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 4]

 

20 – Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (Zatoichi To Yojimbo)

1970 – Katsu Production Co./Toho Co., Ltd. – Director: Kihachi Okamoto

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

Zatoichi Meets YojimboSeeking a sort of vacation, Ichi sets out for a village where he’s spent time in the past, with the best hot springs he remembers anywhere.  It’s a place that’s never done him wrong, a rare thing in his experience.  But when he arrives, he finds that the village has changed and not for the better.  Greed is rampant as a powerful local family is double-dealing and back-stabbing in order to steal all the gold from the Shogunate.  Ichi is met with a chilly welcome and knows something’s up.  When he starts to sniff around, he bumps into a hired yojimbo named Sasa, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune.  Sasa’s been hired to protect the crooked family at all costs.  But Ichi, in his clever way, knows that Sasa is inherently good and uses the ronin to his own advantage.

Take Kurosawa’s Yojimbo character (a misnomer, we know) and throw him up against Katsu’s Zatoichi, and the result is pure samurai awesome.  Though it’s still not the best Ichi installment, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo has obvious cache and is usually the film newcomers to this series are most familiar with.  The good here is… well, Katsu and Mifune.  They’re simply terrific together on screen.  The bad is that the story sort of burps along in search of the eagerly awaited battle scenes, which are relegated to the last half of the film.  In any case, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo has class, chemistry and plenty of fun.  Note that while the Blu-ray looks good, with abundant detail, film stocks have begun to change by this time such that the blacks are a bit crushed looking here.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

21 – Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (Zatoichi Abare-Himatsuri)

1970 – Katsu Production Co./Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

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

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire FestivalIn Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, Ichi finds himself face to face with a powerful Yakuza boss named Yamikubo, who considers himself a Lord on par with all others.  Yamikubo does what he wants, destroys who he wants and taxes everyone who crosses his path.  When he meets Ichi, Yamikubo finds himself liking the wandering masseur for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they’re both blind.  Wanting to be his mentor, Yamikubo shows Ichi great respect... until a chance event forces him to call for Ichi’s death.  That won’t come easily though, especially with a young woman acting against her master’s will out of love for Ichi, not to mention Ichi’s unmatched skill with a sword and the presence of a mysterious samurai who won’t let anyone else kill Ichi... because he wants to do it himself.  The blind swordsman may have finally met his match.

Don’t be fooled by the trailer for this film.  Though it looks like the most dire and nihilistic entry in the series, Katsu’s Ichi is always in good spirits and isn’t in any real danger until the end.  Still, there are some badass fight sequences here, including a naked skirmish with a gaggle of yakuza, who attack Ichi in a hot tub.  The final battle is a doozy, marking this film a return to form for director Kenji Misumi.  As with other entries in the series during this period, the BD image here features somewhat crushed blacks, though color and detail are excellent.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

22 – Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (Shin Zatoichi: Yabure! Tojin-Ken)

1971 – Katsu Production Co./Golden Harvest/Daiei Studios – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

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

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed SwordsmanShaw Studios’ superstar Jimmy Wong reprises his role as the famed One-Armed Swordsman of H-K cinema in this unusual Hong Kong/Japanese co-production.  (Here he’s called Wang Kang and not Fang Gang, as he is in the H-K films One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969) – note also that this is not the same one-armed man from the second Ichi film.)

Wang has come to Japan in search of a quieter life.  While en route to the temple village of Fukuryu-Ji, he joins a family of Chinese expats who offer to show him the way.  They also encounter a Shogunate procession on the road and make way, as is the law, but a kite blows into the road.  When the family’s young boy runs out to catch it, the procession’s samurai move to kill him as a possible threat.  Wang steps in, a battle ensues and the samurai wipe out all the witnesses (including the boy’s parents) to save face, realizing they may have jumped the gun.  The boy escapes all alone… until he meets Zatoichi, who takes the child under his wing.  Wang soon finds them and, now wary of Japanese, takes the boy and tells Ichi to leave.  But that’s not Ichi’s style and he offers to help.  Into this mix come Toubei, a local yakuza boss eager to earn points with the Shogunate by hunting down Wang and the boy, Kakuzen, a monk with a mysterious link to Wang’s past, Osen, a prostitute who falls for Ichi’s charm, and finally another blind masseuse and a pair drunk gamblers to provide comic relief.

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is good fun.  Watching Ichi and Wang face off – both comedically and dramatically – is highly entertaining.  Because they don’t speak each other’s language, there are many misunderstandings.  Regardless, Wang and Ichi have no choice but to deal with each other.  Ichi hopes it won’t lead to conflict, but of course it does… and it’s pretty awesome.  The Blu-ray image is good overall, but the blacks do look a little gray occasionally.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

23 – Zatoichi at Large (Zatoichi Goyo-Tabi)

1972 – Katsu Production Co./Toho Co., Ltd. – Director: Kazuo Mori

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

Zatoichi at LargeIchi is wandering the back roads, when he stumbles upon a pregnant woman who’s just been robbed and left for dead.  Before she gives up the ghost, Ichi delivers her baby.  The woman naturally begs Ichi to deliver the boy to her husband in a nearby village and, as you’d expect, Ichi complies.  With the help of an aging but honorable constable, he manages to find the boy’s aunt, Oyae, who’s working as a maid in the local inn.  Just as things are looking up, a yakuza boss and his thugs arrive in town to demand taxes from the local performers in an upcoming festival.  The boss threatens to press Oyae into service as a prostitute – and our man Ichi isn’t standing for that.  But his efforts to help her are hampered by the arrival of her brother, the murdered woman’s husband, who mistakenly blames Ichi for his wife’s death.  Ichi quickly learns the truth of the old adage: no good deed goes unpunished.

Katsu’s unique brand of humor and wit, along with the character’s usual do-right action, make this an enjoyable entry in the series.  Better still, there’s plenty of the requisite trick swordplay you’ve come to expect from these films.  The obvious influence of 1970s American filmmaking (visible in the film’s camerawork and particularly the soundtrack) makes Zatoichi at Large even more interesting.  It also has one of the most badass final thirty seconds of any film in this series.  The action isn’t over here until the very last cut... literally.  Like other films in this period, the BD image offers great detail but muted colors and somewhat crushed-looking blacks.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

24 – Zatoichi in Desperation (Shin Zatoichi Monogatari: Oreta Tsue)

1972 – Katsu Production Co./Toho Co., Ltd. – Director: Shintaro Katsu

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

Zatoichi in DesperationIf you thought Zatoichi and the Fugitives was dark, just wait until you see this installment.  Ichi meets a woman on an old bridge, who warns him of its loose and missing boards.  He gratefully thanks her and learns she’s headed to the village of Choshi, known for its red light districts, to visit her daughter.  They say their good-byes but the woman falls to her death from the bridge, leaving behind her shamisen.  Feeling responsible, Ichi decides to deliver the instrument to the woman’s daughter with the bad news.  Choshi, it turns out, is being strangled by a yakuza boss named Mangoro and his thugs.  The local fisherman are losing their boats and nets to him and what they don’t gamble away, they spend at the brothel.  It’s there that Ichi finds the woman’s daughter, Nishikigi.  He buys her retainer with money he scams from the boss’ gambling barge at dice, making enemies left and right – from the boss to the brothel’s owners to a clan of traveling samurai and even Nishikigi’s secret lover.  Along the way, there’s also a B-story involving an orphaned young girl and her brother, whose futures seem darkest of all.

Directed by Katsu himself, this film is terribly sad.  It’s also one of the oddest of the bunch, because of some very unusual choices in framing and camera perspective.  Everything is shot close-up and from behind, which makes it hard for the viewer to really melt into the story.  Because of this, and also the film’s nihilistic tone, Zatoichi in Desperation probably marks the low point in this series.  The BD image quality at least is good, but once again the blacks look a bit crushed.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

25 – Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (Shin Zatoichi Monogatari: Kasama No Chimatsuri)

1973 – Katsu Production Co./Toho Co., Ltd. – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

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

Zatoichi's ConspiracyThe final film in Criterion’s collection finds Ichi returning to the village of his birth, Kasama for the first time in twenty years, where he finds a pack of teenagers sheltering in the rundown shack that was once his home.  He also meets and befriends a woman who was raised by the same wet nurse he was long ago.  As it happen, the village is having trouble paying its taxes, but Ichi’s boyhood friend Shinbei – also newly returned – has become a rich and powerful merchant and agrees to pay their debt.  But Shinbei seemingly doesn’t recall Ichi, and he’s secretly in league with a local yakuza boss and the crooked magistrate, who’s been fleecing the village coffers.  Their goal is to take control of the local quarry, which will bankrupt the village.  But Zatoichi isn’t about to let them get away with it.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy is a good stopping point.  Though the film is somewhat melancholy in tone, and wouldn’t rank among the series’ best, it’s a solid entry that brings the character full circle in many ways.  Conspiracy offers great character moments, good fights and pretty much showcases everything that made these films so enjoyable.  It also features the return of actor Takashi Shimura in a supporting role.  The Blu-ray image quality is good, but once more has slightly crushed looking blacks.

Once again, if you’ve enjoyed Ichi’s journey so far, it continues on from this point in a pair of Japanese TV series, The Tale of Zatoichi (1974) and New Zatoichi (1976-79).  There are exactly 100 episodes, all of which are now available on DVD with English subtitles – the first season from Tokyo Shock (you can find them on Amazon) and the other three seasons “unofficially” from SamuraiDVD.com.  The series starred (and were produced by) Katsu, using much of the same production crew from the films.  After the second series concluded in 1979, there was one more big screen Ichi adventure in 1989, called simply Zatoichi (also available on DVD from Tokyo Shock), which features a far more world-weary blind swordsman.  It was the character’s last appearance on film before Katsu’s death from cancer in 1997.

There have been a few attempts since then to the resurrect the character.  First, there was “Beat” Takeshi’s take with a serviceable entry in 2003 called simply Zatoichi.  There was also a meta turn in Ichi (2008) that takes place in the same story universe and features a young blind girl, supposedly trained by Zatoichi, who takes up his mantle in search of him across Japan.  And there was a dark (and frankly awful) reboot in Zatoichi: The Last (2010) that – hopefully – will be the last attempt at making more Ichi films.  What no one seems to get is: Zatoichi isn’t just a chuckling blind anma with a quick sword.  Much in the way that Indiana Jones could only be played by Harrison Ford, Ichi simply is Shintaro Katsu.  Accept no substitutes.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

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