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Franchise / Zatoichi

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Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi

"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 itinerant blind 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.

There is an unofficial 4-movie series, all from 1972, made in Hong Kong starring actor Sing Lung as Zatoichi. The movies are a non-canon spinoff detailing Zatoichi's adventures in China during the Ming Dynasty, and getting an opportunity to carve a chunk out of evil-doers during his travels. The movies include Trust and Brotherhood, The Hunchback, The Blind Hero Fighting Evil Wolf and The Blind-Swordsman's Revenge. note 

In 2003, Takeshi Kitano played Zatoichi in a Continuity Reboot/Alternate Continuity film which he also directed (for tropes specific to that film go to its page. 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.
  • 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.
  • Badass and Child Duo: In Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and Zatoichi Challenged, they have him protecting a child.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ichi is a good person, but he has no mercy for wicked people who harm the innocent, especially women and children.
  • 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.
  • Broken Pedestal: Ichi looks up to Banno, his mentor who taught him everything he knows about swordmanship. That is until his mentor kills an unarmed man and gets involved with Tengu gang. Ichi eventually takes it upon himself to destroy Tengu gang and kill his own mentor in a sword duel.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Pretty much all the Yakuza pick on Ichi...much to their detriment later.
  • Cain and Abel: Ichi and his elder brother Yoshiro, 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.
  • Catchphrase: 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.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: In the 2003 film, Ichi kills 5 ninjas with the usual lack of effort.
  • Crossover: Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.
  • Cultured Badass: Ichi can not only swordfight, he's a successful masseur. Sometimes he also shows off his musical ability and knowledge of acupuncture.
  • 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.
  • Disappeared Dad: Ichi's dad abandoned him when he was still a child.
  • Distaff Counterpart: She even has the same name.
    • It's because she's his daughter.
  • 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 abandoning the woman that loves him.
  • The Dreaded: Ichi, of course...especially among the Yakuza. Why they try to kill him even after knowing how dangerous he is, is anybody's guess.
  • 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.
  • Endearingly Dorky: Ichi, when he's not being serious is a seemingly clumsy and rather endearingly sweet man.
  • 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 out to be 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 (That said, both Ichi and the viewer are clearly shown how she tries to protect Ichi throughout the entire film to the point her husband kills her for it, either throwing the claim in the trash or insinuating she had a change of heart).
  • 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.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: In Zatoichi and the Fire Festival, Ichi gets into a swordfight in the bathhouse, with all the participants being in the buff.
  • Handicapped Badass: One of the most famous.
  • Heel–Face Turn: It's rare, but occasionally some villains turn their backs on evil and become better people.
  • High-Pressure Blood: Probably one of the oldest examples.
  • Hustling the Mark: Ichi sometimes runs a con to make extra money. He'll host an Odd-Even dice game and play up his blindness by "accidentally" letting the dice slip out of the cup before calling bets. When he raises the stakes and gets players to bet on the same "mistake", he'll then notice that the dice "slipped out of his pocket" and reveal his winning bet was what was under the cup this time.
  • I Am Not Left-Handed: Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi isn't actually blind, but chooses to close his eyes as a Self-Imposed Challenge.
    • 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.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: Averted, Ichi instead carries a shikomi-zue, or sword cane. Justified since blades are supposed to be outlawed in the Edo period.
    • Shikomi-zue were normally very low-grade weapons, but Ichi's is an exception.
  • Knight Errant: Ichi swears allegiance to no man. He wanders the earth and helps the innocent when he encounters them, or destroys evil when he finds it.
  • Knight Templar: Master Akatsuka from Zatoichi Challenged was tasked by the government to get rid of the Pornography ring by any means necessary.
  • Love Triangle: Ichi becomes involved in one in Zatoichi The Fugitive (1963)
  • Meaningful Name: Ichi means 'one' in Japanese.
    • 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.
  • Obfuscating Disability: The Kitano version. Though at the end it establishes he was just bluffing.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Ichi being a genuine Nice Guy to the innocent is no act. Ichi acting so foolish, however, is.
  • Off with His Head!: One of the main villains of Zatoichi The Outlaw receives the honor of being the first decapitation in the series.
  • One-Man Army: Ichi regularly cuts down large groups of Yakuza with the climax of one film have him fighting a hundred men.
  • One-Armed Warrior: The latter from the crossover, Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman. Played by Jimmy Wang Yu who popularized this trope ever since the original One-Armed Swordsman, no less.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Much of the conflict of Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman could be fixed if either Ichi or Wang Kang could speak the other's language.
  • Reverse Grip: How Ichi holds his sword. Since he uses his sword as a cane as well, this is justified so Ichi does not need to change his grip.
  • Revival: The 1989 movie Zatoichi (subtitled Darkness Is His Ally for the US) is Katsu's swan-song for the character. It's Bloodier and Gorier and Hotter and Sexier than any before it, and since Katsu is pushing 60 Ichi is now a Cool Old Guy.
  • Samurai and Rōnin (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.
  • Single-Stroke Battle: All the time.
  • Super-Senses: Ichi's hearing.
  • Sword Cane: Ichi's trademark weapon is the sword concealed in his cane.
  • 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 tried to lure him into a trap for a bounty (Which, considering her actions during the film and her cause of death, the claim is suspect).
  • 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 truly dangerous he is.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Hirate (from the first film) is dying of consumption.
  • Walking the Earth: Ichi never stays in one place for long, always moving on to the next adventure.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ichi tends to meet one of these every few films or so.
    • From The Tale of Zatoichi: Hirate, a Rōnin from Edo, is employed by the Shigezo's Sasagawa yakuza, while Ichi is being hosted by their enemies, Sukegoro's Ioka gang. Hirate and Ichi both recognize each other as more honorable than the yakuza around them, and treat each other with friendship and respect. Hirate's tuberculosis puts him out of action just before the big showdown between the gangs, and since Shigezo had been depending on Hirate as the only fighter on the Sasagawa side who could possibly take Ichi in a sword fight, he prepares instead to have one of his men shoot Ichi from a distance with an arquebus. Hirate is so aghast when he hears about this plan that he summons the last of his strength to face Ichi with his sword, knowing that his worthy opponent will be shot down like a dog if he doesn't.
    • Master Akatsuka from Zatoichi Challenged. He has a lengthy duel with Ichi and actually survives!
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: In the Kitano film, one of the geisha is a little... different under the kimono.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Many Yakuza bosses, most notably the one in Zatoichi in Desperation who delivers rather gruesome and graphic violence towards a child.
  • Yakuza: Ichi's enemies are usually gangsters.
  • 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!"