Predating the Zatoichi series for which he'll always be remembered, Blind Menace sees the late, great Shintaro Katsu playing an entirely different sort of blind masseuse. When the film begins, we learn that even at a young age Suginoichi had a taste for crime when we watch him pick his nose and flick it into a pail of sake some men are enjoying. They obviously don't want it once he's done what he's done to it, so he brings it home to his mother to enjoy. Fast forward a few years and Sugaioichi's vile ways have only gotten worse. We see him now in his early twenties, venturing through rural Japan when he comes across a man in pain. He offers him his services and when he finds out that the man is carrying two hundred Ryo, he kills him and takes the money. What Suginoichi didn't realize is that a crook named 'Severed Head' has seen him commit murder. He offers the man half of the money and in return, 'Severed Head' gives Suginoichi a medallion so that when he comes to see him for work later, his men will know they're affiliated. 'Severed Head' goes on his way, and Suginoichi puts the medallion in the corpse's hand, effectively framing his new acquaintance for a murder he didn't commit.
As time goes on, Suginoichi finds himself working under the 'Kengyo' (a high ranking member of a guild of blind masseuses who serviced only the most prestigious clients in all of Japan) and wanting to take his place and his title. When 'Severed Head' comes back on the scene, he and Suginoichi strike up an alliance of sorts and start milking various poor souls out of their hard earned money. Suginoichi, however, isn't only a con man, he's also a rapist, using his profession to create false intimacy with some of his female clients and then taking advantage of them when they're at their most vulnerable. All this time, however, Suginoichi still wants to be Kengyo and so he sets into a motion a scheme that will get him just what he wants.
Directed by Kazuo Mori (who will be familiar to Japanese cult cinema buffs for his work on a couple of Zatoichi movies, a few Shinobi No Mono films and Return Of Daimajin among others) gives us no reason to pity Suginoichi. The first few minutes of the film, where we see him as a child, might make you think he's going to have some redeeming qualities but no, even at a young age we see he's dishonest and those nefarious qualities only become more intense as he ages. He's a murderer, a rapist, a liar and a thief and he helps no one but himself as is made very apparent in a scene in which he tricks a beautiful married woman into thinking he'll lone her the money she needs in exchange for sex, only to embarrass her in front of her husband and take the money back for himself. He really is a despicable character and Shintaro Katsu, who did a great job of playing good guys and bad guys over the course of his lengthy career, really gets into the role and gives it his all. As a precursor to how Katsu would play a blind man in the Zatoichi films, this picture is also quite interesting as many of the mannerisms that he'd bring to that series that would make it so popular are already in place in this earlier performance, even if the characters share nothing save for their condition.
Although the film does contain some scenes of dark humor, for the most part it's played very straight and as such, we don't like the lead character at all. This might make it tough for some viewers to get into the film, but Katsu's performance is strong enough that once the storyline picks up, it's hard not to get sucked in. The rest of the cast are all fine in their respective roles (Toru Abe of countless Chambara and Pinky Violence films is easily identified here) but this is really Katsu's show all the way. He dominates the film and while his character is a bastard through and through, at least he's a really interesting one. The film is dark, but not without a redeeming morality that, while predictable in how it brings the story to a close, is at least completely appropriate.
Blind Menace is presented in its original 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio in a clean looking progressive scan black and white transfer. There is some mild print damage here and there but it's never a problem. Contrast is generally quite strong, though sometimes the darker scenes do show some minor compression artifacts. Detail levels are respectable enough even if they're not reference quality, and there doesn't appear to be any edge enhancement related issues nor is there any heavy aliasing. All in all, Blind Menace looks pretty good.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono track, which includes optional English subtitles, is well balanced and free of any hiss or distortion. Dialogue is clean and clear and while there isn't an abundance of channel separation or range to note, there aren't any problems here - the movie sounds pretty good though there are times where the high end is just a little bit shrill.
Animeigo's disc includes the film's original theatrical trailer (with English subtitles, which allows us to see just how Kadokawa decided to market this odd picture to the Japanese audiences of 1960), some program notes that explain the cultural and historical aspects of the film, and biographies for the principal cast and crew members. Chapter stops and menus are also included.
A dark but incredibly well acted movie, Blind Menace is surprisingly twisted stuff. While not for all tastes, Katsu's fans will definitely appreciate it as will fans of Japanese cinema that don't necessarily need a hero to latch onto in their films. Animeigo's DVD looks and sounds pretty decent and while it's light on extras, it should still make a welcome addition the library of anyone intrigued by the exploits of a blind masseuse who rapes and murders his way in and out of trouble. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.