Oooohhh! If there’s one thing more than films with zombies, ghosts, and ghouls that this wee Catgirl always loves, it’s a movie with feisty sword wielding heroines, and recently my sweet Carolyn found for me a collection of classic Japanese swordplay films on DVD…. specifically the entire 4 films in the “Blind Swordswoman, Oichi” series by Shochiku studios from back in 1969. I’d heard of them before… but never manged to find copies readily available for myself. Luckily for me, my loving wife keeps her eyes peeled for the opportunity to snag such things for lil’ ol’ me… she’s not always successful, and I can’t tell you how many times she’s bought a nice lil’ bargain only to discover I’ve long since acquired a copy for myself. Still…. when the price is right… she’s willing to take the risk, and sometimes it pays off. Just like this time ’round. Yay!!
Our film’s synopsis? How’s this grab you: “A young girl Oichi, cruelly abandoned by her mother, is struck by lightning and blinded during a thunderstorm. Alone and unable to care for herself, she is taken in by an old man and raised to womanhood as his own. When her guardian is mysteriously killed by old enemies, she learns the art of swordplay from a traveling “Ronin” so she can travel the lonely roads of old Edo alone to seek both her mother and her revenge.”
Sound a bit like the famous “Zatoichi” movies? Well, that was most definitely the idea when Shochiku decided to create a series of their own to cash in on the success of Daiei Studios successful series featuring Shintaro Katsu as wandering blind masseur, gambler, and swordmaster Zatoichi. Making their lead character a woman only seemed a natural choice to grab some audience at Japanese cinemas.
So… is Oichi up to the task? Can she rival the great Zatoichi in thrills and excitement? Guess you can all find out by continuing to “Read On”…. 😉
So how did this one play out? Well… first and foremost… you have to first consider that this is a Japanese film from waaaay, waaaay back in 1969. That means of course that by today’s standards, the storytelling is probably going to feel a bit dated, and having watched it I can definitely say that is indeed the case. Stories back then tended to be heavy on characterization and weaker in the action department. Especially when your lead actors aren’t really up to the task of the levels of martial arts swordsmanship that a film like this needs. Yôko Matsuyama as our lead character Oichi is fine in the acting department, but the few scenes in this one where she needs to step up and show her stuff, swordplay wise, are disappointing. Part of it can be the way old chambara period films portrayed such deadly skills. Unlike Chinese wuxia swordplay battles, Japanese ones don’t expect lengthy drawn out fights between opponents. No sir…. Usually a fighter and his opponent will cross swords only once, exchanging but one single stroke to decide a battle, no second chances, mere wounds, or the like. It’s sorta just how they rolled…. In that kind of situation there isn’t a lot of stuff for a viewer to “Ooooh!” and “Awww!” over. In many ways it’s more like those climactic gunfights in old westerns where all the tension and drama come in those moments before the decisive encounter. The closeup of steely eyes… the determined grimaces… the slight twitching of muscles itching to move. Yep, that’s the ticket here.
However… you can still tell just how uncomfortable Miss Matsuyama is just holding her sword. It’s a slight quibble from somebody who’s seen a whole lotta swordfighting films… and I’m happy to say her skills and confidence improve over the course of the series… but here in the first film, it’s very evident.
She’s much better in the acting department though, and gives Oichi a certain “something” that raises her above being just another “Zatoichi wannabe”. She’s pretty in that porcelain doll sort of way that most of us Japanese women can be when dressed in period kimono. It’s easy to see why my sweetie mistook her for a “geisha girl”. Unlike gruff, homely, blind masseur Ichi, our heroine always likes to appear impeccably dressed with nary a hair out-of-place. Like Ichi however… it’s her curse to have her deadly skills with the sword, and not her sightless eyes, be the one thing that will always keep her from gaining the simple life and love that any normal woman wants. Naturally it’s that futile quest that keeps her on her lonely road, always looking for happiness, but always finding it just out of reach.
This first film gives us most of her backstory, about how she was abandoned by her mother for the love of a faithless gambler and left to fend for herself, about the loss of her vision in a terrible thunderstorm and near death by lightning strike, and all about the kindly old farmer who took her in and raised her as his own before his tragic and mysterious death. Ahhh…. and naturally all about the ronin who taught her the art of swordplay, awoke those warm feelings of romance in her heart and who then susequently left her without word as to why…. Melodramatic? Yeah… maybe just a touch… 😉
The bulk of the film is spent showing us Oichi’s softer side. She’s drawn into one of those overly entangled plots in which her feelings of sympathy for this wandering excaped convict who aches to somehow reconnect with his estranged daughter end up bringing her up against the very same villians that killed her foster father. Seems he was really not just a simple farmer afterall, but this infamous burglar who was one of only a few people who could identify this master killer to the authorities. Oichi’s new friend is yet another of these guys, so you just know he’s going to die at some point. His poor daughter? Well she basically gets sold into slavery by none other than Oichi’s long lost mom, who’s now making her living as a madam at a yakuza brothel. Then she’s cruely raped and then murdered before she even ever knows her long lost father had returned for her. Oh yeah….. that’s gonna piss our heroine off and give us the climactic bloodbath of revenge, right?
Yes, yes…. eventually. But not until the story wrings a bit more melodrama out of it’s plot and not with the sort of boss battle you’d want for such a climax. Heck… the most interesting opponent, a woman gambler with this crazy bullwhip, isn’t even around by the time our film is ready to wrap things up. Nope… she just plain dissapears right around the mid point of our story after a couple of dust ups with our Oichi with very little notice or fanfare. Say what? Yeah… I kid you not.
Basically that’s the biggest problem with our film. It has a very “thrown together” feeling, that made me think that possibly some of the footage was missing. At only 88 minutes in length, I though certain at first that that was definitely the case. Research later convinced me that instead, the odd continuity problems and “missing bits” were just clumsy filmaking on the part of the film’s director and editors, in a big hurry to crank this one out and get it to theaters to make a quick pile of yen back in the day.
That’s a shame too. The basic idea behind our heroine has real merit and promise. A definite B film, it still has a lot of great little bits scattered throughout, and Oichi herself… very feminine, very vunerable and emotional, made a really connection to this wee Catgirl, and while her debut feature leaves a lot to be desired, it’s still one that made me want to watch the other films as well, hoping for more improvement and more of her character.
All in all, I can really only give “Crimson Bat, The Blind Swordswoman” a mediocre 2 “Meows”. It’s a very interesting film… but not a very good one. Still, the widescreen faded technicolor is sooooo nostalgic, and Oichi herself a striking character worth sooo soo much better a film to inhabit. I honestly can’t bring myself to say I truly liked it, but also I just can’t hate it. And…. it was such a sweet gift from Carolyn…. so it’s always going to have a special warm spot in my heart any way I look at it, I suppose. If any of my Gentle Visitors decide to give a copy a watch, you might find that your movie watching experience may differ, Hehehehe!!
Unfortunently, I couldn’t find a Trailer for this one out there… a rare thing… However, there was one for it’s sequel, and so I’ll leave you with that. 😉