Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman screens at HOME on Sun 4 Sep as part of an ongoing series of Cinema on the Edge: Japanese Film in the 1970s.
Japanese director Kimiyoshi Yasuda was able to produce a large cinematic catalogue before his death, mainly films which were in the Jidaigeki (period drama) genre. His specialisation in historical dramas based on the Japanese Edo period of 1600-1868 meant that Yasuda was able to fine tune his skills and become a recognisable figure within the genre. In this vein, Yasuda directed six films in the Zatoichi series, spanning ten years from 1963 until his final film Zatoichi’s Conspiracy in 1973.
For Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman, Yasuda collaborated with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio to create a crossover between their One-Armed Swordsman series and the Zatoichi series. Although most aspects of the Shaw Brothers’ One-Armed Swordsman were kept the same, some minor changes were made, such as renaming the original character from Fang Kang to Wang Kang. As Jimmy Wang Yu played both Fang Kang and Wang Kang, the slight name change ensures that audiences can distinguish between the two versions of the character and appreciate the two series as separate entities. The other lead character here is the blind man Zatoichi, who regardless of his loss of sight still fights like an expert swordsman, possesses the mindset of a monk, and never draws his sword first, as he travels through a Japanese countryside fraught with danger. It is this mindset that is one of the key similarities between Zatoichi and Wang Kang.
Although the film is primarily a martial arts film with plenty of daring stunts, fight scenes and violence, it also explores a variety of social issues. The most clearly defined message is about the power of communication, and the dangers arising from its lack or failure. The friendship between Zatoichi and Wang Kang is constrained by a language barrier, as Zatoichi can only speak Japanese and Wang Kang can only speak Mandarin, and the film brings to light the dependency that we have on one another understanding and speaking the same language. With the plentiful, well-choreographed fight scenes and the copious amounts of blood, the viewer might expect the atmosphere of the film to be bleak, however there are still light-hearted jokes made throughout which lighten the overall tone of the film.
The influence of Hong Kong cinema is not just in the crossover of the Wang Kang character, but also the film features a more flamboyant form of martial arts, as is typical of the Hong Kong version of the One-Armed Swordsman. Jimmy Wang Yu, who played the One-Armed Swordsman, was a major figure in martial arts cinema and was very popular across east and south Asia, becoming one of the mega stars in the Shaw Brothers action/wuxia films. The character contrast between Zatoichi and One-Armed Swordsman is particularly easy to see when either of them fight, with the latter using extravagant jumps and flips to catch his opponents off guard. On the other hand, the down-to-earth, natural way in which Zatoichi fights, staying on the ground and using noise and a whistle to locate his opponents, is a more classic fighting style that is typical of Yasuda’s work. This comparison shows that the two cultures represented in the films both have distinct ways of fighting, as well as distinct ways of filming action films, but both achieve the same result of good triumphing over evil. The way the two cultures of martial arts are interpreted and combined in the film is a credit to Yasuda as neither style overshadows the other, but both are shown to be unique and effective in their own ways.
Regardless of the cultural difference between the two main characters, their kinship is represented through a common love for food and alcohol. Throughout the film there are constant reminders of each hero’s unique personality, but there is also the reminder that their code of honour to protect the weak and innocent is fundamentally the same.
I really enjoyed the film and recommend Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) to anyone who likes martial arts films, as it features typical fighting scenes but also has a comedic element which lightens the tone. I also liked the inventive way the characters got around the issue of communication between the Japanese and Mandarin-speaking leads, including finding someone who speaks both languages, although you’ll see this is not always useful! I would highly recommend seeing this film so you can discover whether Zatoichi can still save the day even with the added obstacle of a language barrier.
By Lucie Evans.
Lucie Evans is a Film Team Intern at HOME.