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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
Release Date(s)2003 (September 15, 2009)
Studio(s)Office Kitano/Miramax (Disney)
[Editor's Note: The film portion of this review is edited from a previous review by Todd Doogan.]
"Beat" Takeshi takes over the role of Japan's legendary Blind Swordsman, Zatoichi - a fictional character originated by the late Shintaro Katsu.
In this adventure, Zatoichi encounters a pair of "sisters" who work as geishas but harbor a desire for revenge on the Ginzo gang (a band of toughs that threaten local merchants), who killed their parents. Ichi gets drawn into their scheme, as he's prone to do, and much blood flies from the blade of his razor-sharp cane sword. Much like the films in the original series, this adventure isn't specifically about Ichi. Rather, it spends much time with the sisters and their blooming friendship with Aunt O-ume, as well as the Ginzo gang and their boss' attempt at hiring a bodyguard in the form of Hattori, a ronin samurai with a sick wife who just might give Ichi the fight he's been looking for all these years. Zatoichi is definitely a Takeshi film. Its pace, subtle humor and its outsider’s take on violence all reveal his cinematic signature. But it's also very much an Ichi film, and you'd be hard pressed - after watching four or five random Ichi films (including this one) - to recall if it was Takeshi or Katsu in the role when remembering certain scenes. In our book, that alone makes this a success.
The video quality on Miramax's new Blu-ray version is generally good, with nice color and clarity. Contrast in particular is excellent. Fine detail is a bit lacking however, as too much DNR has been applied to the image, rendering the overall appearance a bit digital. It's worth noting that the DNR issue may not be Miramax's fault - it's likely on the master they got from Japan. We also own the European Blu-ray release by Artifical Eye, and some filtering is apparent there too. There's a little bit more detail on the European BD, but color and contrast are significantly better on the Miramax disc, so we prefer it on that score. Unfortunately, on the Miramax BD, the DTS-HD lossless mix has been wasted on the English dubbed soundtrack, rather than the original Japanese audio most fans will have hoped for. That's a shame, as this is a film that really has fun with the subtle play of audio and music cues. The sonic quality of the lossless mix is fine, but we couldn't care less because we'd never listen to anything other than the Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which as far as we can tell is the same one from the original DVD. It's also good, but the audio grade gets major points off for the oversight. (Note that the U.K. BD DOES have the original Japanese audio in DTS-HD. It's all-region, but the menus are in PAL format so not every player will be able to display them properly - the Oppo does, but Panasonic doesn't. Even if the menus aren't displayed right, however, the film should still play normally on all BD players.) A Spanish Dolby 2.0 mix is also available here, along with English subs and captions, and Spanish and Arabic subs.
The Miramax Blu-ray includes the same extras as the previous DVD version, including a 21-minute "making of" featurette and about 20-minutes' worth of video interviews with various crew members. All of it is SD, mostly in the original Japanese with English subs. (The featurette is narrated in English.) Note that the U.K. Blu-ray has these extras and more (including a longer version of the featurette, more interviews and the film's trailer). Of course, the original DVD release was a double-feature with another Beat Takeshi film, Sonatine. That's not included here, so you'll need to keep the DVD if you want it.
If the U.K. BD had the Miramax video (DNR and all), your choice would be clear. As it is, if you're a serious fan and are willing to pay a little more to get a little more, we'd still import the U.K. Blu-ray. It's worth the added cost for the Japanese lossless audio alone. If you don't really care that much, the new Miramax BD is fine... if you can get find a good sale price. Either way, Beat Takeshi's version of Zatoichi is fun and well worth a spin. It's a nice first experience with the character for those who have yet to discover the older (and highly recommended on DVD) films starring Shintaro Katsu as the legendary Blind Swordsman.