Who is the “blind master?” The blind master is an archetypal figure who, having lost his sight, gains increased mental, spiritual, and/or physical skills. He or she appeals to our sense of mystery and wonder by playing to our fear of losing sight while simultaneously holding out the hope that the universe is fair. The Lord may taketh away, but damn-it-all, He giveth.
My first brush with the myth of the blind master just so happened to be, as far as I’m concerned, the epitome of the avatar in question: Master Po from the TV show Kung Fu. Portrayed by the late, great Keye Luke, Master Po was a fascinating character who spoke some of the best TV lines of the 70s, like this gem:
Young Caine: You cannot see.
Master Po: You think I cannot see?
Young Caine: Of all things, to live in darkness must be worst.
Master Po: Fear is the only darkness.
I was only eleven years old at the time, and the show made a huge impression on me. If not for that show I probably would never have taken up martial arts practice. Although I have seen other examples of the blind master archetype since then, Master Po is still my favorite.
The next blind master I encountered was the Marvel comics character Daredevil. This is another cool example, but he’s no Master Po. Did Master Po get any special powers from having radioactive crud splashed in his eyes? Heck no. He earned them the hard way.
I would encounter other blind masters in the Marvel universe, like Blindfold and The Shroud. But probably the best example of the myth in a Marvel property is Alicia Reiss Masters. To be a true blind master you have to be able to “see” things that other people don’t see. You have to be privy to special wisdom, and on that score, Alicia’s got the goods. As Master Po enlightened Caine, so did Alicia pass on unique insights to Silver Surfer and the Thing — insights that allowed them to succeed, transcend, and better themselves.
Although he had been around for over twenty years, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I become an adult, got a VCR, and encountered on VHS my second favorite blind master: Zatoichi. Not the knock-offs mind you, the real Zatoichi as portrayed by Shintarô Katsu. The adventures of the blind masseur¹ are some of the best movies ever. These tales show a blind man possessed of incredible martial skills and intermittent street smarts who finds himself put in the most emotionally tortuous situations imaginable. In the end he always emerges victorious in the flesh but bruised and bloodied in his soul.
My favorite of those movies is Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword. When his love is crushed, and all hope for a life in the sun is plunged into darkness, our hero plunges his enemies into darkness — by slashing all the candles and lamps in their craven hideout. In a maze where only he can “see,” Zatoichi stalks them like a demon while we, as enraged as the character, cheer him on and fight to keep our seats.
My VCR also piped in what is, for the purposes of this article at least, the ultimate blind master origin story: Wait Until Dark. Starring Audrey Hepburn, and featuring Alan Arkin as one of the greatest film villains all time, this is not a movie. This is a film, a motion picture, a thriller elevated to true art. Hepburn is, well, Hepburn. She’s an icon for a reason, and she’s at her beautiful, delicate, and talented best in this one. Richard Crenna’s performance is masterful, Arkin’s Roat is a walking nightmare, and Geraldine’s turn as the referee is unforgettable.² If you haven’t seen this one, get it and watch it immediately. It’s how thrillers are supposed to be made.
Hepurn’s character Susy, left alone by her husband for the first time since being recently blinded, finds herself wrapped up in a complex plot involving three con-men searching for a missing drug cache. Susy is forced to dig deep, harness every ounce of cunning, and use every sensory skill in order to survive. If Master Po is the ultimate metaphysical blind master, Susy is the ultimate pragmatic one. She may start the movie a helpless housewife but she ends it a powerful, battle-tested woman. Don’t fuck with Susy.
Then followed other minor appearances of the blind master, like Blind Fury starring Rutger Hauer and video game characters like Kenshi of Mortal Kombat. Good depictions but hardly great. I would have to wait until 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions to get another true blind master in the form of Neo. Blinded by Smith, Neo goes on to defeat Smith by committing virtual suicide. But by then the bloom was off the Matrix’s rose. Neo’s blindness seemed a little like a trope and his death evoked little pathos. Revolutions was just a slogging end to what had begun with such amazing promise in the first and second films.
In 2009 a flick came out called Samurai Avenger but the reviews were so poor I haven’t bothered to risk the time investment. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict this one is just another hack job.
I saw The Book of Eli, and although it was quite good, and Denzel’s Eli checks off all of the boxes on the blind master job application, he still didn’t blow me away. Maybe I had a hard time believing that a blind guy without a cane could walk through world strewn with debris, stairs, and doorsteps and only stumble once.
I hear they’re remaking Kung Fu for the big screen. I really hope they don’t screw it up. While I wait for it, or some other cinematic blind master to make his appearance, somewhere Master Po is listening. He hears a tinkling of bells, the sound of water spilling over stones, the miniscule sound of a grasshopper’s feet in the dust.
¹ No that’s not a typo for “master.” Zatoichi is a masseur. That said, he seems to give a pretty crappy massage. Or maybe Shintarô-san is just a bad masseur. Hard to tell.
² Geraldine is the knife belonging to Arkin’s character Roat. Referees aren’t supposed to play in the game, but Roat is a cheat. And then the fun begins…