Fight Scene Friday — “Zatoichi Challenged”

by Gabriel Valdez

Too often, we think the purpose of a fight is to best our opponent, to dominate, to prove we’re better. To win a fight best, however, is to not have to have it in the first place. There are times when it’s unavoidable, as in this scene from Zatoichi Challenged, but we have this idea that backing down, that begging, that reasoning is a cowardly option.

Zatoichi, the blind swordsman played by Shintaro Katsu in 26 films and a TV series, is not a samurai. He is legally restricted from carrying a katana. He carries a cane sword which breaks regularly. The character’s name is Ichi, his blindness at the time (in both the movie’s Edo Period and 1960s Japan) was considered a mental inferiority, and his rank within the society of the blind is the lowest possible: Zato. He is essentially a homeless wanderer.

Ichi often uses his place in society to linger and listen in on plots, villains barely even noticing someone who they consider inferior. He almost always ends up helping civilians who are being chased by gangsters or the government – often, there’s little difference between the two.

Japanese filmmaking after World War 2 was shaped by a cultural shame and self-judgment for blindly following Imperial edict into war, and – like many films of the time – it used historical drama to reflect on and criticize the attitudes that led them into unnecessary wars.

That brings us to Zatoichi Challenged and one of the most beautiful sword fights ever put to film. I can’t analyze the choreography as I often do because the sword styles at play are very different from what I’ve been trained in, but everything in the scene – the music, the sound, the franchise’s trademark underrated art design – frames this moment. Besides, it doesn’t rely on Ichi being the better swordsman, it relies on his being the better human being.

Half the fights you face, you don’t win because you’re the better fighter. You win because you’re the better thinker, or the better diplomat, or the better actor, or the better comedian. You win because you can defuse the tension, or reframe the worth of a fight, or find that one unexpected response that makes someone else hesitate. And occasionally, very occasionally, you can win a fight in the most legendary of ways – you can be the better person. Don’t get me wrong, it’s risky. It won’t always be your smartest option, but the fights you do win that way? You will not ever have to fight them again.

By the way, The Criterion Collection has made their remastered editions of all the Zatoichi movies available for free on Hulu. I can’t recommend them highly enough. (If they come up out of order, they’re all marked sequentially.) They are thrilling, they are touching, and they are an absolutely essential piece of cinematic history.

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