Oct. 5, 2007

The Blind Swordsman's Vengeance (1966)
Grade: 44/100

Director: Tokuzu Tanaka
Stars: Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Jun Hamamura

What it's about. This film is part of a lengthy series of Japanese films concerning the character of Ichi, a.k.a. The Blind Swordsman. Ichi is a nomad, wandering from village to village, but his sympathy for the underdog and dislike of bullies "forces" him to unsheath his sword from time to time, slaughtering scores of less gifted ronin who have the misfortune of working for the wrong side.

Ichi is essentially a Japanese version of a comic book superhero. Although allegedly blind, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) has little trouble slicing and dicing his foes, even though he is always courteous enough to wait until they make the first move. Ichi is invincible, and he knows it, although he frequently poses as a humble masseur.

In Vengeance, our blade-gifted lead makes a number of friends, including a mysterious, insightful Biwa-playing priest (Jun Hamamura), and several villagers plagued by Boss Gonzo (Kei Sato), a gangster who demands protection money from all local businesses. The sadistic Gonzo tries to break the holdouts, such as the elderly grandmother of impressionable youngster Taichi. Gonzo's enterprises also control the destiny of kindly but troubled prostitute Cho (Mayumi Ogawa), whose samurai husband Kurobe (Shigeru Amachi) has arrived to claim her. Since he has no money to pay off her pimp, he goes hat in hand to Gonzo, who will only give him money if he kills Ichi first. As if such a thing were possible.

How I felt about it. The film smells of formula. Our hero defends the honorable, courageous village merchants against an interminable number of samurai under the pay of a crime boss. Inevitably, Ichi confronts the top dog himself, with predictable results.

But the writers do try to add some complexity to the story. The priest implies that Ichi himself is a villain, since his only answer to violence is violence. This puzzles Ichi (me? bad? what now?), but the priest cannot solve his own riddles, and Ichi has no choice but to return to the sword. After all, no one would watch Vengeance if it were entitled The Blind Swordsman Turns Pacifist instead.

Will Taichi eventually become a samurai, as the biwa priest fears? Will Cho stop drinking saki until she passes out, now that she has money to pay off her pimp? Will Ichi ever admit to anyone that he can actually see quite well, in the same sense that The Who's Tommy is a "blind" pinball player? There are no answers here, but then Ichi isn't a social worker able to change the behavior of others. He's a mythical vigilante able to fulfill our grade school fantasies of beating the bullies at their own game.