The Mirror-Universe Zatoichi
The blind masseur Sugino-ichi is just like the blind masseur Zato-ichi, with a subtle difference. While both roles are played by legendary actor Katsu Shintaro, when Zatoichi comes upon a woman in need, he immediately sets forth on a crusade to lift her from her plight with no thought of reward for himself. When Suginoichi comes upon a woman in need, however, he rapes her and the discards her into the street, maybe have a chuckle later when he hears how the woman killed herself, saying that it wasn’t such a big deal she needed to die over it.
“Blind Menace” (Japanese title: “Shiranui kengyo”) is the evil twin of the long-running “Zatoichi” series. The film could almost be seen as some sort of twisted parody of Zatoichi were it not for the fact that “Blind Menace” pre-dates the first “Zatoichi” film by two years. It makes you wonder what director or producer saw Katsu in this film and thought “he does that blind bit really good but maybe if the character was a kind vagrant wanderer rather than a rapist and a murderer we might have something here…”
From the opening scenes of “Blind Menace,” we see that Suginoichi was just born bad. He spends his childhood using his blindness to scam people out of money, and he doesn’t grow up any better. As a student of the Shiranui Kengyo (Kengyo being the highest official rank of blind masseur, able to work on the shogun and royal family, the descending ranks being betto”, “koto”, and “zato.”), Suginoichi would still rather get ahead by graft than by craft. He has set his sights on assuming the Kengyo’s rank and position, but would rather have it now rather than suffer through the years required to earn the position. When one of Suginoichi’s casual murders is overseen by career criminal who goes by the name “Severed Head,” an uneasy partnership is forged between the two as Suginoichi uses his massage clients to glean private secrets that Severed Head and his gang can take advantage of. Suginoichi’s greed is not contained by petty evils, however, and he plots to murder the current Kengyo, his master, something which even Severed Head balks at.
Although “Blind Menace” is going to constantly be compared to Zatoichi (and justifiably so, as Katsu clearly used the same mannerisms, facial expressions and style of movement to portray both blind characters) it does stand on its own as a dark and interesting film with a villain as its protagonist. Suginoichi is truly a despicable character, who performs some vile scams that managed to shock me more than fifty years after its release. There is one scene in particular that I don’t want to spoil, but it is a rare gem of villainy that Suginoichi concocts.
Director Mori Kazuo would go on to direct a few entries in the Zatoichi series, including the The Tale of Zatoichi Continues and Zatoichi at Large, one of the most acclaimed Zatoichi films. He does good work here in “Blind Menace,” managing to keep the tone light when Suginoichi is doing his charming best and then suddenly shift to a darker tone as Suginoichi’s true face is revealed.
“Zatoichi” fans might be a little shocked with “Blind Menace” do to the sexual violence and despicable nature of the usually loveable Katsu Shintaro. However, anyone who has seen Katsu’s other films, like the Hanzo the Razor series that Katsu produced himself, will be less shocked at seeing Katsu in this kind of role.
Animeigo has put together a solid release of “Blind Menace,” along with their usual fantastic job with the subtitles (really, the do the best Japanese subtitling in the business) along with program notes, a trailer and cast and crew biographies.