I have always been attracted, since from my very early years, by the charm of a distant mysterious country where, in my childhood imagination, life flowed between a thousand adventures characterized by martial arts in small towns with wooden houses as well as in more modern and similar metropolises to the one in which I lived .
Having started practicing martial arts as a child, as the son of a black belt who accompanied me on a tatami perhaps even before than to school, I could only remain glued to the video when the first national private networks began to broadcast Japanese cartoons, anime. The first time I heard the name Hattori Hanzo I was a little judoka who watched television enthusiastic about Sasuke, the little ninja, but I certainly cannot say that at that time I realised how historical Japanese culture served as a suitably fictionalized scenario to a children’s cartoon. And so the various Tokugawa, the Toyotomi, the Sanada, the ninjas of Iga and Hattori Hanzo himself were just the names of fictional characters associated with stories that accompanied my afternoons, but in the meantime the villain of the moment in Sasuke series, the one who usually remains most firmly in the memory, was well imprinted in my fantasies and dreams. Only several years later I began to realise how many and which quotations, often accompanied by notable historical errors for the purpose of a fictional story, I had unconsciously watched and listened to, and above all, that one Hattori Hanzo would have been returned more important and present than ever.
Years passed, but the passions and tastes remained more or less the same. With the beginning of the new millennium, a brilliant director brought to the screen an iconic film, divided into two “episodes”, with an all-Japanese flavor but in a splatter/b-movie sauce, which winked at Japanese cinematography and spaghetti westerns, with an anthology soundtrack: it was Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino, who in an explosive mix of references, action, martial arts and sword fights, also the protagonist of the story, surprisingly re-proposed a very particular characterization of Hattori Hanzo. Firstly because he was living in the present days, and secondly because he owned a small sushi restaurant in Okinawa, probably as inexperienced in the culinary arts (it seems that Japanese call Okinawa the worst place to eat sushi) but the unique and legendary master of sword forgery, who would have instead made the best of his blades so that our heroine could implement her vengeful plans to kill, in fact, Bill, despite the promise made about thirty years earlier not to make more instruments of death.
Defined by Tarantino as the greatest actor ever to work in martial arts films, Hattori Hanzo is played in this film by Chiba Shinici “Sonny”, who unfortunately passed away in 2021 due to complications from Covid, expert in karate, ninjutsu, shorinji kempo, judo , kendo and goju-ryu karate, and who had already played this legendary character when I was still watching Sasuke, in the Japanese television series Kage no gundan (Shadows Warriors), which aired in the early 1980s.
For martial arts enthusiasts, especially if practicing, in the midst of the comic dialogues featuring the relationship between who appears to be the owner of the inn and his waiter, Tarantino’s film develops the complex, philosophical and profound reality of another relationship, that’s between a Teacher and his pupil: when Tarantino’s Hattori Hanzo actually reveals himself as a master and no longer as an innkeeper, the register of communication and relationships, of gratitude and responsibility changes. The waiter who seems angry to the “boss” assumes his position of disciple and assistant, faithful and ready to learn, while the master releases all his aura and his sense of responsibility for having “created” a bad disciple, that one Bill who then became a ruthless killer, a responsibility that will lead him to break his promise, to forge his best sword, and to gift it to the protagonist who with Hanzo’s steel will go to clean up the world from a huge parasite. The teaching between the lines is precisely that one as of the teacher-pupil (sensei and deshi) relationship, the impossibility of existence of one without the other, and the realisation of the fact that the learning path is not only dependent on the teacher’s ability , but the figure of the disciple plays an essential role, and the student will which manifests itself through specific behaviors characterized by respect, ranging from language to interpersonal relationships, and which pose the interesting question, typical of eastern cultures, at the basis of the difference between a master and a teacher.
Having therefore bounded over from cinematographic fantasy to the philosophical reality of martial arts, the doubt therefore arises regarding the figure of Hattori Hanzo: myth or historical figure?
It sometimes happens that the two things coincide, or rather, transform one into each other and starting from a life actually lived, the contours of the legend are subsequently outlined continuing to live in everyone’s memory thanks to popular culture.
In fact, Hattori Hanzo is considered the most famous Japanese samurai ever: born in 1541 (Sengoku era) with the name of Masanari in a family of low-ranking samurai, at the age of twelve he was already an expert warrior from whom it is said he received the teachings on Mount Kurama, birthplace of Sojobo, the King of the Tengu who taught the art of swordsmanship to Minamoto no Yoshitusne (see Tengu waza, between mythology and history and the trilogy The Tengu that is in you) . At the age of eighteen he was recognized as a master samurai and became a highly skilled leader serving the Matsudaira clan, later better known with the name of Tokugawa, and therefore one of the key figures in the unification of Japan under Ieyasu. His father, Yasunaga, was known by the name of first Hanzo, and by descent Masanari inherited the name of second Hanzo: thanks to his skills in battle as a strategist, leader and swordsman, he soon earned the nickname of Oni no Hanzo, the devil Hanzo, given the particular stubbornness in pursuing those he intended to kill similar to that of a demon who persecutes his victims, as well as to distinguish him from Watanabe Hanzo (Watanabe Moritsuna), whose nickname was Yari no Hanzo (the spear Hanzo).
Particularly distinguishing himself in the battles of Anegawa and Mikatagahara in command of units of Iga fighters, on the death of Oda Nobunaga, in 1582, he managed to bring Tokugawa Ieyasu to safety through the territories of Iga and Koga, thanks to his knowledge among the ranks of ninjas, who joined him in force to ensure the safety of the future Shogun. As a samurai he also demonstrated mastery in various arts, not least forging: his reputation for making particularly robust and sharp weapons was such that his creations were said to be able to cut anything. Particularly linked to ninjas, he also developed modifications of the classic katana (uchigatana, the sword with a curved blade) which is said to have led him to create the famous ninja sword, ninjato and also known as the Hanzo sword, shorter, with a straight blade and with a square tip. And more, an invention that is fully attributed to him is the shuriken, the so-called flying blade also typically associated to ninjas, created with his childhood friend, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna.
As a warrior and swordsman he is said to have killed more than a thousand enemies in battle. But even in this case the story merges with the legend, which demands its tribute and leaves posterity a particular anecdote, referring to a duel in battle with Sishido Baiken, an Iga shinobi mastering kusarigama, which story or legend wants he could beat fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Curiously, this character would also appear to have been an opponent of Miyamoto Musashi, who killed him using the wakizashi, the short sword, after losing the katana by the opponent’s kusarigama chain.
Hattori Hanzo, after Ieyasu’s rescue, served during the siege of Odawara, at the end of which he was rewarded with 8.000 koku of rice, and later, when Ieyasu entered the Kanto, received another 8.000 koku, 30 yoriki and 200 public officials at his service, as well as being designated the leader of the Iga ninjas servicing the Shogun. Some historical sources say that he spent most of his last years as a monk under the name of “Sainen” and that he then built the Sainenji temple, in Yotsuya (Tokyo), to commemorate Nobuyasu, the eldest son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, accused of treason and conspiracy by Oda Nobunaga and ordered to commit seppuku by his father himself: Hanzo was called as his second mate to put an end to Nobuyasu’s suffering, a role he refused not wanting to lift the sword on his own lord’s offspring. It seems that Ieyasu, after learning of Hanzo’s emotional tribulations, appreciated his loyalty and left the words “even a demon can shed tears”.
After his death on November 4, 1596, he received the title of Iwami no Kami and his men of Iga were placed to guard Edo Castle, the headquarters of the government of a now finally reunited Japan. Even today, it is possible to see part of the legacy left by Hanzo: the Tokyo Imperial Palace still has a gate called Hanzomon, the gate of Hanzo, as well as the subway line of the same name that runs from Hanzomon station in central Tokyo to the suburbs South-western. Also, the Wakaba Ward, just outside the castle’s Hanzomon, was called Iga-cho, Iga Town, before 1943.
The remains of Hattori Hanzo rest today in the cemetery of the Sainenji temple, which also houses his ceremonial battle helmet and his favorite spear, originally 4.3 meters long and given to him by Ieyasu himself, unfortunately damaged during the bombing of Tokyo in 1945.
But Hanzo’s legacy also lives on through various games, books and films centered around him, with his life remaining as proof that anything is possible when you have determination and willpower. His figure inspired many characters, typically represented in manga and anime, where he finds its place at least for the cultural derivation. Starting from the comic dedicated to him, Hanzo, the way of the assassin, to comic parodies in which his name is mangled in Hattori Kanzo as in Nino, my ninja friend, to characters who only inherit his name as in Naruto or Hunter x Hunter series, we get to video game. Aside those of clear historical inspiration such as Samurai Warriors or Samurai Shodown, even those set or not in worlds at the antipodes of Japanese culture, such as World of Warcraft or Nioh, where the name is assigned to a weapon and the character himself is playable, and up to that marvelous game work that is The Witcher 3, in which the clear inspiration to the Tarantinian character about the forging qualities are assigned to Éibhear Hattori, an elven master blacksmith from Novigrad able to provide the player with a multitude of crafting components , runestones and various diagrams, after the player in the guise of Geralt can then restore his long-abandoned fine qualities.
Hattori Hanzo has so profoundly affected the imagination and culture worldwide that his name is still used in many fields and for many genres. Excluding those more typically linked to martial arts, such as the martial arts materials site Yari no Hanzo, or various dojos, the Mukkeller brewery in italian region Marche also exploits the name (Hattori Hanzo) which produces a double malt called “the monster”, as well as the restaurant and cocktail bar of the same name in Milan which invites the taster to “find out what Hanzo‘s sharp steel prepares”. Still on the subject of steel, the reference to the Japanese hero could not be missing in the choice of the name of a company that produces scissors for beard and hair cutting artists, the Californian Hattori Hanzo Shears, which defines itself as the world’s largest seller of hair scissors, also providing certification of the steel used, strictly Japanese.
And after action movies, games, comics, steel and restaurants, of course a pleasant closing toast could not be missing thanks to the Ota Sake Brewery, a company founded in 1892 right in the Iga valley, which has been producing a whole series of Hanzo sake for seven generations (see Kanpai, a toast with sake), internationally recognized with various category awards.