Nick Lake is an editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. His books, Blood Ninja (Corvus) and Lord Oda’s Revenge (Corvus) – jam-packed with assassins, samurai, ancient curses and blood-sucking warriors – were inspired by his interest in the Far East, and by the fact that he is secretly a vampire ninja himself. Below he explains why his filmic alter ego is blind swordsman Zatoichi, as seen by Takeshi Kitano. Eithne Farry
My favourite Japanese film is the 2003 version of Zatoichi. If you don’t know the movie, it might be described like this: if The Seven Samurai is a cappuccino, then Zatoichi is an espresso. It’s an economical, intense, brutal action film – with just a slight froth of humour and musicality, of balletic grace to its violence.
Zatoichi, the titular character, is an old blind man, who roams the countryside with a sword hidden inside a cane, protecting the weak and the poor from the depredations of ronin and samurai. He’s the ultimate underdog. Even his name signals his base status. It’s actually Ichi – the ‘Zato’ bit means ‘4th class’, because he is a 4th-class blind person, lowly even by the standards of the blind, who rank somewhere alongside beggars and fools in feudal Japan. In other words, he’s nobody. He isn’t even allowed to carry a katana, hence his hidden blade. But time and again, he rids villages of troublesome gangsters, rescues the vulnerable – revealing, when he draws the blade from his cane, a stunning skill at fighting, due to his remarkable hearing.
So much do I love Zatoichi, in fact, that I more or less stole him for my own books. I thought that Shusaku, the ninja mentor of my hero Taro, was going to die at the end of the first book. Then I remembered Zatoichi – and I decided to burn out his eyes instead. So the first scene of Blood Ninja II has a blind man fighting multiple enemies on a dark night, in the rain…
Zatoichi is actually a relatively recently created character – nowhere near as old as Robin Hood. But I think that, in his infirmity, his old age and his contemptible social status, but amazing talent and moral rectitude, he encapsulates something timeless. You can see him as a metaphor for justice. You can see him as an avatar of the common man, rising up against his oppressor. He, of course, doesn’t need to see at all.