Sunday 15 December 2013

The Blind Menace

The Phantom Blind

The Blind Menace
1960 Japan
Directed by Kazuo Mori
Anime Eigo DVD Region 1

Two years before the big screen incarnation of the Zatoichi character started in a franchise that would last, in various forms, to this day, there was Suginoichi, The Blind Menace. A young actor who’s star was rising a little less speedily than you might, in hindsight, have imagined, took on the role of Suginoichi, a blind masseur who schemes and cleverly manipulates those around him as a skilled hero might... except that he is anything but a hero and his machinations lead him through the paths of theft, extortion, blackmail, rape and murder.

Starting with a number of scenes depicting Suginoichi and his best friend in childhood, the character grows up on a fairly astute transition shot (for the time) and turns into the young actor I mentioned... the not quite yet, but soon to be legendary... Shintarô Katsu.

Katsu, of course, is the man who played Zatoichi for the first 26 of the movies and 100 episodes, too, of the Zatoichi TV show (wish AnimeEigo would release series’ 2 - 4 now). Here is a film role which he throws himself into with relish, studying blind people and utilising that in a performance which is ulitimately very similar to the Zatoichi role he perfected two years later. A kind of cross between a comic, pantomime, almost slapstick, blind man... and with the inner workings betraying a more serious side. In the Zatoichi films that serious side manifests as a warm heart, astonishing hearing and his skill with his sword cane. Here the warm heart is absent and, where that would later develop in Zatoichi, here Suginoichi’s interior is all animal cunning and, again, great skill... not with a sword cane but with his ability to see how any situation can be worked for his own advantage.

Katsu, of course, does this really well and the film was enough of a hit that it inspired the more heroic slant on the character and the Zatoichi series became, of course, popular box office gold, owing no small debt to the lead performer’s lovable and dominating (yet humble) personality, which made him a greater known name in Japan than various iconic Japanese actors who are more famous in the West - the likes of Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Tatsuya Nakadai, for example (three personal favourites, although Katsu’s performances are infectious but, I plan on rewatching and reviewing the entire Zatoichi series next year so... I’ll leave all that until then).

The film is directed by Kazuo Mori, himself a director who would become an old hand on the Zatoichi series of films and, right from the start, with his long tracking sequences and ability to stay with a character in a continuous, fluid shot rather than chop everything into smaller sections, he pulls you in with the way he captures details and the expressions of the performers. The camerawork is typical of this director and this kind of film and it gives an almost voyeuristic feel to it on some level, as things are revealed to the audience which suddenly reveal something more about the clever treachery of the character as he spins his little webs. The character Katsu is playing here is certainly no lovable rogue and his actions are without remorse and unconscionable. He plays the part so well and I was impressed but wonder a little how this performance catapulted him into the other side of the coin with the Zatoichi character. I know I’m bringing with me the baggage of seeing him play the Zatoichi character around about fifty times but audiences at the time didn’t have that luggage to carry with them.

Well, anyway, however it happened, it certainly might not have occurred without the preparatory groundwork Katsu did here with this character... so this is quite an important movie.

Fans of chambera might not neccessarily be drawn to this movie. Certainly, it’s not an action picture and has none of the poetic choreography of violence that, say, a Sleepy Eyes Of Death movie might have. Nor does it allign itself with the brutal, naturalistic view of a Kurosawa period piece either. What it does have, however, is a group of very good actors, the almost but not quite over-the-top personality of Shintarô Katsu and a fiendish dose of high cynicism running through the picture like a tainted vein. This is the kind of character that Zatoichi might have been when he was a young yakuza but it’s much harder to imagine Ichi as a ruthless plotter who takes no prisoners... however, when Katsu puts his mind to it, nothing seems unbelievable for too long... with such a talented individual committed to making you believe in him.

And that’s about it on The Blind Menace, I think. For some reason, although I liked the movie a lot, I am struggling to pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps it’s the near perfect tone achieved in the film that I found so arreeable but, whatever it is, it’s certainly got a strong recomendation from me. If you’re a fan of Katsu and especially his role in the Zatoichi movies, then you really owe it to yourself to check this one out. If you’re not familiar with the great man’s works then this is a fine first in the world of the blind masseur, a role which Katsu would cherish and perfect for almost three decades. This is where it begins...

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