Zatoichi is a blind wanderer, gambler and masseur in Edo period Japan. However, that is a facade; in reality, he is a master swordsman. The stories about him are a mix of action and romanticism, sometimes with a dose of philosophy.
This is not a legend in the sense that it would be based on real figure from the past; Zatoichi is a fictitious character in literature and, above all, film. And he is not old; his first appearance was in a short story by Kan Shimozawa in 1948. But that story did not bring him out of obscurity. His fame came when actor Shintaru Katsu played Zatoichi in a movie based on the short story (The Tale of Zatoichi, 1962).
The success was total; during the years between 1962 and 1989, Shintaru Katsu played Zatoichi in another 24 movies and more than 100 episodes of a TV-series. This is the greatest hero ever in Japanese popular culture!
In 2003 came a remake, Zatoichi (without Shintaru Katsu); internationally, that is the best known Zatoichi movie, perhaps the only one most non-Japanese have seen. It's a pity, because it is just a pale imitation, hugely inferior to the original Zatoichi movies. Shintaru Katsu was Zatoichi; he was the one who carried the character.
Following the original movies in chronological order, one can follow a development and deepening both of the story and the character of Zatoichi. The movies slightly change style during that time, but they are all artistic masterpieces of their genre.
Shintaru Katsu was a son of a kabuki actor (kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre) and was originally a shamisen player (shamisen is a traditional Japanese musical instrument). During a visit to America he met James Dean, and that inspired him to focus on acting, although he played only small roles initially. It was in the role as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, he found his true self as an actor, a role that made him grow to a great artist. Although Zatoichi is something else entirely, one can still see roots leading back to Kabuki.
Right now, a number of the original Zatoichi movies are available on internet – with subtitles in English. Anyone interested in Japan, Japanese culture or film in general, should take a look. These movies are genuine classics.
However, don't expect everything to be historically correct. Japanese samurai movies are much like western movies are in America; not genuine history, but fiction put in an historical environment. From case to case they can resemble the reality of the past more or less, but it is about literature and story-telling, not scientific history.
Zatoichi Movies in Japanese with English subtitles are available on https://jpfilms.online/tag/zatoichi.
Some of them are from time to time available on YouTube. Just search for “Zatoichi”.
The jpfilms website contains a large number of other Japanese movies as well.
(The lead image is a detail from a print by Kuniyoshi from 1827-1830, showing Gyokkirin Roshungi. It shows a warrior but has no connection to Zatoichi. For copyright reasons, I cannot show any image from the Zatoichi movies.)
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