John Wick and Zatoichi

I spent a lot of time in John Wick: Chapter 4 thinking about Zatoichi, The Blind Swordman.

A version of the character, or perhaps of descendent of the character appears in John Wick and is played by Donny Yen.

Before we get too deep into the wilderness here let’s just explain one of the coolest characters in cinema. Via Wikipedia, “created by Japanese novelist Kan Shimozawa. He is an itinerant blind masseur and swordsman of Japan’s late Edo period (1830s and 1840s).”

And, “This originally minor character was drastically altered and developed for the screen by Daiei Film and actor Shintaro Katsu, becoming the subject of one of Japan’s longest-running film series.”

How long running? They made 26 films about Zatoichi. That doesn’t count a remake, which I adore, from 2003 by Takeshi Kitano. It was the first movie I can recall that was shot digitally. Kitano used digital effects to turn in some cool scenes and in particular, in a shot I haven’t forgotten in 20 years, floating droplets of blood.

It also ends with the main cast doing a dance number after the story is concluded. And I’m sorry, there is no way for you ever to hate a movie that ends with everyone dancing.

If you have even passing knowledge of cinema history (and my knowledge of it is barely passing for sure) then you know that the directors of samurai films and westerns frequently borrowed from each other.

So the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo becomes the basis for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Kurosawa was pilfered again for The Magnificent Seven and some portions of Star Wars.

Zatoichi did not translate all that well into westerns although they did try it, in 1989, with Rutger Hauer playing the character as a Vietnam vet in a movie they called Blind Fury.

I missed it (I was 11) but Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up. But the American version you most likely know is Daredevil.

I don’t know that Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Jack Kirby had seen Zatoichi (1962) by the time Daredevil (1964) came along. The early version of him gives him radar superpowers created by chemicals that landed in his eyes.

Eventually, writer/artist Frank Miller pushed the character into ninja/samurai territory and ignored the radar superpowers in favor of Daredevil just being a guy with heightened senses who was well trained by a blind master called Stick.

This almost gets us to John Wick: Chapter Four and Yen’s latest version of a Zatoichi-like character, except for one thing. Yen played the Zaitochiesque, Chirrut Imwe, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Shout out to ScreenCrush cause I had forgotten that one.

I don’t want to talk too much about Yen’s Caine in John Wick: Chapter 4 but he’s the second coolest person in the movie and the filmmakers give him a lot of room to both be awesome and tragic. There are a bunch of little moments and action beats that show you how Caine can manage to survive and thrive in a world of superassassins.

I also have to say, as wave after wave of bad guys attacked Wick I thought, “My God, are they gonna make 26 of these things. Is John Wick doomed to wander the earth forever, killing mostly faceless enemies until the end of time.”

Not to ruin anything but the movie suggests a final ending but the box office and the producers clearly want something else.

At this point, I’d be super happy with another Zatoichi remake with Yen in the lead. Something a bit quieter and with a bit more character development would be welcome.

However, Wick leaves the door open for a spin-off movie with Yen’s Caine as a co-lead. That would probably make a lot more sense financially. And, I’m ok with that too. If the Wick team is behind it there is no doubt it will look slick, and the stunts will be unreal.

Regardless, if you are doing a Wick rewatch throw on a couple of Zatoichi flicks into the mix. Also, check this out. It’s delightful.

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