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 3]

 

13 – Zatoichi’s Vengeance (Zatoichi No Uta Ga Kikoeru)

1966 – Daiei Studios – Director: Tokuzo Tanaka

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

Zatoichi's VengeanceIchi stumbles upon a dying man, who was attacked after being caught cheating at dice.  The man asks Ichi to give his stolen money to someone named Taichi, but dies before revealing his whereabouts.  Not knowing where to find Taichi, Ichi continues on his journey and soon bumps into a blind priest, who directs him to the sleepy hamlet of Ichinomiya.  But Ichi discovers that Ichinomiya is no sleepy town – it’s being taken over by a gang of ruthless yakuza, who demand that all the local business owners pay them to continue operating.  Naturally, Ichi encounters the Taichi fellow he was asked to find, who turns out to be the dying man’s son.  Ichi also bumps into a disgraced samurai, who’s looking to buy back his wife’s retainer from the local whorehouse using money he can earn by collecting Ichi’s head.  But Ichi isn’t about to hand it over.

Zatoichi’s Vengeance is another good entry in the series.  It’s sort of understated, but still manages to be rip-roaring fun for its 80-something minute length.  Fans of the Ichi films may note the return of actor Shigeru Amachi here as the disgraced samurai.  Amachi appeared in a different (though similar) role in the very first film in this series, The Tale of Zatoichi.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

14 – Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (Zatoichi Umi O Wataru)

1966 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kazuo Ikehiro

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

Zatoichi's PilgrimageIn a story that recalls the third film in this series, Ichi decides to seek penance for all of the death he’s dealt over the years.  Making a special boat trip to a temple in Shikoku, he appeals to God for the violence to end and vows to stop at every temple in Japan to make the request.  Of course, right after his prayer, Ichi is attacked on the Yarui Bridge by a horseman named Eigoro.  Ichi begs him not to fight, but naturally they do and – as you’d expect – Eigoro dies.  As he continues on, lamenting his plight, Ichi is followed by Eigoro’s horse.  Soon the animal leads Ichi back to his fallen master’s house, where he meets Eigoro’s sister, Okichi.  Realizing what’s happened, the woman attacks Ichi, who refuses to fight back.  After a fumbling exchange of niceties and Japanese ethics, they strike up a friendship and Okichi tends to Ichi’s wounds.  While recuperating, he learns that Eigoro was hired by a yakuza oyabun to kill him.  This greedy boss, named Tohachi, did this to earn points with an enemy of Ichi’s as well as to get rid of Eigoro (knowing full well that Ichi would win).  It seems that Tohachi also secretly wants to take Eigoro’s land, house and quite possibly Okichi as well – but Zatoichi isn’t having any of that.

This is the first time Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage has officially found its way onto disc in the States and, as far as we’re concerned, it’s one of the crown jewels of the series.  (Note that the film is also sometimes known as Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage.)  There’s a ton of great stuff here.  The character of Tohachi is a fine villain, whose weapon of choice is a bow and arrow – a twist that results in some interesting battles with Ichi.  Naturally, Katsu milks his character moments here for all they’re worth.  Ichi and Okichi make a nice little family for the few days they have together.  Note that while the music in the opening is a bit distorted, the audio is fine for the rest of the film.  The BD image is also a little soft, but there’s good color, contrast and detail.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

15 – Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (Zatoichi Tekka-Tabi)

1967 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

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

Zatoichi's Cane SwordIchi hitches a ride with a traveling theatrical troupe on their way to Tonda, where he enters into yet another a dice game and naturally cleans house.  As you might guess, the losers are all yakuza and they want their money back.  Not one to take guff from their ilk, Ichi quickly makes mincemeat out of them.  But when a local retired sword maker happens to examine Ichi’s sword, he discovers it was made by his old sensei and predicts it will break in two during Ichi’s next battle.  So Ichi swears off sword fighting and spends the rest of the film trying to avoid confrontation, which makes for both funny and tense moments.  Of course, we all know Ichi that will eventually have to pull out his trusty cane sword again.  But how will he manage knowing that, after just one slash, he’ll be weaponless?

Zatoichi’s Cane Sword is perhaps the seminal Ichi film – arguably the very best in the series.  The film includes everything we love about Ichi, including plenty of the character’s trademark humor, fine acting, some of the best characters in the series and a number of truly scary moments.  Guest star Eijiro Tono, as it happens, also appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 film Red Beard.  Note that while the image quality here is very good, with solid blacks, fine detail and accurate (though muted) color, it does occasionally look a little soft.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

16 – Zatoichi the Outlaw (Zatoichi Royaburi)

1967 – Katsu Production Co./Toho Co., Ltd. – Director: Satsuo Yamamoto

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

Zatoichi the OutlawAlways on the hunt for a filling rice ball, a hot cup of sake and a good wager, Ichi should be in heaven when he arrives in a small town that supports itself with two gambling houses.  But it’s gambling that’s ripping the town apart… and Ichi doesn’t like cheaters.  The farmers are so involved in the game that they can’t get their crops going and are forced to hand over their land to pay their growing debts.  Caught up in the conflict between the two houses, Ichi must decide which one to support.  Meanwhile, he meets a former samurai turned farmer, dedicated to helping the peasants get a grip on their lives.  Finally choosing a house and taking a job as its masseuse, Ichi thinks he’s made the right decision.  But he ends up going on the lamb when he learns some distressing news about the place.  Ichi might be blind, but he knows damn well when he’s been screwed.

This was the first Ichi installment actually produced by Katsu’s own company in conjunction with Toho.  Right from the start, you can see that he really wanted to make a splash with this film.  Everything here is ramped up, from the reinvisioned arrow gag (seen previously in Doomed Man) to the epic-styled music.  Outlaw opens with a bang and keeps chugging along until the very end.  Outlaw is also one of the more overtly political films in the series, as always taking the side of the downtrodden against rich, corrupt oppressors.  Note that the blacks in this BD image look a little crushed, but the presentation is otherwise solid.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

17 – Zatoichi Challenged (Zatoichi Chikemurikaido)

1967 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

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

Zatoichi ChallengedIf you thought messing with a lion’s cub was a bad idea, just wait until you mess with a kid under Zatoichi’s protection.  In Zatoichi Challenged, our favorite blind swordsman is once again on the road.  But this time, he’s delivering the young son of a recently deceased woman to his father at her dying request.  The problems arise when Ichi discovers that the boy’s father, Shokichi, is a talented artist forced to create forbidden art for a band of yakuza.  Can Ichi save the man from these vicious gangsters?  What about those pesky government officials hell bent on wiping everyone associated with such art off the face of the Earth?  And just who is that mysterious ronin anyway?

Zatoichi Challenged is a piece of pure Ichi gold.  The first half of the film does much to pump up the character’s charm, as he forms a bond with the boy and shows off his softer side.   It helps that the child in question is a bit older than the last time Ichi played baby-sitter (in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight).  There are great moments of comedy here, as when the child tries to pass a stone off to Ichi as a piece of candy.  Then the second half of the film kicks in and Ichi takes off his clown mask, straps on the cane sword and lets the blood fly.  Challenged is also one of the better photographed Ichi films, thanks to Kenji Misumi’s deft direction and cinematographer Chikashi Makiura’s bold choice of vistas and colorful landscapes.  Misumi previously directed the very first film in this series, The Take of Zatoichi.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

18 – Zatoichi and the Fugitives (Zatoichi Hatashijo)

1968 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

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

Zatoichi and the FugitivesOnce again traveling the back roads of Japan, Ichi meets a pack of fugitives and quickly makes his deadly mark upon them, earning the grudging respect of their leader, Ogano Genpachiro – one of Zatoichi’s single greatest enemies.  Ichi encounters Ogano again in a small village overrun with bandits, where he also meets new friends in the form of the local doctor, Junan (played by the brilliant actor and Akira Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura), and his daughter.  Things turn chaotic when the fugitives trade sanctuary with the local yakuza for the murder of a labor union representative… and then proceed to wipe out an entire clan.  Ichi steps in, but he’s shot and left for dead.  That’s when the fugitives make their biggest mistake.  To draw out Ichi and finish him off, they take the doctor and his daughter hostage.  Close to death and bleeding out, Ichi wages a terrible final war on these criminals, sending limbs flying and unleashing geysers of carnage.  

After establishing the character’s cuddly side with Zatoichi Challenged, all the stops are pulled out this time.  Ichi is chewed up, spit out and hung out to dry here.  If this series were to be compacted into a trilogy, this would be at the tail-end of part two.  In other words, this is Ichi’s Empire Strikes Back.  No hyperbole: Zatoichi and the Fugitives is pitch-black dark, with no comedic moments to give you a breather, and its violence is unrelenting.  Through all the darkness, though, Katsu and Shimura have a series of fine interactions that help to further develop Ichi’s inner turmoil as a gangster trying desperately to make good.  If Katsu wanted to remind us how badass Ichi is, after a series of films designed to deepen his character’s lighter side, he rightfully succeeds here.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

19 – Samaritan Zatoichi (Zatoichi Kenka-Daiko)

1968 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

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

Samaritan ZatoichiThis film starts simply enough: Ichi joins up with a gang of yakuza thugs, who are collecting a debt from one of their own members, and it’s Ichi’s job to kill the guy.  As he does so, though, he immediately regrets his decisions.  It turns out the whole thing is a crisscross.  The yakuza actually want the man’s pretty sister Osode, so they needed her brother out of the way.  When Ichi figures this out, he grabs the girl and hits the road to bring her back to her hometown.  Of course, the girl just saw Ichi kill her brother in cold blood and wants nothing to do with him.  All the expected swordplay action ensues, with plenty of drama, and it culminates in one last rescue attempt and a battle with a love-sick ronin named Yasaburo Kashiwazaki (Makoto Sato), who wants Osode for himself.

Samaritan Zatoichi is certainly one of the faster paced, balls-to-the-wall entries in the Ichi series, though that doesn’t make it a particularly great film.  The problem is there’s not much in the way of character development in this installment, or even decent set-pieces.  This film isn’t bad, but it’s definitely not Ichi at his best, which is odd as this was directed by a veteran of the series, Kenji Misumi.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

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