Saturday, May 14, 2011

Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman

Every now and again, I'll break out the old DVDs and watch some of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. For those who are unfamiliar with him, there's a fairly decent article on the old Wiki.

In terms of pacing, at least during the first four movies, it has a lot of similarities to other movies where a showdown is coming. The first act introduces the major players. The second act sheds some light on their motivations. The third act brings in the glorious combat.

Like many other forms of media, even though it is older, Zatoichi continues to use some of the formulas that should be familiar to any fan of say, Dragonball Z. An introduction to the main character. He may be taken for helpless. He may have people who know his skills. An introduction to the villain. In many cases, some type of battle occurs to display just how powerful and dangerous this villain is. Then, some type of set up where the hero and villain must battle it out.

In my viewings of the first four movies, the continuity between the first two is strong, and while lighter in the third and fourth, still has elements that viewers can relate to.

For those who enjoy games build more around character and character interaction, Zatoichi provides a lot of opportunities.

For off, due to his Yakuza background, Ichi isn't quite a shining virtue of good deeds. His creed tends to be something similar to say, a player character in that he is loyal to those who are loyal to him. Class and creed mean something to him only when the people are living up to the ideals of that class.

For example, in the first movie, Ichi befriends a samurai. In this time period, samurai have a lot of status and for the most part, if any of them cross Ichi, he has no problems returning the favor. However, as this samurai is also of the humble nature, perhaps due to himself being an alcoholic or dying of consumption, the two get along and share a few drinks and discuss some philosophy.

However, they later duel to the death. This is a good study in character motivation. One of the most difficult things to arrange in some instances, is having two individuals who would normally be on the same side fight. Part of this may be due to alignment issues in games like Dungeons and Dragons. Ichi moves above this by having the samurai's motivation be simple, yet having some depth to it.

For one, he knows he's dying. His desire not to die at the hands of an unskilled yakuza thug is powerful. For another, he realizes Ichi's skill with a sword. Fighting the blind swordsman would be a duel worthy of him even were he not dying. Three, his own code, the 'honorable' thing, pushes him to it. See, the yakuza boss figures that the easiest way to take care of the blind swordsman is with a rifle. To the dying samurai, this goes against the principle of swordsmanship, so to save Ichi, he must fight Ichi.

Ichi's battles with others in the series sometimes have similar deeper connections. For example, in the second movie, he battles his brother, who initially appears to be a one armed samurai. As the movie progresses, we learn that no, like Ichi, he is not on the side of angles and is a thug with a wide array of crimes on his head. He hates Ichi for cutting his arm off while Ichi hates him for stealing his woman. When they fight, even though Ichi wounds his brother to death, Ichi allows no others near him, fighting off those coming for the bounty on his brother's head. This 'hands off' approach has been used in other media, like the anime Gun Grave. There, the main character fights to kill his best friend and when he finally has the chance, his best friend is himself on the lamb and the two join forces again.

In the third movie, Ichi is taken under wing by his mentor. But the depth of the characters here, generally mean that the mentor isn't what he seems. He's fallen on hard times and is a murderous fiend intent on advancing his clan. The sister of said mentor though wants a simple life and approaches Zatoichi about it and he agrees to leave his past life behind him.

The thing that is striking here, is that the continuity of the films, brings us a yakuza who wishes Ichi dead but upon seeing the blind swordman's love for this woman and his willingness to give up the life he lead, including an arm even, the Yakuza leaves him alone. Here we see a flip of the standards where a villain performs a good deed.

This allows the world to have more depth. If the players are not sure of the full consequences of their actions, they may pause and hesitate before killing those in places of power. They may need to ask for mercy from those they have wronged in the past. And if the GM wants the world to be more than just a hack fest, he should allow it.

Zatoichi and his mentor eventually come to blows due to his mentor's murderous ways and perhaps just as importantly, his mentor's attitude towards Zatoichi. Being a caste system, Ichi is impressive in his bladework, but what does that really mean? He can perform feats of sword skill, but that in and of itself isn't enough to change his status. When the opportunity is there for him to marry into Samurai, his mentor shuts him down. Not only is he a criminal, but he is blind. The swordskill he has is no insurance of raising status.

Zatoichi in the same rank as many adventurers. In the first movie, he notes that he learned his swordskills to showcase his strength to fellow Yakuza. For players, their abilities and powers, if they don't have the proper connections and ranking, may just make them more useful pawns to be moved about, regardless of what 'level' they are. Sure, they can lay independent siege to a castle and the king will be forever grateful, but hey, now that that's done, would you mind moving on?

On one hand, this allows the Game Master to keep pushing the players from place to place as they look for a place to settle down. On another, if it's a level based game where power increases occur over a short period of time, the players, depending on their mood and style of campaign being run, may soon wonder why they are NOT running the place.

The fourth movie pits Zatoichi against another samurai. This time, the samurai is the current love interest of one of Zato's old flames from the previous movies. The line of continuity allows the viewer to follow along if he's seen previous episodes and doesn't hinder the story greatly if you haven't. The interesting thing here, is that the samurai, like others in the series we've seen, is interested in the money. For you see, Zato has a bounty placed on his head.

The film starts with a bounty of like ten 'gold' pieces. A fair amount I supposed but by the end, due to treachery and manipulations of the Yakuza around him, the price is three hundred ryo. That's almost as much as Lone Wolf and Cub command per assassination.

The interesting thing in this episode, is how the Yakuza maneuver one of Zatoichi's allies into betraying him. With the start of the movie, the Yakuza would be assassin that Ichi kills is a member of the man Zato is allied with later. Because of the death of the Yakuza, by not taking action against the killer, Zatoichi, it proves that the leader is not worthy of having his territories. But going against Zato is in and of itself death. Hence, the three hundred ryo bounty on Zatoichi's head, placed there by a man whose life he saved several times.

This, the altering of circumstance, is another instance in where those who might otherwise be allies, become enemies. Sure, you and the Duke get along well, but hey, you remember those bandits you killed last week? Yeah, turns out they were nephews of the duke who were 'in disguise' as bandits to hunt down the real bandits and by killing them, you've made a laughing stock of the Duke. Yeah, you can help him, but it just makes him look weaker and all his political allies are moving away from a man who relies on outsides so much.

In addition to the characters, the land has its own personality. For example, there are times when Zatoichi complains about how hot it is. Others complain about how dirty he is and demand that he bath before seeing the important people. The land itself almost has a gritty feel to it. In some of the scenes, either through providence or careful planning, the cups and plates used have cracks and flaws in them.  It's an imperfect, harsh world where only a man's sword arm can provide any measure of safety.

Those looking for thieves to build in off beat cities, or for motivations for heroes fighting heroes, need look no further than Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman