"Even with my eyes wide open, I can't see a thing."
— Zatoichi (2003)
The Zatoichi series is one of Japan's longest running media franchises, with a total of 29 films and a 100-episode television series. The series centers around Ichi, an itinerantblind masseur who happens to be one of the most fearsome and dangerous swordsmen around, amassing a mind bogglingly high body count mostly consisting of yakuza, corrupt government flunkies and mountains of Mooks. In between bouts of derring-do, the blind anma can be found gambling, meeting quirky sidekicks, or unearthing vast tracts of mysterious past.The first 26 films (1962-1973, 1989) and the television series (Zatoichi Monogatari, 1974-1979) all starred the same actor, Shintaro Katsu, whose portrayal endeared the character to many fans until the actor's death in 1997. Until 1971, the films were produced by Daiei.In 2003, Takeshi Kitano played Zatoichi in a Continuity Reboot/Alternate Continuity film which he also directed. A loose sequel film to Katsu's Zatoichi with a female protagonist, Ichi, was released in 2008. Another reboot called Zatoichi: The Last was released in 2010. Also, an American re-imagining called Blind Fury was made in 1989, starring Rutger Hauer, based off of the 17th Zatoichi film, Zatoichi Challenged.The influence of this series is hard to overestimate, at least, in terms of blind badassery, which, while certainly not the first example of a Handicapped Badass, is certainly one of the Trope Codifiers.
This series contains examples of:
Absurdly Sharp Blade: Ichi's cane sword can cut diagonally through statues, easily cut katanas in half, and of course, kill people in a single swipe.
Adorkable: Ichi, when he's not being serious is a seemingly clumsy and rather endearingly sweet man.
The Atoner: Before the films, Ichi was a member of the Yakuza and killed many people whom he later admits were the "wrong" people. Eventually, he realized he was wrong and regretted his past actions leaving the Yakuza.
Berserk Button: Harm the innocent, especially women and children. Ichi is a good person, but he is utterly without mercy to those he deems evil.
Blind Weaponmaster: Ichi might be utterly blind, but he is known as an utter demon with his sword. Few in Japan can rival, let alone equal him.
Bloodier and Gorier: When the films began to be produced by Katsu pictures, there was a noticeable shift towards visible blood. Takeshi Kitano's 2003 remake of the series featured tons of red spraying after every stroke of the sword.
Cain and Abel: Ichi and his elder brother, a one armed warrior played by Shintaro Katsu's real life elder brother. The two had a falling out over a woman and Ichi's brother is willing to murder him for it, particularly as Ichi was the one to chop off his arm. They make their final peace after their last duel.
Catch Phrase: Darkness is my advantage (Kurayami nara kocchi no mon da). Usually uttered after he cuts down the nearest lanterns and candles to put opponents on an equal footing.
Clean Cut: While especially infrequent in the original series, as it progressed, there would be limbs lopped off occasionally, notably in Zatoichi the Outlaw. Happens several times in the 2003 film.
Combat Pragmatist: Some villains get the bright ideas to fight Ichi by a fireworks display to prevent him from hearing them, or roll barrels at him, or any other number of things to mess up his fighting style. Boss Asagoro of Zatoichi the Outlaw takes the cake though as he tries to simply shoot Zatoichi with all his men instead of sending them after Ichi.
Dirty Coward: It is very rare for the Yakuza bosses or corrupt officials to be brave or proactive men. Several of them die in terror or pleading for their lives after Ichi mows his way through their army of mooks.
Downer Ending: The first movie, The Tale of Zatoichi, ends with Ichi's only friend in town dead at his hand, the opposing mafia slaughtered along with many of the innocents of their half of the village, and Ichi abandons the woman that loves him.
Dual Wielding: In Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, Ichi wields his cane sword and a katana that he grabbed off of a samurai he killed.
End of an Age: The 2003 film seems to take place towards the end of the Edo period, if the presence of a roughly Civil War-era revolver is any indication.
Face Death with Dignity: Many times when Ichi defeats his Worthy Opponent of the films, in contrast to the Yakuza bosses, the fallen ronin will die respecting his opponent. Many minor characters throughout the films also die very composed.
Face-Heel Turn: boss Asagoro in Zatoichi the Outlaw starts as a seemingly benevolent Yakuza boss, but later turns to evil and corrupt. Another possible example is Ichi's lost love Otane, who might well have been ready to sell him out for the bounty on him if her husband is to be believed after killing her and dueling Ichi.
Fate Worse Than Death: In the 2003 Movie, Ichi slashes the Big Bad right in the eyes, sentencing him to live his last remaining years struggling in darkness.
Genre Savvy: Ichi, frequently. In Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, Ichi at first doesn't go to the hometown of the eponymous "Doomed Man" at his request, because doing that always gets him into trouble.
Or is he? The final line of the film is that he can't even see with his eyes open, having tripped over an small stone. This appears to be some sort of double bluff, and makes sense since he looks like he has cataracts.
Iaijutsu Practitioner: One of the better moves is when the various mooks think they've got the drop on him, only for him to draw his sword and kill them in a split second.
Implausible Swordfighting Powers Most of Ichi's enemies never even hit Ichi's sword, he simply cuts them down without effort in a single slash, including highly touted samurai.
Jidaigeki: The 2003 Movie though seems to take place towards the tail-end of the Edo period, just before the Meiji Restoration and the massive wave of modernization that followed. The Katsu movies take place a couple decades earlier, but still towards the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The title "Zatoichi" can be read several ways, including "Number One/Greatest Blind Man" or "lowest-ranked blind man," as the name is also his title in the guild.
Mooks: The Yakuza Ichi fights in vast numbers were in the notes of one dvd described outright as redshirts.
Mysterious Past: We know very little of Ichi himself, even after so long. Movies give glimpses into him: his lowborn status, his bitter feud with his elder brother, his relationships with the man who made his sword and his masseur mentor, but the man himself is often a closed book.
No Ending: Played with in the second film The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. At the end of the film, Ichi's brother has just died and the villain responsible approaches him with a bunch of his Mooks in tow, ready to cut to black. Ichi angrily strikes down the Big Bad and then... "The End" pops up on the screen it's over before the mooks even have a chance to attack Ichi. Still, the next film makes it obvious Ichi survived even though we never saw the resultant fight if there was one.
Samurai and Ronin (Ichi himself technically does not qualify as either of them, as he's in the blind men's guild) He does kill quite a few of them in his movies, though. One of the most famous examples is the noble fallen samurai Harate in the first film, who treats Ichi with utter respect and care despite his lower class.
The Lost Lenore: Ichi has left behind a lot of women, but none stick out so much as Otane, the woman he left behind in the first film. It is strongly implied later that Ichi puts her on an unhealthy pedestal later and refuses to acknowledge how much she'd changed when he encountered her again. Her husband even taunts Ichi, asking if he thinks women remain pure forever. It's even indicated Otane was the one who try to lure him into a trap for a bounty.
Underestimating Badassery: Most of the villains in the series do this in regards to Ichi. A few of them know he's dangerous, but even then, they don't quite grasp how dangerous he is.
You Look Familiar: Quite a few mooks appear in other Zatoichi films, but Tatsuo Endo appears as the Big Bad of five different Zatoichi films and as a minor character in a sixth. This is also done with a number of actresses. And Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu's brother, who appears in several of the films.
You Monster!: Ichi informs Boss Iwagoro in Zatoichi's Cane Sword "I've met a lot of evil sons of bitches in my time...but you take the cake!"