary’s prone corpse, and the sandy dune that runs along the lower third).

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I’m viewing the films in release order (which is proving to be a must), and their storytelling is excellent. Just excellent. I am convinced these four movies hold up to any franchise I’ve surveyed over the last six years in terms of their narrative sophistication. (See below for a list of the film series I’ve viewed since 2016).

I’ve read (here) that after the fifth film, the Zatoichi series becomes more “episodic,” with “self-contained” entries–that “the recurring characters drop off.” But what more can we say about how the first few films hang together narratively? Is Zatoichi‘s continuing narrative simply a matter of having characters return?

Recurring characters tend to serve something more fundamental in a series: a causal chain of events. When you view a film series, simply ask yourself: how does one thing lead to another as the movies unfold? Is the series designed like a slingshot, with one film propelling us forward, into the next? Or is the series more like a scaffold, with plot events we experience in a later entry building on events from earlier ones?

Narrative causality refers to a basic experience we have when viewing (or reading) a sequence of texts. It is essential for something narratologists call comprehension–the explicit meaning we make of a plot or a lineup of plots. How does an event which takes place at the end of a movie have us anticipate events to follow? The narratologist Meir Sternberg refers to this experience as prospection. Likewise, how does an event invite us to understand that a character or state of affairs “calls back” to previous ones in the series, and that the series is developing over time? Sternberg argues that this experience is one of retrospection.

Through prospection and retrospection we build a causal chain of events in our minds–we understand a series of movies as forming a continuity. Entries aren’t standalone. They call forward and backward to each other, forming the impression, which we must construct ourselves, of a series of links–links in an ongoing chain.

Now, film series can handle continuity-building in numerous ways. One is to bury or suppress the connections a bit. Individual films will create ties with future and earlier ones, but these ties aren’t as salient to the experience of the films as they might be. “Continuity cues” are placed on a lower plane of significance than the events of the current plot. Connections to previous film do not necessarily shape the goals of the main character(s) from film to film.

A second way is to stress or clearly communicate the connections between films and their plots–to give them particular importance to individual films by defining characters’ goals according to what happened before (in an earlier film) or what might happen next (in an upcoming film). In this case, the viewer experiences a tighter chain of events than the first way, which creates a looser thread among releases.

What about Zatoichi?

The first four installments opt for a firm causal chain–individual movies work hard to stress the causal connections between films. But they don’t rely on prospection to do so. At the end of all four films–with the exception of the second, which ends with an abrupt kill shot (fig. 5), followed by “shock cut” to the end credits–we see Zatoichi wander off into the distance, with no clear sense of what lies ahead of him. Films come to almost complete closure, with all the central narrative questions–will Zatoichi form a romance? will Zatoichi rise to the latest challenge from a yakuza boss or samurai?–clearly answered.

Figure 5. The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962).

Prospection–in which the viewer is invited to form clear questions about where events will lead in the next film–is in fact quite rare in the history of feature-length film series. Cliffhanger endings are one way this is achieved. Think about the ending of the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013). Anyone seeing the last few seconds–with the dragon Smaug overhead, soaring toward the hapless city of Laketown–will ask: what will happen now? Will Smaug destroy the city and everyone in it? Or will someone prevent the massacre?

These are causal questions that slingshot us into the next installment. And by virtue of the consistent open-endedness of their installments, the Hobbit films (2012–2014)–as well as the original Lord of the Rings films (2001–2003)–form a serial continuity. These series avoid the experience of closure, with main characters’ goals unresolved, that is, until the final entry.

The Zatoichi series relies exclusively on retrospection to construct its ongoing plotline. How so? In the first film, The Tale of Zatoichi, Zatoichi defeats the samurai Hirate in the film’s climax, resolving a feudal war between the towns of Iioka and Sasagawa. He also avoids the advances of Otane, who hopes that Zatoichi will take her in marriage. The film ends with Otane coming to terms with the fact that her prospects of leaving the town of Iioka at Zatoichi’s side are dim. Zatoichi departs into the wilderness, alone.

No lingering questions remain at the end of the first film. All the major narrative threads are tied up. But the second film, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, builds continuity by recounting a new plot in which the events of the first film continue to resonate, and directly shape Zatoichi’s goals. He travels to Joshoji Temple in Sasagawa as part of an annual pilgrimmage to pay respects at the grave of the samurai Hirate. Later in the film, he comes upon a stream where he once fished with Hirate, and meets Otane, who is to wed a carpenter (Zatoichi expresses regret for having ignored her advances). These events erect the “scaffolding” that links this film with the previous one.

By now, word has spread that a mere blind masseur (Zatoichi) has killed a samurai, and enemies begin to gather. The decision to travel to Sawagawa–triggered by events in the first film–puts Zatoichi in harm’s way. Yakuza bosses Kanbei and Sukegoro hatch a scheme to hunt him down. He takes revenge on them–killing them both, too–for turning his brother, Yoshiro, against him.

Again, we have closure. The story of Zatoichi appears to come to an end.

The third film, New Tale of Zatoichi, continues the retrospection pattern, opening up new layers of story, building new levels of scaffolding above the previous films. Events from the past trigger new ones. Kanbei’s brother seeks revenge for his sibling’s death.

More scaffolding: the deaths at Zatoichi’s hands in installments one and two mean that a massive ransom has been put out on his life. Zatoichi encounters his former master, Banno, whose daughter, Yayoi, proposes marriage to Zatoichi (the second such proposal in the series). Zatoichi, now filled with regret at the death and suffering around him, accepts Yayoi’s proposal. Kanbei’s brother confronts Zatoichi, but Zatoichi collapses to his knees, proposing that Kanbei’s brother take his life. The brother accepts, but a game of chance saves Zatoichi’s from his fate.

Banno, Zatoichi’s master, turns on Zatoichi, and elects to collect the bounty on Zatoichi’s head himself. Yet more death: Zatoichi defeats Banno. But he elects to leave Yayoi.

Figure 6. New Tale of Zatoichi (1963).

By this point, a pattern begin to emerge across the series. The films conclude with a death or two that mark Zatoichi. He feels the sense of loss. But his role in the death means that he must remain on the move (fig. 6), that he cannot come to rest and marry. He will forever remain a fugitive from justice.

The fourth film is aptly named: Zatoichi the Fugitive. At this stage, he has an established character history, and a mounting sense of pressure and even doom haunts him. Zatoichi’s reputation follows him everywhere; past events shape more than the character. They give rise to a legend within the storyworld. In one scene, as a group of men are gathered, and Zatoichi slinks away from embarrassment, one man recounts the legend: “Listen to this story. Three years ago, in a big fight near Sasagawa river, he knocked down a famous swordsman in one blow. His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut, in this whole wide world, is oil and the bond of lovers.”

The four films have traced the origins of a myth. But the viewer remains aware that the myth is also a man–a man increasingly scarred by the past. A former lover returns again. Otane is no longer with the carpenter she was set to marry in the third film. Now, she finds herself with the disreputable samurai Tanakura.

But the end of the film, Otane’s story comes to a close. Tanakura murders her. Zatoichi takes his life. And yet again, he takes to the road.

I’ve been trying to make one or two points here. The main one is that continuities do not arise from recurring characters alone. They emerge from causal links between installments. Sometimes that involves recurring characters, like Otane. But causal links also come from new characters who register the effects of the past (Kanbei’s brother). They seek revenge on Zatoichi; look to collect the price on his head; and spin tales of his exploits.

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Should we call the first four films of the Zatoichi series a serial continuity? No, because the films consistently come to narrative rest, to closure. Prospection–techniques like cliffhangers–doesn’t open up the endings of these movies, inviting us to imagine how future events will be affected by present ones. Instead, retrospection is used to tie current films to past ones, thereby creating a very different experience of continuing narrative than the one we find in The Desolation of Smaug.

Zatoichi constructs a cumulative continuity. The films are designed so that we experience layers being added slowly over time. But not all “cumulatives” are the same. Zatoichi‘s cumulative is relatively smooth. The cumulative aspects of the ongoing narrative are placed front and center in the plots, boldly foregrounded–marked for easy uptake. The films are written to give us an abiding sense that Zatoichi (and Otane and others) cannot escape their pasts. So, layers of experience accrue, characters reminisce, past deeds determine the present.

Now, as I move to the fifth installment, I wonder whether the films become as episodic or standalone as some have claimed, or whether the cumulative dimension of the storytelling remains, only less prominently so. Some cumulative continuities suppress their “continuing” elements by making recurring characters and memories of the past less salient to our comprehension of the plotline, having them play a lesser role or no role at all in the main characters’ goals as the series moves along.

If that’s what happens in Zatoichi, then we’d still have a cumulative continuity. But its form would be roughened, to use film scholar Kristin Thompson’s term (in 1988’s Breaking the Glass Armor). Perceiving and understanding the cumulative continuity would require more work on the viewer’s part–more thinking through of the causality being implied.

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Here is the current list of franchise film series I’ve studied for their continuity-building strategies:

28 Days Later (UK)

48 Hours (US)

2001 (US)

Airplane (US)

Airport (US)

Alice in Wonderland (US)

Alien/s (US)

Alien v. Predator (US)

Allan Quatermain (US)

Austin Powers (US)

Asterix (France)

B13 (France)

Back to the Future (US)

Batman/The Dark Knight (US)

Beverly Hills Cop (US)

Blade (US)

Blade Runner (US)

Bourne (US)

Candyman (US)

Child’s Play (US)

Clash of the Titans (US)

Cloverfield (US)

Conan (US)

The Conjuring (US)

Coming to America (US)

Crank (US)

Crocodile Dundee (US)

Dark Crystal (US)

Dark Universe (Universal) (US)

Davy Crocket (US)

DC Extended Universe (US)

Deadpool (US)

Death Wish (US)

Dick Barton (UK)

Die Hard (US)

Dirty Harry (US)

Doctor Who (UK)

Escape From (US)

Equalizer (US)

Evil Dead (US)

Expendables (US)

Fantastic Four (US)

Fantômas (France)

Fast & Furious (US)

The French Connection (US)

Friday the 13th (US)

The Fugitive (US)

George Romero’s “Dead” (US)

Ghostbusters (US)

GI Joe (US)

Godfather (US)

Gremlins (US)

Halloween (US)

Hannibal Lector (US)

Harry Palmer (UK)

Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts (UK/US)

Hellboy (US)

He-Man/She-Ra (US)

Home Alone (US)

Hot Shots! (US)

The Hunger Games (US)

Indiana Jones (US)

It (US)

Jack Reacher (US)

Jack Ryan (US)

James Bond (UK/US)

Jaws (US)

Joan Wilder (US)

John Wick (US)

Jurassic Park (US)

Karate Kid (US)

Kill Bill (US)

Lethal Weapon (US)

Lord of the Rings/Hobbit (US/NZ)

Mad Max (AUS/US)

The Man With No Name (Italy)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (US)

The Matrix (US)

Matt Helm (US)

Men in Black (US)

Mission: Impossible (US)

The Monsterverse (US)

The Mummy (US)

The Naked Gun (US)

National Treasure (US)

The Neverending Story (US)

Nightmare on Elm Street (US)

Ocean’s Eleven (US)

Our Man Flint (US)

OSS 117 (France)

Oz (US)

Paranormal Activity (US)

Pirates of the Caribbean (US)

Planet of the Apes (1960s + 2000s) (US)

Police Academy (US)

Predator (US)

Quiet Place (US)

Rambo (US)

[REC] (Spain)

Riddick (US)

Robert Langdon (US)

Robocop (US)

Rocky/Creed (US)

Shaft (US)

Sherlock Holmes (recent reboot) (US/UK)

Shrek (US)

Speed (US)

Spider-Man (pre-MCU) (US)

Star Trek (US)

Star Wars (US)

Superman (US)

Tarzan (US)

Taken (France)

Taxi (France)

Terminator (US)

The Thin Man (US)


Toy Story (US)

Trainspotting (UK)

Transformers (US)

The Transporter (France)

Tron (US)

The Twilight Saga (US)

Unbreakable (US)

The Universal Monsters (US)

X-Men/Wolverine (US)