“I’m a vagrant known as Blind Oichi.”
There were four installments in the Japanese Crimson Bat series (1969-1970), each starring the amazing Yoko Matsuyama as Oichi — the blind female avenger. This first entry was directed by Sadatsugu (Teiji) Matsuda, who also directed the second installment Trapped, The Crimson Bat (1969), bowing out to Hirokazu Ichimura for the final two, Watch Out! Crimson Bat (1969) and Crimson Bat – Oichi: Wanted, Dead or Alive (1970). Matsuda, a prominent director of jidai-geki genre films at Toei, moved over to Shochiku Eiga to direct the two films. Yoko Matsuyama’s last big screen appearance was Crimson Bat – Oichi: Wanted, Dead or Alive in 1970. She would semi-retire effectively afterwards, only to appear occasionally on Japanese television in the coming years. According to Chris D., in his phenomenal book Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980, there was also a television series.
“This little girl, without knowing that her mother has left her… And that she is now blind… was weeping and trembling with fear in a total darkness.”
The film begins with a seven-year-old girl named Oichi running through a raging thunderstorm, calling out for her mother. Oichi’s mother, although in obvious distress, has decided to abandon Oichi for a man, who has told her she must leave her daughter behind. Oichi wanders around screaming repeatedly for her mother in the torrential downpour, crying out “Mother! I’m Scared.” The thunderstorm intensifies and when a tree nearby is struck by a bolt of lightning, Oichi is knocked unconscious. In the morning she awakens, but as she opens her eyes her sight quickly fades to black. Time passes by and Oichi grows into a beautiful woman, having been raised by a kindly man named Yasuke (Akitake Kono). She lives happily with her surrogate father, until one night he is accosted by four men led by an old friend turned nemesis named Devil Denzo (Bin Amatsu). Yasuke is killed to ensure that a long-held secret is not revealed about Denzo. Oichi is set upon by the four swordsmen, who quickly realize she is blind when she flails around wildly with Yasuke’s sword. But, regardless of her handicap, Denzo decides to eliminate her as she is a potential witness to what occurred that very night. A wandering samurai named Jube (Isamu Nagato) comes to her aid, killing three of the samurai, but Denzo, decides to retreat from the conflict after the two swordsmen have a brief skirmish.
“She was like a mad woman. But in her desperate swinging of the sword… I saw unusual sharpness. Which might be a natural gift.”
The disillusioned wandering Jube, after calming the frantic sword swinging Oichi down, realizes Oichi has a natural ability with the sword and decides to take her on as his pupil. Oichi works hard to master the sword so she can seek revenge for Yasuke. She becomes finely tuned with the pitch-black world around her, developing her sense of hearing and smell to help compensate for her blindness. Jube pushes Oichi until one day he tells her that he cannot teach her anymore as she has become a master of the sword.
Both Oichi and Jube have grown fond of each other and Jube professes his love for her, and she for him. But knowing that he cannot give her the life she deserves, Jube leaves without saying goodbye after she has left to get some sake to celebrate. Thus, poor blind Oichi becomes a wanderer who travels around and whose reputation with her sword grows and grows throughout the land. She comes to the aid of an old man named Nihei (Jun Tatara), who is being tracked down by a group of men for a bounty on his head stemming from his escape from prison. In befriending Nihei, she eventually learns that he has a daughter Oyone, whom he had to give up twenty years ago, because he was on the run from the law. Nihei has escaped from prison to see his beloved daughter, but his arrival and his brief chance to see his child is turned from happiness into utter sadness: his daughter, who has been used as collateral for a debt by her foster parent, has been sent off to a local madam, forcing her into indentured servitude to work off the loan.
“They say… My mother is leading an indecent life. She’s become a dirty and disgusting woman.”
Oichi has arrived in the town of Takasaki and stops by the local gambling house where she wins a large sum of money. She is then challenged by the owner when she exposes Obun (Chizuko Arai) — the female dealer also known as “Top-swinging Obun” and a sworn nemesis to Oichi — out as a cheat. During the ensuing pandemonium she vacates with her winnings and goes to the madam to buy the freedom of Oyone, but is laughed at by the madam who says she will make much more off this virgin girl than the 70 ryo Oichi, is offering. The madam is very condescending towards the blind Oichi, who she at first dismisses as a masseuse, which in ancient Japan is what many blind women were trained as, just as many blind men in Japan were trained as masseurs. But, as the story of Oyone unfolds, the madam realizes as Oichi reveals her own saga of abandonment and that they are in fact mother and child. The sadistic Devil Denzo has already paid a visit to the poor Oyone and has “made a woman out of her,” as he says, and had to kill her when she resisted him. Nihei has fallen straight into the trap set by Denzo, and after being told this heartbreaking story, is cut down brutally with Denzo’s deadly sword. Denzo, Nihei and Yasuke had been a trio of thieves who robbed homes, Denzo sold his old friends out for the reward money and kept it all for himself because he feared that one of his former partners would turn him in to the authorities.
“You talk fancy. But your still blind.”
This film revolves around abandonment. The two young women in the cast are both abandoned by their single parents and pay the consequences because of this parental neglect, with one being blinded and the other sold into prostitution. The forcing of young girls into prostitution was prominent in the early part of the Edo period where women were for the most part seen as property, and were thus used as collateral for loans which if not fulfilled, forced the woman into indentured servitude. The aftermath of World War II also saw many Japanese women forced into prostitution to help them to earn a meager existence after the severe economic depression of postwar Japan, as well the loss of so many husbands, fathers, and sons who died during the conflict. These cases of abandonment are different in nature to a point, but both are the outcome of rejection by the parent. In the case of Oyone, the parent is forced to depart from the child because of the sins of the father, but Oichi’s mother left her for a man and after that man in turn abandoned her, she had to turn to prostitution followed by the degrading life of a madam. She has no qualms about lending her dirty money out to the poor families of the lower social classes — who struggled under the strict social and class structure and rule — and is always there to collect on her debt. Nihei, while but a thief, has never forgotten his daughter and breaks out of prison to see her; he has more honor and parental love for his child than the madam, who never reveals herself to Oichi but is indeed her mother. While neither Oichi or Oyone are formally introduced to their real parent, they both unbeknownst to them have met them. And in the case of Oichi, she tells her mother the Mada, exactly how she feels about her mother abandoning her, exposing the hurt and pain she experienced.
“Oichi went away in a cold winter wind alone… Carrying her sword-cane. I know quite well… Her sightless eyes were full of tears.”
The people in Oichi’s life constantly abandon her, either willingly or through death. She is forced to wander around alone in this world. Abandonment has affected Oichi immensely and hardened her heart, but there still is compassion and caring, along with a profound worldly intelligence and keen understanding of people and their motivations. She is always looking for a home because of her mother’s abandonment years before, but the first devastating jolt of her mother’s departure is followed by Yasuke, whom she told she wanted to live with forever, and then Jube, who while being her savior and teacher breaks her heart and leaves her alone again in the world — but not before bestowing upon her the ability to seek revenge against the man who killed Yasuke with her canesword.
This series of films was influenced most prominently by the Daiei series of Zatoichi films and Toei’s Ohyaku: Female Demon (1968). The most obvious nod to the Zatoichi films is in the naming of the lead character, a shortened form of Zatoichi. Other similarities include protagonist’s who wield a simple cane-sword, both of whom lost their sight during childhood (Zatoichi at age eight, and Oichi at age seven), and who were abandoned by a single parent. Furthermore, each is a skilled gambler despite their blindness and also have bounties on their head. Additionally, both have a depth of compassion and assist the oppressed and the subjugated against bureaucratic corruption.
Crimson Bat, The Blind Swordswoman, contains a scene where Niehi. chased by a group of men looking to collect the bounty on his head, stops momentarily to drink some water from a small stream. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964), begins with a scene that was an obvious inspiration for this scene from Crimson Bat, The Blind Swordswoman. Also in Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967), Ichi uses a blade that he has deflected into the ceiling, which proceeds to drop down and cut into a wicker dice cup, like a scene in Crimson Bat, The Blind Swordswoman where Oichi pins the dice cup to the ceiling to expose cheating gamblers.
Both Oichi and Ohyaku (Junko Miyazono) from Ohayaku: Female Demon, were daughters of prostitutes, whose mothers had bad luck with men and their natural fathers are not addressed in either film. Ohyaku and Obun each employed an ancient weapon, like the one called a kusari-fundo (a chain, with a weight on the end), but with slight variations. Both women in each film rises above their meek existence and dependence on men to seek revenge against over-the-top, slimy villainous opposition and stand as female forces to be reckoned with. Junko Miyazono had three years previously played a blind woman in the chambara film Samurai Wolf (1966), but her character, while strong in that film, was still dependent on men and is a vast, demure departure from her upcoming role as the revenge-driven Ohyaku.
Both the Crimson Bat, The Blind Swordswoman and Ohyaku: Female Demon were also precursors to the upcoming growth of fierce, violent, forward thinking women in Japanese cinema, which exploded with growth into the Japanese Pinky Violence films of the 1970s. The reasoning behind this being broken up into parts may be obvious to those who have seen the four films. After the first film, in the opening scene of Trapped, The Crimson Bat our one-time Samaritan avenger has become a bounty hunter. The shifting of tone between the first and second film is to possibly deflect some of the obvious criticism that was bestowed upon it for resembling the Zatoichi films so closely — or Shochiku decided to change the concept of the film to incorporate a bit of the Italian western influence, which were wildly popular in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.