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By Mariko McDonald | July 6, 2005

I won’t lie. We have favorites at the Den of Sin. There are certain in-jokes (Ice Cube, “Spetters”) and actors or genres that come up again and again, much to the delight of the Peanut Gallery. We introduced them to the Fukusaku Yakuza film, and Bunta Sugawara and Meiko Kaji. Asian film, particularly Japanese film is especially well received for some reason. Well, it was time to introduce a new hero, one whose body of work was both beloved and controversial. One who also gave us an opportunity to better explore a genre we had as yet only dabbled in. And that man is Shintaro Katsu.

For those of you not immediately familiar, Shintaro Katsu played blind swordsman Zatoichi in twenty-six films and 100 or episodes of the “Zatoichi” television show. He also adapted the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series of manga into a film series for his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, and the “Hanzo the Razor” stories into a series of films for himself. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but neither my husband, nor myself had seen an original Zatoichi movie until we programmed one. Sure we’d seen the Beat Takeshi “re-imagining”, but it was more of a tribute, or a satire of traditional chanbara (sword and samurai movies).

Not to be confused with it’s classier cousin, jidai-geki (period drama), chanbara experienced something of a golden in the sixties and early seventies in Japan. Most of the major studios had at least one chanbara franchise. Daiei had “Zatoichi”, Toho had “Lone Wolf and Cub”, Sochiku had “Crimson Bat”, and Toei had “Lady Snowblood”. They were violent, stylish and generally featured anti-heroes trying their best to bring justice to an unjust world. To get a good idea of how the genre evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view), we decided to pick two films made by the same people from opposite ends of the spectrum: the classy and understated “Tale of Zatoichi” 1962 and the borderline unbelievable “Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice” 1972.

It was another healthy turnout with eleven people to start, the return of Will the newbie and another newer newbie. Mike had brought Krispie Kremes, which were quickly devoured while we waited for our very tardy pizza. We decided to start off with “Zatoichi” as I knew some people were going to want to skip “Hanzo”. Right away I noticed a difference compared to last week– people were surprisingly quiet. The subtitles and formal camera movements seemed to have lulled everyone into submission. There were a few quips about the indignities of being a lone blind man in feudal Japan and what you would have to have done to deserve loincloth-scrubbing duty, but people were mostly paying rapt attention.

The plot of “Tale of Zatoichi” is typically convoluted, with alliances being formed and broken all over the place. However, what stood out to me was the emphasis on Zatoichi’s strength of character. Relationships and interactions were set up specifically to show that Zatoichi was an honourable man, even if he was a ruthless killer. Though he was probably more a lover than a fighter, his reputation forced him to be a loner, a fate he accepted with more dignity than regret. Although his survival often necessitated allying himself with gangsters and thugs, he did would not abide by them and felt no difficulty in telling that to their faces.

About twelve minutes in, Graeme showed and was treated to a brief recap: “No kills, but he did hustle some guys at dice.” Brendan and Nick referred to Zatoichi as “the Blind Pimp”, which lead to Graeme stating his desire to see the film remade with gangsta rappers, which he was careful to point out was not just an opening to make an Ice Cube reference. Maybe 50 Cent could play Zatoichi.

By the twenty-minute mark I realized why everyone was so quiet: Mike and Bob were snoozing like babies. Then Mike woke up and Nick was asleep. Another twenty minutes later and Damon even felt the need to comment. My husband decided to find out what had happened to our pizza. Roughly an hour after we had ordered it our pizza finally showed up and everyone seemed to perk up a bit. The ninja / pirate jokes started. Nick pointed out that “Lee Marvin could kill ninjas”, a statement which none of us could refute.

There were some gasps for the sexist violence and I tired to make a “Dare Devil” joke that only Owen got, three minutes after I made it. Damon then commented on the fact that everyone was up and alert, to which we pointed out the much-needed sustenance we had just consumed. Bob however was preoccupied by his personal need for a sedan chair with attendants (and beer holders). Owen wanted to know why Zatoichi and his nemesis they couldn’t just settle things with a fishing competition, but being that we had to wait almost an hour for the first kill there was little chance the final confrontation wouldn’t live up to expectations. Which it did, rounding things out with a bitter sweet ending that easily endeared Zatoichi to our hearts.

The evening continues in part two of ENTER THE DEN OF SIN: SAMURAI ERECTION>>>

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