Miramax // 2003 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 14th, 2009
His sword made him a hero...his courage made him a legend.
Zatoichi made his silver screen debut in 1962 in Zatoichi Monogatari. The Meiji-era anma (itinerant masseur)/gambler/swordsman was an immediate hit with postwar Japanese audiences because he was a humble defender of the common man, fighting corrupt yakuza and village bureaucrats on behalf of poor farmers, merchants, and indentured prostitutes. Ichi's first movie was so successful that 24 sequels were produced through 1973, a television series ran for four seasons from 1974 to 1979, and a follow-up feature was released in 1989. All of these adventures starred actor/comedian/singer/nightclub carouser Shintaro Katsu (Ronin Gai) as Ichi.
Fourteen years after Katsu's final outing as the blind swordsman, actor-director Takeshi Kitano (Dolls) tried his hand at the Japanese cinema legend. The results were surprisingly good. Miramax originally released the movie on DVD in 2004. Now they've given the feature a high definition upgrade on Blu-ray.
In the late 19th century, Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into a village caught in the middle of a yakuza turf war. He comes to the aid of an old farmer woman (Michiyo Okusu, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage) and befriends her nephew, who latches onto the masseur's gambling skills as a potential get-rich-quick scheme. When Ichi decides to fight on behalf of the townsfolk, it means he must confront a ronin (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) who has hired himself out to the yakuza as a bodyguard in order to raise money for the care of his wife, who is dying of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, two mysterious geishas enter the little village, harboring a decade-long grudge against the yakuza boss and his thugs.
Truth be told, most of the original Zatoichi movies aren't all that good -- at least not on their faces. They're formulaic and, after the first half dozen or so, frequently repetitive. It was Shintaro Katsu who made the movies charming and fun. Katsu poured much of himself into the role. His Ichi was kind-hearted but impish, self-deprecating but a lover of coarse humor, humble but skilled in his arts (massage, gambling, and killing -- a parallel to Katsu's triple-threat as an actor, comedian, and musician). For an action hero in a pulp genre series, Zatoichi is surprisingly textured and human, full of pathos, humor, and life. Because of Katsu, Ichi was impossible not to like.
When I first heard that Beat Takeshi was planning to film his own version of a Zatoichi adventure, I had no doubt that he could deliver an exciting action picture. I just wasn't sure it was possible to make a good Zatoichi flick without Katsu (he died in 1997). But the movie was a surprise international hit, even winning the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival. The award was no fluke. Kitano's direction is crisp and smart, and his performance as Ichi is entirely effective. Setting his own off-beat standard, Kitano's blind swordsman sports a blond Caesar cut and holds himself with shoulders sloped and head titled slightly to the side to indicate that he is always listening. He isn't as warm or child-like as Katsu's Ichi, but that's okay because those characteristics, which came naturally to Katsu, would be forced and false from Kitano. Instead of imitating Katsu, Kitano makes Ichi his own, which is (or ought to be) the responsibility of any actor playing any character.
Kitano constructs his film from many of the same clichéd plotlines in the original series -- yakuza clan wars, downtrodden farmers, tragic lovers, a pair of siblings on a quest for revenge. It's the stuff not only of nearly every one of the 26 previous Zatoichi films, but also of countless Japanese period movies made from the 1950s onward. Kitano's movie works because he doesn't so much wallow in cliché as work artfully within a highly structured form. His blind swordsman tale blends its genre trappings -- precise pacing, predictable character types, and plenty of martial arts combat -- with an ear for the rhythms of human life. Being that his hero is blind, Kitano subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) laces his movie with the natural rhythms of farmers tilling rice paddies, wooden sandals clacking on dirt roads, workmen framing a house, the dry clicks of swords being drawn from and replaced in their sheaths. This is the world as Ichi experiences it, a world of delicate audio clues that reveal the vibrant flow of human life and all of the comedy and tragedy it entails. Kitano even boldly ends his movie with an energetic tap dance number by a Japanese troupe called The Stripes. Some critics and viewers were enthralled by the sudden outburst of a musical number immediately before the end credits; some were baffled. It actually makes perfect sense given the director's emphasis throughout the film on the rhythms of human life -- of course the villagers, enthralled at Ichi having relieved them of the burden of living under abusive yakuza, would break into spontaneous, choreographed dancing. Genre pictures, after all, aren't about realism.
But Kitano's movie isn't merely a thinking-man's Zatoichi, an art film poking fun at genre conventions. It's a full-fledged actioner. Kitano mirrors Katsu's early Zatoichi pictures in reserving most of the action for the last third of the film (though he punctuates a few scenes in the first two acts with violence), but when Ichi finally faces off against a gang of a dozen or so yakuza, the action is as fast-paced and visually clever as any in the Katsu series. The kills are clever, and the fight choreography stunning and expertly shot. Kitano augments the violence with digital blood spatter that is more about graphic beauty than realism -- there's something almost painterly about the red geysers that burst from Ichi's victims. In addition to the sweet action, Kitano nails down every other element of the Ichi formula from our hero's visit to a gambling den where he stuns the wizened gamblers with his ability to hear the outcome of a toss of a pair of dice, to his putting a gentle smack-down on those who would take advantage of a blind man traveling alone, to his wielding a hidden cane sword in a crouching back-handed style that proves too quick and unorthodox for his enemies. Kitano's movie may be an inventively constructed international film festival darling, but it's still very much a Zatoichi flick at heart.
I was hoping that one of the benefits of The Walt Disney Company's purchase of Miramax would be higher quality Miramax home video products. Say what you will about the House of Mouse, they know how to author DVDs and Blu-rays. Miramax? Not so much. I'm sorry to say that The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi looks good on Blu-ray, but not great. In all likelihood, the disc's 1080p transfer comes from the same master used for the 2004 DVD. Colors are brighter and more fully saturated, and detail is considerably improved over the DVD, but the same issues of edge enhancement haloing and other digital processing remain. Most of the time, the image looks great. Occasionally, the actors appear slightly disconnected from the rest of the frame, making the image look more like a video source than celluloid. It's not a terrible transfer, but it could be better.
The default audio option is an English dub in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The track is deep, rich, and contains plenty of power and finesse. Too bad it's a dub. The original Japanese audio is offered in a plain Dolby 5.1 mix as well as Dolby stereo. Both tracks are solid, though nowhere near as bombastic and crystal clear as the dub.
Extras include a 40-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that follows the production of the movie from Beat Takeshi's press conference announcing it as his next project, to its theatrical release. There is also a collection of cast and crew interviews. These are the same supplements that were included on the 2004 DVD. There are no HD exclusives.
This Blu-ray is the way to go if you're looking to buy The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi for the first time. If you already own the DVD, the improved audio and video isn't worth the cost of an upgrade given the absence of any fresh extras.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R