Media Blasters // 1974 // 250 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 1st, 2006
"Next time, your head won't be attached to your body." -- Zatoichi
After Zatoichi's Conspiracy hit Japanese theaters in 1973, the blind swordsman moved from the big screen to the small. Zatoichi Monogatari proved as marketable as the 25 movies that preceded it. One-hundred episodes of the series were produced from 1974-1979.
Media Blasters has secured the North American rights to the show's first season. The episodes will be released spread across multiple two-disc DVD volumes. Let's take a look at the first set.
Volume One of Zatoichi on DVD contains the first five episodes of the show. Here's what you'll find:
* Episode 1: "A Challenge of Chance"
Ichi helps a woman whose family-owned copper mine is threatened by an interloping yakuza gang.
* Episode 2: "The Flower That Blossoms With the Lullaby"
Ichi protects a boy whose connection to a wealthy silk merchant has attracted the attention of the greedy denizens of a local whorehouse.
* Episode 3: "A Memorial Day and the Bell of Life"
On the anniversary of his mother's death, Ichi takes on an unwanted partner (Kinya Kitaouji, The Yakuza Papers, Vol. 2: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima), and avenges the murder of another man's mother.
* Episode 4: "The Kannon Statue That Was Tied"
A woman recently released from prison solicits Ichi's help in finding her lost baby, who was spirited away by a prison guard (Kamatari Fujiwara, The Hidden Fortress) after her birth.
* Episode 5: "The Heartless Man, Touched by Compassion"
At a dusty outpost torn by warring clans, Ichi must face a ruthless ronin-for-hire trying to raise the money needed to restore his sister's sight.
Zatoichi was a wildly popular modern folk hero in Japan long before Takeshi Kitano dumped peroxide on his head and began to formulate visions of CGI arterial spray and Busby Berkeley-esque village festivals. The success of this television show, the 25 features that preceded it, and the one that followed it in 1989, attest to that. Truth be told, the world of Ichi is a pretty lame place -- comfortably familiar and action-packed, yes, but lame nonetheless. The movies are formulaic as all get-out, not only in structure but also in content. Once you've seen about a half-dozen Zatoichi flicks, you've pretty much seen them all. If he's not saving villagers from warring clan leaders or vile merchants, he's rescuing a woman from indentured prostitution, or protecting the life a young child separated from his affluent family. Which begs the question: Why was the series was so enormously successful in Japan -- and now in North America? The answer, in part, is that the formula (however predictable) is fun. Sitting down with Ichi the anma, fans know they'll see their hero defend the exploited, surprise the sighted, beat gambling cheats at their own game, and put a major hurt on a vast array of yakuza lackeys (as well as a cunning yojimbo or two...or three).
The real reason for the character's amazing appeal, though, is Shintaro Katsu. The moon-faced comedian/singer/action-star/director/producer brought a magnetic humanity to the role. Ichi may reside at the rock bottom of feudal Japan's caste system, but he has a disarming self-deprecating sense of humor, emotional vulnerability, and quiet humility that doesn't get in the way of his penchant for bawdy fun when the opportunity presents itself. Add to that the fact that he employs a crouching, backhanded style of swordplay that confounds, spindles, and mutilates members of the smug samurai class, and one begins to understand why Ichi is sometimes compared to Robin Hood. Little of this personality was scripted. It came from the soul of Katsu, a notorious carouser and wise-ass. Ichi as written is little more than a gimmicky action hero. His merging with Katsu's own personality makes him something more, and keeps the series charming across 26 features and this long-running television series.
In its jump from large screen to small, the Zatoichi franchise maintained most of its strengths, while eliminating a major weakness by streamlining the blind masseur's adventures. At 45 minutes in length, each episode of the show is like a mini-movie, roughly half the length of one of the features. In many of the later films, the plots are threadbare from having been so often recycled. In terms of pacing, the TV show offers a return to the earliest days of the film series ("The Kannon Statue That Was Tied" is the single exception; its story meanders as listlessly as would the later features). For the most part, the plots, though recycled, are simple and unadorned with tangents or subplots. The premiere episode pits our hero against evil, manipulative merchant thugs in the style of Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold; "The Flower That Blossoms With the Lullaby" follows the child-in-peril template established in Zatoichi: On the Road and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight; the fallen woman motif in "The Kannon Statue That Was Tied" is a common element of Ichi stories, having its earliest roots in Zatoichi: The Fugitive; and Episodes Three and Five are reminiscent of the first two films in the series (both of which borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo). The episodes' details have been altered just enough that, combined with the brisk pacing, they feel fresh enough to entertain.
If the five Volume One episodes underwent any restoration -- and I suspect they didn't -- then it was minimal. The good news is that the show was shot on film and not video. It's well-preserved, considering its age. Credit sequences are particularly rough, riddled with coarse grain and abundant source damage. Most of the scenes from the show proper look pretty good, though. Colors range from acceptable to excellent -- slightly faded in some shots, and fully saturated in others. Detail is also scattershot, with some scenes noticeably softer than others. Media Blasters' handling of these aged and problematic source materials is admirable. The transfer displays a minimum of edge enhancement, and nothing in the way of interlacing artifacts, moiré, or other digital artifacts. While the image isn't exactly reference quality, it's surprisingly good for an early-seventies television program from Japan.
Audio is in keeping with the video. The Japanese mono track is mostly balanced with clear dialogue. There are isolated instances of warble from wear and damage to the analogue track. There are also a few scenes in which the mix is off, and dialogue gets a bit buried behind the score.
The only supplements are a half-dozen trailers for other Media Blasters DVD releases.
This set won't hold much appeal to anyone but the Zatoichi completist. Newcomers and those with a mild interest in the series are better off buying any (and all) of the features before investing in the television show.
That said, the Zatoichi fanatic will like what he or she finds here. The show is an excellent continuation of the blind swordsman's big-screen adventures, perfectly reproducing the beats and conventions of the films. And like the movies, its greatest asset is Shintaro Katsu's regular-guy charm and skill as a comedian.
Bring on Volume Two.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 250 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated