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page added: 12/19/03
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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman on DVD

reviews by Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Zatoichi on DVD (Index)


Zatoichi 1 - The Tale of Zatoichi

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Zatoichi 1 - The Tale of Zatoichi
(Zatoichi Monogatari)

1962 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B+

Ichi is one of the best samurai out there. He's blind, ragged and poor. Those who have heard his name whispered fear him. But to those meeting him for the first time, he's nothing more than a schluby yakuza gambler, who travels from village to village handing out massages to pay his living expenses.

What his true motivations are, no one really knows.

From 1962 to 1989, only one actor played what came to be Japan's most known and loved samurai hero: Shintaro Katsu. Katsu was a great actor, a legendary producer and, to all who knew and loved him, a great friend. With Ichi, Katsu created a brilliant screen hero.

There are 26 films in the Zatoichi series. This is his first adventure.


Here, we find Ichi in the middle of a historically true turf war, played against each side and wanting nothing to do with either. But when an honorable ronin becomes involved in the war, Ichi finds himself drawn into the conflict more out of honor than anything else. Will Ichi live to rub another shoulder, or has he met his match?

Home Vision, little sister of Criterion, is doing these films very, very proud on DVD. This film looks good, even if it's not anamorphic. Yes, there are some slight print issues here and there, but this is an old film from another country. This is probably the best it's going to look here in Region 1, unless someone gets around to doing a new, remastered anamorphic transfer. Quite frankly, we've seen much worse film elements come out of Japan, so we can live with this for now. The sound is also decent. It's a 2.0 mono track, but it's tight with the picture and it works. The extras are light - you get a stills gallery and a sheet of collector's cards. Better than nothing, right?




Zatoichi 2 - The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

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

1962 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B+

As the title suggests, this is a full-on and direct sequel to the first film in the series. Most of the other sequels in the Ichi series don't connect with each other, but The Tale Continues actually picks up with the original story a short time later. Ichi, it seems, is still at odds with the families from the first film. Adding to the drama, a mysterious one-armed man from Ichi's past shows up and challenges Ichi to an all-out duel "to end all duels". Samurai films fans should take note - the one-armed samurai here is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, brother of Katsu and star of his very own samurai film series: Lone Wolf and Cub (available on DVD from AnimEigo).

Once again, the video transfer is non-anamorphic, but good, with only minor print damage here and there. Sound is 2.0 mono, and it supports the film well enough. The extras are light, and are exactly the same format as the first disc: a gallery of stills and a sheet of collector's cards.




Zatoichi 3 - New Tale of Zatoichi

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Zatoichi 3 - New Tale of Zatoichi
(Shin Zatoichi Monogatari)

1963 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B+

Something I haven't mentioned yet but should: the first two Ichi films were in ever-lovin' black and white. But here, we see Ichi in his first glorious color adventure. And he's in love.

Coming home for the first time in a very long while, Ichi finds that things have changed a little bit. His old teacher is not the nicest guy in the world, and his teacher's sister is betrothed to a man she doesn't really want to marry. Remembering her affection for Ichi, she asks Ichi to marry her instead. Of course, being a blind man makes Ichi a pariah and this, in terms of family honor and her brother's dignity, can't be allowed.

Continuing the line of kick-ass Ichi films, New Tale is a definite keeper on DVD. It's really cool seeing Ichi in color for the first time, and director Tokuza Tanaka's composition - his use of the widescreen format - is truly genius here. That's particularly great for you widescreen TV owners, 'cause this is the first Home Vision Ichi title in anamorphic widescreen. As you would expect, it looks truly great. The sound is still 2.0 mono, but it's fine too. Extras are also the same as before: production stills and a collector's card set.


We should note that these reviews are really meant to be touchstones for you, simple guides to lead you into the world of Zatoichi. We could go on and on about character motivation and historical context, but when it comes right down to it, none of that is really important. The less you know about these wonderful films going in, the more fun you'll have exploring their worlds on your own. Not every Ichi film is great, and we'll let you know when the series falters. But you should definitely know that every one of the Zatoichi films is worth your time. You simply can't go wrong with these gems.



Zatoichi 4 - The Fugitive

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Zatoichi 4 - The Fugitive
(Kyojo Tabi)

1963 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B-

Just as I say not all Ichi films are great, here's one of the weaker films in the series. But, hey... a weak Ichi is still a good Ichi.

Entering the township of Shimonita, Ichi learns that he's a wanted man. He also learns that the woman he loved and lost as a youth has taken up with a ruthless ronin, who has sworn to take Ichi's head for a reward. When things spiral out of even Ichi's control, he lets his sword do the talking and it seems no one from the village will walk away without being cut by his blade.

This one is a bit slower going than the first three films here. Still, it's definitely worth checking out, as it has some good moralizing on Ichi's part and some nice character development.

As with all the other anamorphic Home Vision Ichi films, this one looks great. It sounds good too, even in 2.0 mono. Again, extras include production stills and the card sheet.




Zatoichi 5 - On the Road

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Zatoichi 5 - On the Road
(Kenka Tabi)

1963 (2002) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: A

Back from the slight slump that was The Fugitive, Ichi returns in Grade A form. Here, he's sworn to protect the life of a young girl. As is usually the set-up for the Zatoichi series, without any real allies, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a bloody turf war. Normally, he's hesitant to get involved, but this time he plays ball and, in the end, turns in one of the greatest climax battles since Seven Samurai.

On the Road is by far the best of the first five films in this series. It starts off red hot and just keep getting hotter. You really can't miss out on this one.

The anamorphic transfer looks gorgeous and the 2.0 mono sound supports the film just fine. Extras include more stills and the last in the series of collector cards.



Zatoichi 6 - Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

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

1964 (2003) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B

After paying his respects at the grave of a man he accidentally killed, the legendary blind swordsman Zatoichi (played in top form as always by Shintaro Katsu) arrives at a village where the impoverished locals are 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. At first, they invite Ichi to join in their fun. When the money is stolen by a group of samurai thugs, however, the villagers blame Ichi too, thinking that he's 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 and much loved boss, who has gone into hiding. Then he'll have to tangle with those thugs... including one of his toughest adversaries yet - a samurai by the name of Jushiro who wields a dangerous bullwhip as skillfully as a sword.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is arguably the most theatrical of all the Ichi films. Its stylized opening credit sequence recalls the Bond film intros, for example. Chest of Gold is also the first film in the series to graphically depict violence. When swords fly here, so does the blood.


For these reasons alone, the film would be interesting. Making it even more so are Ichi's face-offs with Jushiro, first over a game of chance and later on the field of battle. Ichi buffs will be interested to know that Jushiro is played here by Katsu's real-life brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, who would later star in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films (produced by Katsu).

The video on this DVD is a welcome anamorphic widescreen, and looks surprisingly good despite the film's age. The audio is presented in 2.0 mono, in the original Japanese with optional English subtitles (all of these DVDs, both from Home Vision and AnimEigo, feature the original Japanese audio with various English subtitle options). The extras here include a trio of theatrical trailers (for the previous film in the series, On the Road, as well as this film and the next entry, Zatoichi's Flashing Sword) and a folded, collectible Zatoichi poster inserted in the case.




Zatoichi 7 - Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

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Zatoichi 7 - Zatoichi's Flashing Sword
(Zatoichi Abare Tako)

1964 (2003) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B-

The plot this time is a little thinner than most of the Ichi films, and that's saying something. But what Zatoichi's Flashing Sword lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in humor, action and cinematic style. It also has one of the best opening scenes in the series (which later influenced a scene in The Karate Kid with Mr. Miyagi). There's no flies on ol' Ichi.

Ichi is, as ever, on the run from gangsters, when he's shot in the back by a thug who's trying to prove his worth. When Ichi comes to, he finds that he's being cared for, and that a kind passerby left money for him out of the goodness of her heart. Hoping to repay this kindness, Ichi tracks his benefactor down, and learns that she's the beautiful daughter of a local boss. The boss is generous and well liked by his people, but a rival, corrupt boss is determined to steal his business. And so Ichi once again finds himself taking sides in yet another turf war.

This is another excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer, especially given the film's age. But the 2.0 mono audio isn't quite up to the quality of the other Home Vision DVDs, with music that often sounds distorted. Thankfully, the dialogue is unaffected. Extras-wise, the disc provides trailers for this film as well as Chest of Gold and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight. Also included is a new collectible poster.




Zatoichi 8 - Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

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Zatoichi 8 - Fight, Zatoichi, Fight
(Zatoichi Kessho-Tabi)

1964 (2003) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: B+

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight finds our favorite masseur and swordsman once again on the run. This time, he's being pursued by a ruthless band of samurai who have been hired to kill him. Thinking they've got Zatoichi cornered, they instead kill a young woman, who is returning to her husband with her infant son. Ichi, feeling responsible for the woman's death, resolves to deliver the child safely into the arms of its father.

Naturally, the samurai aren't about to give up, and they continue to harass him. Complicating matters further, along the way, Ichi also saves the life of another young woman, who's been scratching out a living has a petty thief. To pay back his kindness, she reluctantly agrees to accompany Ichi on his way to help him care for the child. But as they get closer to their destination, each of them becomes more and more attached to the baby, and starts to think of it as an opportunity to start over and lead a better life.


The image of the deadly dangerous swordsman we know Zatoichi to be is in sharp contrast to the sweet, humble and even loving fellow he becomes in the presence of a single child. That tells you a great deal about who Ichi really is - far more than would the kind of exposition you'd get in a Hollywood film. And though you'd think the child would be a handicap in battle, Ichi once again shows just how good he really is, dispatching multiple enemies without breaking so much as a sweat... and all while changing a diaper. This is classic Ichi, and a great entry in this series. Film trivia buffs should also know that it was the inspiration for the Rutger Hauer flick Blind Fury.

The film looks fantastic on DVD, despite its age, once again in fully remastered anamorphic widescreen. The audio is the expected 2.0 mono, and while there are some distortions (particularly with regard to the music), the DVD still sounds better than some of the others in the series. Extras include another collectible poster, along with original theatrical trailers for this film, Zatoichi's Flashing Sword and the next chapter, Adventures of Zatoichi.




Zatoichi 9 - Adventures of Zatoichi

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Zatoichi 9 - Adventures of Zatoichi
(Zatoichi Sekisho-Yaburi)

1964 (2003) - Daiei Studios (Home Vision)

Film Rating: C+

There's nothing like a new year to kick-start a new round of greed, political corruption and financial graft. At least that's what Ichi learns after he steps into the middle of a bureaucratic plot to suck every possible coin from the pockets of the kind folks of a small village.

Ichi wanders into the company of an escaped criminal, who asks that Ichi find his sister in the next town and give her a letter. Ichi agrees and heads into town. Once he gets there, he finds the place deep in preparations for the New Years celebration. Ichi befriends most of the performers, including two young tumblers who act as his eyes for the majority of the film. Ichi eventually takes lodging in a crowded inn, where he shares a room with a woman named Saki. As it happens, Saki is on a mission to find her missing father. Soon, Ichi discovers how his new roommate is connected to both the escaped criminal and the political corruption. Naturally, in his effort to save her life, he raises the ire of a samurai keen to best the legendary blind swordsman.

Adventures of Zatoichi was the last of four films released back to back in 1964. This isn't the best of the bunch but, as we've said before, even a bad Ichi flick is better than most other films out there. The best part of this film is the supporting actors. Many are played by legendary Japanese comedians, which makes for a colorful cast of villagers that deliver a good bit of humor and slapstick. You know... I haven't seen the new Beat Takashi version of Zatoichi, but from what I've seen in the trailers, I imagine this film had a big influence on it.

Mastered with a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, the film look great on disc. It sounds good too, with its respectably solid 2.0 mono audio track. The scant extras include trailers for Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Adventures of Zatoichi and Zatoichi's Revenge, as well as another poster that's suitable for framing.




Zatoichi on DVD (Index)

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