Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (25-Film Box)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan
  • Review Date: Nov 25, 2013
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Various (see review text)

Release Date(s)

1962-1973 (November 26, 2013)

Studio(s)

Daiei Studios/Toho Co. Ltd./Katsu Production Co./Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #679)

Review

[Back to Page 1]

 

1 – The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari)

1962 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

Film Rating: B+
Video/Audio:
A-/B

The Tale of ZatoichiHere’s what you need to know going into this film series: Don’t let first impressions fool you.  Ichi is one of the best swordsmen out there.  On the outside, he seems like another ragged-poor blind man.  To those meeting him for the first time, he’s nothing more than a schluby, low-tier yakuza gambler, travelling from village to village handing out massages to pay his living expenses (a common occupation for the blind at this time).  But those who’ve heard Ichi’s name whispered in the dark fear him.  When corrupt politicians or yakuza hoods figure out that Ichi’s not your run of the mill anma, it’s too late – a lot of them are going to die, quick and bloody, with an underhand slash of his cane blade.

In this first installment of the series, Ichi stumbles into a yakuza turf war between Boss Sukegoro in Iioka and Boss Shigeza in Sasagawa.  Thinking he’s simply visiting Sukegoro as he passes through, Ichi is drawn into the conflict by the Boss because of his legendary sword skills.  Ichi wants nothing to do with it, but money is money.  While passing the time fishing, however, Ichi meets Boss Shigeza’s hired gun – a ronin named Hirate.  Hirate is an honorable man but has a secret, part of which involves a desire to die an honorable death.  Will Ichi provide that death… or has he met his match?

Based directly on the short story by Kan Shimozawa, The Tale of Zatoichi is a solid samurai film.  It’s not the best of this series, but it’s certainly a grand introduction to the character and a touchstone for many of the themes and gags presented in the later films, including Ichi’s tendency to step into the middle of love triangles (when he gets involved with his handler’s sister, Otane – a character that returns in the next film as well as in Zatoichi the Fugitive).  The charm here is really the joy of starting at the beginning and watching this character grow and develop throughout the series.  You’ll be surprised how easy it is to binge on the Zatoichi films once you get hooked on them here.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

2 – The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Zoku Zatoichi Monogatari)

1962 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kazuo Mori

Film Rating: B+
Video/Audio:
A-/B

The Tale of Zatoichi ContinuesAs the title suggests, this is a direct continuation of the story in the first film.  That’s a bit unusual in this series – all the sequels have a chronological fit, but rarely do their stories connect so directly. The Tale Continues actually picks up about a year later.  Ichi is returning to Iioka to visit the grave of a fallen friend and time hasn’t cooled Boss Sukegoro’s anger – even though Ichi did what he was hired to do, his choices still brought the Boss grief.  On the way, Ichi is hired to massage a travelling Lord from Edo, who seems to have late-stage syphilis because he’s super crazy.  His men wish to hide this condition, so when Ichi sees the man acting out during the massage, assassins are sent to kill him afterwards.  Of course, that doesn’t go well for the assassins.  Ichi reaches Iioka, where he meets Otane again as well as a mysterious one-armed swordsman somehow connected to his past.  To make money and save face, the one-armed man offers to kill Ichi for Sukegoro – which will also help Sukegoro curry favor with the crazy Lord’s men.  This leads to an all-out finale – a “duel to end all duels.”

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues really ups the ante and caps off the first story nicely.  This film moves fast, offering great fights and plenty of character development for Ichi, including a rare peek into his past.  Samurai film fans should take note – the one-armed man here is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, the real-life brother of Katsu and later the star of the Lone Wolf and Cub films.  This is also the last Zatoichi big screen adventure presented in black and white, which adds to its charm.  As we continue, you’ll see that color does something very interesting for the Zatoichi films.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

3 – New Tale of Zatoichi (Shin Zatoichi Monogatari)

1963 – Daiei Studios – Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

Film Rating: B+
Video/Audio:
B+/B

New Tale of ZatoichiAfter he’s attacked by yakuza thugs (as part of the fallout of the events from The Tale of Zatoichi Continues), Ichi decides to renounce his violent ways – something that will become a running theme for the character.  Returning to the village he considers home, Ichi discovers that things have changed much while he was away.  His old teacher, Banno, has turned bad and now thinks of Ichi as little more than a circus animal that’s learned some clever tricks.  Banno is pushing his sister, Yayoi, to marry a man she doesn’t love for financial reasons.  Remembering their past affection, Yayoi asks Ichi to marry her instead and Ichi seriously considers it.  Meanwhile, the brother of Boss Kanbei – whom Ichi killed in the last film – attempts to exact revenge, whether Ichi has renounced violence or not.

Here we see Ichi in his first color adventure, which not only opens up Ichi’s world visually but also adds significant texture missing from the first two films.  Director Tokuza Tanaka’s use of the widescreen format is truly genius here.  Like The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, this story has a direct connection to the previous installments, making it the conclusion of an interesting narrative trilogy that reveals still more about Ichi’s origins.  In terms of BD image quality, the blacks here are a little crushed with muted colors, but image detail is very good.  Note that the image quality of all these films is quite high, so from here on out we won’t say much about it unless there’s something that needs saying.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

4 – Zatoichi the Fugitive (Zatoichi Kyojo-Tabi)

1963 – Daiei Studios – Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

Film Rating: B-
Video/Audio:
B/B

Zatoichi the FugitiveEntering the township of Shimonita, Ichi learns that he’s a wanted man with a bounty on his head.  He also learns that Otane (the woman he loved as a youth and lost in the previous films) has now taken up with a ruthless ronin, who’s sworn to take Ichi’s head to claim the reward.  When things spiral out of control, Ichi lets his sword do the talking and it seems that no one will walk away without being cut by his blade.

Though The Fugitive is one of the weaker installments in the series, a weak Ichi film is still a good Ichi film.  The plot is a bit slow-going, but the cinematography here is lush and active.  This film also offers some good moralizing on Ichi’s part and more nice character development as well.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

5 – Zatoichi on the Road (Zatoichi Kenka-Tabi)

1963 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Film Rating: A
Video/Audio:
A-/B+

Zatoichi on the RoadIn the midst of a bloody turf war between two rival yakuza clans, Ichi is sworn to protect the life of a young woman who dared to refuse the advances of one of the clan’s lords.  Soon both sides suspect him of helping their enemy, so a reluctant Ichi finds himself drawn into the conflict, leading to one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

On the Road is easily the best entry in the series to this point.  The film’s action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter.  Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s work here was so good that he would return to helm five more installments in the series, including Zatoichi’s Conspiracy in 1973.  Note that the color in this installment is a little bit more vibrant, with slightly darker blacks and improved shadow detail.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

6 – Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (Zatoichi Senryo-Kubi)

1964 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kazuo Ikehiro

Film Rating: B
Video/Audio:
A-/B

Zatoichi and the Chest of GoldAfter paying his respects at the grave of a man he once accidentally killed, Ichi arrives at a village to find the impoverished locals in mid-celebration. It seems they’ve finally gathered enough money to pay off their heavy tax burden – a great relief to everyone in this drought-stricken area – so they invite Ichi to join in their fun.  When the tax money is subsequently stolen by a group of samurai thugs, the villagers accuse Ichi (given his yakuza repetition) of being in on the heist.  Desperate to clear his name, Ichi swears to find those responsible and return the money.  But it won’t be easy.  First, Ichi has to investigate a local boss who’s gone into hiding.  Then he’ll have to tangle with the thugs who took the cash, one of whom is his toughest adversary yet – a samurai by the name of Jushiro, who wields a dangerous bullwhip as skillfully as Ichi wields a sword.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is the most theatrical entry in the Ichi series.  Its stylized opening credit sequence recalls the Bond films – possibly no accident given the sensation caused by Dr. No and From Russia with Love at the time.  Chest of Gold is also the first installment in the series to graphically depict violence in a way that’s become typical of modern samurai films, with every flick of a blade seeming to hit an artery.  When the swords fly here, so does the blood.  Making this film even more interesting are Ichi’s several face-offs with Jushiro, first over a game of chance and later on the field of battle.  Ichi buffs will note that Jushiro is played Tomisaburo Wakayama, returning to the series once more after his appearance in the second film (though in a different role here).

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

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