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June 10, 2010

The Blind Menace

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Shiranui Kengyo
Kazuo Mori - 1960
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The main reason for interest regarding The Blind Menace is that the title character provided a rough template for the Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, played in a long running series of films starring Shintaro Katsu. Already present is some of the deadpan black humor of the Zatoichi series. Suginoichi is also a blind masseur, but unlike the usually upstanding, and sometimes heroic Zatoichi, is a manipulative villain. It's not so much that one roots for Suginochi as much as their is a fascination in watching this repellent character weasel his way in and out of various situations.

Suginochi is introduced as a young boy, fully aware of how to use his blindness to full advantage. Flicking a small booger into a vat of sake, the boy is able to supply is poor, appreciative mother with a large pail of the rice wine. After all, he reasons, what's a little shared dirt between family members. I don't know if there is an equivalent Japanese phrase, but Suginochi could be be described as a manipulative little snot. Another scam involves the receipt of a letter written by a relative, with a missing gift of a coin. In response to his mother's lament about the family's lack of money, Suginoichi works his way into a guild of blind money lenders, with plans to make his way to the top.

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Along the way, Suginoichi gets involved with a criminal gang, supplying them with information those who may be traveling with large amounts of cash. Suginoichi also has his way with women, by force, blackmail or outright purchase. Mostly, it is the accumulation of cash that provides motivation.

One of the most interesting scenes is a very simply done dream sequence. Suginoichi dreams of a famed young woman, the model used for a famed artist, and the subject of very popular woodblock prints. Katsu and Mieko Kondo are filmed on a bare stage, each with their own spotlight. Katsu is seated, playing the shamisen, the three stringed instrument somewhat similar to a guitar. Kondo performs what cannot truly be called a dance, but more of a series of poses. While the scene has its place in the narrative, visually it is almost an abstract, not quite experimental interlude within a generally realist framework.

Tamao Nakamura, Shintaro Katsu's wife, plays the part of an upper class woman blackmailed into having sex with Suginoichi in exchange for a much needed loan on behalf of her family. The screenwriter, Minoru Inuzuka, was instrumental in creating the screen character of Zatoichi, from the story by Kan Shimosawa. Katsu was groomed to be a star for Daiei Studios only to see his films rejected by audiences and film exhibitors until turn as Suginoichi. The use of of what would conventionally be considered a disability, coupled with the dark humor apparently resonated with viewers. A character who murders, rapes, commits blackmail and other misdeeds could not be the basis of a series, at least not one of any significant length. As a single film, though, The Blind Menace provides interest in an aspect of Japanese culture not touched on in most other period films, as well as showcasing an earlier performance by one of Japan's most unlikely stars.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 10, 2010 12:07 AM