Monday, July 26, 2010

The Mind Is Deadlier Than The Sword-Animeigo’s ‘The Blind Menace’

The image is familiar to any fan of the Zatoichi series-Katsu Shintaro, in his role as a blind masseur, cheerfully massages the back and shoulders of a daimyo’s wife, all the while spouting empty words of flattery. But the familiar image soon goes wrong-the blind masseur begins to deviate from the standard massage into something a bit more…personal. It isn’t long before it escalates into a full fledged sexual assault that leaves the woman a sobbing, humiliated wreck-and for her, the worst is yet to come. Meet Suginoichi, the masseur from Animeigo’s new “The Blind Menace” DVD (Japanese title “Shiranui Kengyo”). As kind and compassionate as Katsu’s Zatoichi character was, that’s how rotten Suginoichi is. And yet, this was the role that was to become the direct inspiration for the Zatoichi film series. Not only is the film interesting for examining the early gestation of Katsu’s portrayal of the blind masseur, but a fascinating film on its own. Suginoichi is startlingly devoid of human compassion. He’s a cold and calculating man who yet is able to function perfectly in society and endear himself to virtually everyone he meets-the perfect sociopathic personality. His victims are completely unaware of what’s in store for them until it’s far too late. Suginoichi is so terrible that even his own murdering lackies think he’s a rotten bastard who needs to die. Most intriguingly, counter to most Edo period jidaigeki, Suginoichi doesn’t need a sword to get what he wants.

The government of the Edo period (like any large bureaucracy) certainly saw more than its share of corruption with offices and titles being bought and sold, bribes dictating the course of policy, and official power being used to line one’s pockets. Abuse by Temple and Shrine officials was made even easier by the fact that they were overseen by a different government ministry than townspeople and samurai and were not under the jurisdiction of the regular police force. There were many instances of temples dabbling in illegal prostitution (as opposed to the legal prostitution of the Yoshiwara and other districts), selling opium and other drugs, and especially in loan sharking. This is the world where Suginoichi finds himself. He’s determined to use whatever means necessary to secure for himself the office of Shiranui Kengyo. The guild of blind masseurs was basically divided into four classes ranging from Kengyo at the top down through Bettou and Koutou to Zato at the bottom (thus making the Zatoichi character at the bottom rung status-wise). The title of Shiranui Kengyo will put Suginoichi at the very top of the guild of blind masseurs, giving him a position of influence and control over not only the lower ranked guild members but associated temples as well. Animeigo states that Shiranui is likely the name of Suginoichi’s master, but it probably would have been a place/temple name-there were several of these historically called Shiranui, and in fact the new bestselling novel ‘The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob DeZoet’ revolves around a Shiranui Shrine. The guild of blind men worked closely with temples and many times the higher ranks exercised a large degree of power over their operation, engineering the illegal activities outlined above.

The film opens with Shichinosuke (Suginoichi as a child) scamming local workmen at a festival, claiming he has ‘dropped a booger’ into a bucket of sake, making it undrinkable-and available for him to take home to his mother for free. We see early on that Suginoichi’s mother is the force that has propelled him down the wrong path, encouraging his behavior and planting in him the desire to become Shiranui Kengyo. His father, a decent and good sort, is virtually ignored by both mother and son. Shichinosuke moves on to bigger scams, using his blindness to gain sympathy and extort money from the wealthy by making it appear as if they are trying to take advantage of him. Years later, Suginoichi wakes from a dream of his childhood days, still accompanied by his feeble minded childhood friend/gopher Tome. Suginoichi hasn’t risen to high office yet-he’s still one of the lower ranked masseurs, but as can be seen by his behavior (arriving late for meetings and talking down to his peers), considers himself to be well above their station. While running an errand for the Shiranui Kengyo, Suginoichi runs across Kanji, a freak show owner doubled over in pain, who lets it slip that he’s carrying a large amount of cash (200 ryo). Suginoichi relieves him of his pain (permanently) and of his cash. Unfortunately for Suginoichi, there’s been a witness-Severed Head Kurakichi. Suginoichi, being a practical man, splits his take with Kurakichi-and also subtly manages to set him up to take the rap when the murder is discovered.

Using his ill gotten gains as seed money for bribes and financing criminal activity, Suginoichi manages to improve his status. However, his climb up the ladder looks like it might be put to a permanent end while visiting a local merchant. Suginoichi has the misfortune to be present when bandits raid the house looking for the merchant’s ready cash. Killing the merchant and his mistress, they advance upon Suginoichi-who recognizes his former partner in crime, Severed Head Kurakichi. He boldly claims that if they kill him they’ll never find the money-but for a large chunk of the take, he’ll tell them where it is hidden. Somewhat taken aback by his effrontery, the bandits agree and before long find themselves working for the evil masseur. Adding insult to injury, Suginoichi invites Okimi (from the household of the slain merchant) to stay with him as his guest. But nothing’s free. Suginoichi tricks Okimi into being alone with him and rapes her, leading to her suicide and his snorting in contempt that her death has nothing to do with him.

With the aid of his new criminal friends, Suginoichi gains yet more power, money, and influence. He’s routinely approached by nobility and members of the samurai class for loans. And there’s nothing Suginoichi likes better than humiliating the higher-ups of society every chance he gets. When he’s approached by Lady Iwai (played by Katsu’s real-life wife Nakamura Tamao), it leads to the scenario outlined in our opening paragraph-and sets into motion a sequence of events that will see Suginoichi gain the coveted office of Shiranui Kengyo and access to the Shogun himself. Along the way there’s more murder, poisonings, and a bit of samurai justice. Suginoichi’s men find that there’s no escaping his control. Secrets from the past are rediscovered and work out just they way they were planned-but with disastrous unanticipated results. In the final sequence, the exalted Suginoichi is in a palanquin on his way to Edo Castle-he’s so powerful that other processions in the street have to make way for him. His wicked ways and masterful manipulation of every person and situation he’s come in contact with have left him at the very top-or so it would seem…

It’s definitely fun to watch Katsu begin to develop the body language and mannerisms that would come to be identified with his Zatoichi character. The subtle tilt of his head to facilitate hearing, the frenzied massage style, the ‘blind man’s duckwalk’, and Zatoichi’s ingratiating patter can all be seen starting out here. Animeigo’s liner notes explain that Katsu, whose career at Daiei Studios was going nowhere, had seen the play Shiranui Kengyo. He thought the Suginoichi part would be a perfect vehicle for him and pitched the idea to the studio. His enthusiasm for the project and immersion into the part convinced Daiei to produce the film, where his energy impressed both director Mori Kazuo and screenwriter Inuzura Minoru. The film proved to be just what Katsu’s career needed, being a big hit. For a follow up, it was decided another blind masseur role would be used-and Inuzura worked on adapting a series of stories featuring a blind masseur who was also a master swordsman-Zatoichi. Inuzura fleshed the character out and with Mori directing many of the early entries, it was to become Katsu’s signature role, resulting in 26 films and 100 episodes of a TV series.

At the same time, it’s just as fun to watch Katsu’s take on a character with no redeeming value-yet one that still manages to come across to his prey as charming and interesting. Unlike most western films, Japanese films have no problem with a lead character that has no sympathetic side whatsoever. This is a man so hard, resentful, and spiteful that he’ll poison his concubine Ohan and her lover-AFTER he hires the lover to construct a chest he intends to use as their coffin. A man who’s so calculatingly practical that he continues to employ his criminal underlings after they had attempted to kill him (an attempt he foresaw and forestalled). Even in one of the film’s few whimsical moments (a fantasy sequence when Suginoichi dreams of the famous concubine Ohan he plans to make his), it’s tempered by the knowledge that Suginoichi sees her as nothing more than property and a status symbol to make others envious-he has no love to spare for her. It seems that there’s no situation Suginoichi can’t smooth over, manipulate, or finesse his way out of, even if he has to ‘die’ to do it. He seems to always anticipate his opponent’s next move and be able to turn every situation to his advantage. Viewers will find themselves strangely looking forward to whatever outrage Suginoichi has planned next. Katsu is masterful, playing to the hilt both Suginoichi’s diabolical core and his smooth, civilized veneer. Katsu’s meltdown at the end when Suginoichi’s excesses begin to catch up with him is a perfect blend of outrage at having been caught, contempt for his captors, and a frenzied belief that there’s still a way out.

As is the norm, Animeigo’s translations are superb, giving listeners multiple options depending on their level of expertise in Japanese. The transfer is solid both from an audio and visual standpoint. Extras for the disc include the original trailer, a small image gallery of black and white stills, short bios of the stars, writer, composer, and director, and program notes. The notes deal mainly with cultural issues and give useful background on the office of kengyo. They also touch on how the film became the jumping-off point for the Zatoichi series. Perhaps the most interesting entry covers Katsu’s marriage to his on-screen co-star, Nakamura Tamao. Katsu was as much of a rogue in real life as on the screen and his long-suffering wife took his womanizing, gambling, drinking, and drug abuse with good humor, even going so far as to thank his mistresses for taking such good care of him (the notes sardonically observe that many men would consider her ‘the perfect wife’). One thing we noticed is that the interactive map that was such an enjoyable part of many recent Animeigo DVDs (Shinobi No Mono, Father of the Kamikaze, The Wolves, Tora-san, etc) hasn’t shown up on their last couple of DVD releases. While “The Blind Menace” doesn’t really require a map (taking place mainly in Edo), the Musashi boxed set would have benefited greatly from one. Hopefully these will be seen in future efforts. The DVD box also features one of the more badass looking covers I’ve seen in quite some time-it almost looks like a horror film.

While Animeigo’s recent boxed sets have been great, it’s good to get a standalone film like this once in a while (with more on the way, like Shintaro/Raizo’s Samurai Vendetta and Raizo’s Shinsengumi Chronicles). It’s interesting to see how two such different characters like Zatoichi and Suginoichi can share the same starting point-not to mention the same actor. There’s no cane sword or lightning chanbara action here-but Suginoichi proves that the most effective weapon is always the human mind. The mind is indeed deadlier than the sword. And when employed for evil, much harder to combat.

You can pick up a copy of ‘The Blind Menace’ directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store, and Animeigo also has seven of the Zatoichi films available individually or as a boxed set.

Images courtesy and copyright 1960 Kadokawa Pictures Inc.