Media Blasters // 1974 // 200 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 10th, 2007
"You don't look like a regular masseur." -- Seitaro, "Rush Trip"
Everyone's favorite blind swordsman/masseur/gambler returns for four more small-screen adventures.
Volume Five of Zatoichi: The Television Series is a two-disc set that contains four 45-minute episodes from the series' first season:
* Episode 18: "Rush Trip"
On the road, Ichi meets an injured stray dog yakuza named Seitaro. The two hole up at a hot springs inn, where Ichi learns that the beautiful young woman Seitaro loves is a hostage of the yakuza boss who manipulated Seitaro into assassinating a rival.
* Episode 19: "A Rainbow Over My Head"
A renowned chef returns to his home in Itabana after three years in prison only to discover his younger brother has lost the family restaurant to a vile yakuza boss named Iwagoro. When family conflict clashes with clan politics, it sometimes takes a wise masseur who happens to be pretty good with a sword to set things straight.
* Episode 20: "A Female Boss and Her Wolves"
Ichi reunites with an old friend: a female yakuza boss who has gallantly held her clan together since her husband's death. Having softened with age, the widow sent her only son to Edo to learn metalworking and wants her clan to go legit. But an aggressive retainer named Matsugoro has no desire to leave crime and is maneuvering to take control of the clan. As Ichi works to help his friend, matters are complicated by the arrival of a mysterious warrior with a grudge.
* Episode 21: "The Little Flower by the Lake"
A sleaze named Sentaro makes a living by ingratiating himself to young women, then convincing them to sell themselves into indentured prostitution in order to resolve his phantom debts. Ichi doesn't take kindly to this sort of thing.
As we near the end of the first season of Zatoichi Monogatari (Volume Six, which contains the final 5 episodes of Season One, is due to arrive on retail shelves in late January, 2007), it's become clear that the show hit its stride and plateaued at around the tenth episode. The earliest episodes borrowed heavily from plot elements found in the series of 25 films that preceded this television series. Eventually, the writers and directors of the show found a unique approach appropriate to the small screen by focusing their attention on weekly guest stars and using Ichi as a sly and somewhat passive catalyst to the action. Each week, a kindly yakuza boss, star-crossed lovers, oppressed merchant, or a decent family is locked in seemingly irresolvable conflict. The affable, outwardly unassuming masseuse/swordsman shows up, studies the situation for roughly 30 of the show's 43-minute running times, then snaps into action, settling scores and doling out justice. But it's not a bad thing when I say that, on the whole, the batch of episodes in this set isn't better or worse than those in the previous two. Zatoichi may be predictable, pulp entertainment, but it's still well-made and lots of fun.
The plot of "Rush Trip," with its focus on a betrayed yakuza and a beautiful woman held hostage, is worn, but the episode is delivered with such style it's difficult to complain. Of particular note is a beautifully photographed sequence in which Ichi slays some assassins in a hot tub, their blood billowing in clouds through the tub's water in a terrific overhead shot. Even though the plot feels familiar (though it's not a direct lift from any of the films), one can hardly blame director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell) or his screenwriters. Zatoichi stories are never more engaging than when they mix clan intrigue with intense erotic longing.
The fresh premise of "A Rainbow Over My Homeland" would make the episode the best of the lot if the final act didn't descend into overreaching melodrama. Don't get me wrong. A Zatoichi story wouldn't be a Zatoichi story without melodrama, but director Akira Inoue (Zatoichi's Revenge) hammers the emotional payoff of this tale too hard. It's too bad because the sushi chef Soukichi is a likable character, and his tale is otherwise masterfully handled, its secrets slowly and expertly revealed.
Both "A Female Boss and Her Wolves" (whose title gives too much away) and "The Little Flower by the Lake" are more predictable than they ought to be, but still a good time. The former episode is well acted, and benefits from a substantial and hateful villain. The latter benefits from its deeply melancholy tone, but can't escape the fact that it's yet another in a long line of stories in which a compassionate Ichi comes to the aid of an indentured prostitute. Directed by Akira Inoue, "The Little Flower by the Lake" suffers from some poorly composed shots, too (a rarity in this normally cinematic little show). In a scene near the end, for instance, the heads of Sentaro and the prostitute Oyuki poke up from the bottom of the screen while dead space occupies the remainder of the frame above them.
As with the previous volumes of Zatoichi, the opening credit sequences of Volume Five's episodes are a fright, but the shows themselves are unrestored but well-preserved considering their age. Dirt, damage, and coarse grain are abundant in some shots, but not prevalent enough to offend reasonable expectations. Color and detail vary, but are never faded or hazy enough to annoy. Digital artifacts are minimal.
The audio is in keeping with the video. The presentation is single-channel mono in Japanese. Hiss and other distractions are minimal.
The only extras are trailers for three other Media Blasters DVD releases: Baian the Assassin, Goyokin, and The Great Yokai War.
If you liked the previous volumes of Zatoichi: The Television Series, you'll like this one. If you haven't seen the previous volumes, why are you reading a review of Volume Five?
To be continued...
Review content copyright © 2007 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 200 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Verdict Review of Volume One
* DVD Verdict Review of Volume Two
* DVD Verdict Review of Volume Three
* DVD Verdict Review of Volume Four