You know you're in trouble when they give away the film's ending on the DVD box's cover.
Upon reading about this early Shintaro Katsu film, also known as SECRETS OF A COURT MASSEUR, that supposedly paved the way for the classic Zatoichi series of chambara films, I knew I had to see it. Katsu is one of my favorite actors and anything that was the raw clay from which the deadly blind swordsman sprang automatically intrigued me, plus Katsu plays a subtle yet outright villain in the piece and he can work magic in roles that show none of the lovable humanity of Masseur Ichi (as the HANZO series proves in spades).
Suginoichi (Katsu) is a lifelong unscrupulous bastard who never let his blindness stand in the way of him weaseling what he wants out those whom he mercilessly manipulates. Bucking for the position of kengyo, which is the highest rank among the skilled blind (masseurs and the like) who serve in various houses of Japanese royalty, Suginoichi murders a traveler for his money and when the killing is witnessed by a yakuza soldier named "Severed Head" Kurakichi, the blind schemer pays the guy off with half of the ill-gotten loot and establishes a criminal link with the yakuza (while also leaving behind evidence that will frame the yakuza for the murder if the body is detected). Now secretly in league with the yakuza gang, Suginoichi uses his seeming blind helplessness and familiarity with the local noble house to commit acts of rape, blackmail and sexual extortion, even plotting jobs that morally offend the hardened gangsters he associates with (so much so that one of the thieves observes that killing him would be a public service).
The sightless turd's machinations lead to him manipulating his yakuza associates into killing his master and his master's wife, thus allowing him to fake his own death (mostly to allow him to escape the wrath of the husband of one of his female victims) and slide into the sought-after kengyo position, and five years later Suginoichi reigns as a powerful figure whose wicked ways are couched in a veneer of respectability. But Suginoichi remains a man of base and vile lusts (he really digs rape), so he and his yakuza pals (who are now his well-off vassals) wager amongst themselves to see who will be the one to bag Ohan of Yushima, the stunning courtesan subject of a popular block print who is considered "the most beautiful woman in Japan." Tortured by dreams of himself serving as a a samisen player while Ohan traditionally dances (he can see in his dreams), Suginoichi uses his wealth to lure Ohan into marrying him, much to the pissed-off jealousy of his colleagues. Ohan, however, feigns sweetness toward Suginoichi in order to enjoy his sweet moolah and the privileges afforded to the wife of a high-ranking official and sneaks off the her former place of employ for clandestine trysts with her lover, Fusaguro, who feels inadequate when considering the "deeply passionate" reputation held by the blind. (Here's a clue, shithead: if Suginoichi's blind business were all that, would the hottest woman in Japan be coming back to get some from your pitiful ass?) But as Suginoichi gets wind of his wife's infidelity and plots his vengeance, his past sins catch up with him and converge on him from all angles...
THE BLIND MENACE is a period piece rather than the expected chambara sword-slasher I'd hoped to see, but the roots of Katsu's later honed-to-a-fine-art blind schtick can be found here and for that reason I'm glad I saw it. From what I've read, this film turned out to be Katsu's breakthrough role after years of him being box office poison (reportedly thanks to his looks, which led theater owners to complain to the studio heads about their repeated use of him) and from here the writers refined elements of the Suginoichi character and fused them with the wandering swordsman archetype, only amping up the superhuman swordplay, thus coming up with Zatoichi, himself a new archetype. I'd also read that this was quite a controversial item when first seen a half-century ago and I can believe that to a degree, but by today's standards this is pretty tepid stuff. Suginoichi is certainly a contemptible scumbag, but the script needed to be much stronger meat to really make me warm to this film. Purely for historical reasons, I'm glad I saw THE BLIND MENACE, but, unlike pretty much every other movie Shintaro Katsu made, I won't be returning to it.