"Crazy blind bastard!"
Ichi the blind swordsman is a phenomenon in Japan, a hero archetype often compared to Robin Hood or the Lone Ranger. He burst onto the Japanese film scene in 1962 with the release of The Tale of Zatoichi. Between 1962 and 1973, there would follow 24 sequels with a 25th in 1989, and a successful television series. Shintaro Katsu played the blind masseur/gambler/yakuza/fighter in all of them.
Home Vision Entertainment is bringing 17 of the 26 films to DVD. This review examines the latest three releases, each of which is sold individually.
Facts of the Case
The Blind Swordsman Series, Volume 9—Adventures of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Sekisho-Yaburi)
When a mysterious wanderer asks Ichi to deliver a letter to a woman named Sen staying at the Musashi Inn, Zatoichi is drawn into the middle of a conflict between the corrupt Boss Jinbei (Kichijiro Ueda, who played the cynical commoner in Rashomon) and a group of farmers he's gouging.
At the inn, Ichi meets Saki, a young woman whose father, head of Ota village, has disappeared. The man's fate is tied to Jinbei's corruption, drawing Ichi even deeper into the farmers' cause. When Jinbei hires a skilled samurai named Guorosuke to protect his interests, the die is cast for a final showdown between the warrior and Zatoichi on New Year's morning.
The Blind Swordsman Series, Volume 10—Zatoichi's Revenge (Zatoichi Nidan-Giri)
When Zatoichi's wandering brings him back to Azabu Bridge after nearly ten years, he decides to visit Hikonoichi, the master masseur who taught him the art. But the blind swordsman discovers his old master has been murdered and his daughter, Sayo, pressed into service at Chojiro, a brothel owned by the town boss, Tatsugoro.
Because of her refusal to perform as a prostitute, Sayo's been beaten and locked in a storehouse without food or water. Ichi's investigations reveal Tatsugoro's connection to his old master's death, setting the blind masseur on a path toward exacting his revenge on the town boss and his fearsome bodyguard, Koheito Kadokura.
The Blind Swordsman Series, Volume 11—Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (Zatoichi Sakate-Giri)
Jailed for illegal gambling, Zatoichi meets a man named Shimazo, an underling to a local boss named Senpachi. Incarcerated because of mistaken identity, Shimazo is scheduled to die for arson and murder. The condemned man begs Zatoichi to contact Senpachi in Oari upon his release so he can be exonerated.
On the road to Oari, Ichi meets a scoundrel named Hyakutaro. Once in town, the young man allows the villagers to believe he is the legendary Zatoichi, so he can bilk Boss Senpachi. In the meantime, the real blind swordsman discovers the town boss is responsible for Shimazo's imprisonment. Our hero begins formulating a plan for unseating Senpachi and rescuing the doomed man.
Japanese cinema bottomed out in the 1960s. Like the American film industry in the previous decade, Japanese studios found themselves reeling as unanticipated competition drew away once reliable audiences. But if Hollywood had nearly been felled by television, Japanese filmmakers had it twice as bad: while older audiences stayed home to watch TV, younger crowds, who'd come of age during the Occupation, wanted big-budget Hollywood splendor, not homegrown samurai and yakuza flicks. To this day, Japanese cinema has never fully recovered, never returned to the glory of the late 1940s and 1950s when Japanese filmmakers were keeping technical and artistic pace with their American rivals, and sometimes besting them. Understanding this context, one can hardly blame Daiei Studio for milking a successful property like Zatoichi for everything it was worth: the studios were cash poor (and still are, for the most part), and Shintaro Katsu's modestly budgeted franchise was like an Automatic Teller Machine. Nope, the production of 26 Zatoichi films isn't shocking at all. What is, is their artistic quality and their lasting place in Japanese culture, especially considering the speed at which they were being produced (the series began in 1962, and the films covered in this review—numbers 9, 10, and 11—were produced in 1964 and 1965).
Sure, Japanese youth were smitten with Hollywood glitz, but the success of Toshiro Mifune's turn as a flea-bitten, irreverent ronin in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) had proven they were also hungry for a Japanese anti-hero. This post-war generation was deeply skeptical of the dead empire whose pride in its own impenetrability to outsiders had led to disaster and defeat, but they were also wary of fully embracing an often callow Western popular culture. The authenticity of Mifune's scruffy rogue samurai, who showed open disdain for Bushido yet was in many ways the quintessential warrior, resonated with Japanese filmgoers. Enter Ichi, the ultimate Japanese anti-hero. To understand the impact of the character, one must take quick note of the rigid feudal caste system in place in 19th-century Japan, the films' setting. No one occupied a lower rung than a blind masseur (a common profession for the blind in Japan at that time), not merchants or peasant-farmers or rogues. And here comes Ichi (Zato means "blind man"), a complex hero of opposites: bubbling, good-humored humanity tempered with regret and melancholy; easy-going charm contrasted by a quick and perceptive wit; clownish antics offset by deadly sword skills and a lightning-quick draw. Zatoichi's a reformed yakuza (gangster) forever finding himself dragged into conflicts between the corrupt ruling classes and their exploited peasantry. Any guess which side he takes? Employing a crouching backhanded swordfighting technique called IAI, this lowly, not particularly handsome, blind masseur, reformed criminal, and gambler, who can't even eat without getting rice all over his face, can whip the ass of any samurai or bandit who dares challenge him. Japanese audiences ate it up.
And now he's starting to catch on in the West. A large part of his appeal here is that he may be an anti-hero, but he's not the sort of anti-hero we're used to: emotionally detached, cynical, brooding, strong-but-silent types in the mold of Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name. The Zatoichi films are formulaic, but the formula works because of the complexity of its hero. The films are characterized by an unexpected melancholy. Most Western heroes are reluctant killers only until the killing begins, once they click into revenge mode their violence tends to be executed with relish. Not so with Zatoichi (volume 10 is one of the few films in the series in which he's motivated by revenge at all). He is the stereotype of the good man who can't escape his past sins—no matter how much Ichi desires peace, his legendary sword skills ensure a steady stream of warriors eager to test their talents. And the regret of having to kill never leaves him, even when he's in the act. Ichi is no mysterious tough guy; at heart, he's a loser and castoff who happens to be quite intelligent, funny, and armed with extraordinary talent as a fighter. There's something incredibly appealing about that, no matter the part of the world from where you hail.
Volumes 9, 10, and 11 of the Zatoichi series find Katsu and company adding thematic complexity to the tried-and-true formula. In Adventures of Zatoichi a wronged man's obsession with killing Boss Jinbei contrasts nicely with Gounosuke's need to face off against Ichi; and Saki's search for her missing father is used to highlight our hero's angst when he comes to believe the town drunk may be the father he lost so many years earlier (a subplot that skirts a break in series continuity). In Zatoichi's Revenge, the young daughter of a corrupt gambler is used as a sort of doppelganger of Master Hikonoichi's daughter, Sayo, as Zatoichi knew her when they last met a decade earlier, before her enslavement at the brothel. A child's song about monkeys at a shrine is smartly used to connect the two girls in Ichi's mind, and underscore Sayo's lost innocence. And, in a postmodern twist, the young man who steals Zatoichi's name in Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, aping the blind man's behavior, allows the filmmakers to have fun with the character's iconic status in Japanese popular culture.
These narrative layers don't undermine the series formula. Still on display are corrupt officials, fantastic demonstrations of sword technique that leave Ichi's enemies stunned, bombastic combat, the obligatory dice scene in which some fool gambler tries to take advantage of our hero's blindness only to learn the legendary Zatoichi can't be easily had, beautiful maidens (most in distress), and humor and heart galore. It all makes for a wonderfully entertaining time.
As with the previous eight entries in the series, Home Vision Entertainment presents volumes 9, 10, and 11 in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (glorious Daieiscope), with the original Japanese soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono with optional English subtitles. The transfers are all of the same quality, mostly clean with deep and natural colors (if you've been watching Zatoichi on the Independent Film Channel's Saturday morning lineup, the DVD presentations of the films represent a significant improvement over their broadcast counterparts, whose colors often lack full saturation). The image is a bit soft, but reasonably so considering the age and origin of the sources, and there's a bit of shimmering in fine-line detail. Like most HVE discs, the transfer looks an awful lot like film, and that's a good thing. On the audio front, there's significant distortion from the source, and the thin mono is typical of Japanese films of the period. After the opening credits, once the volume of the score settles down, the distortion disappears for the most part and it's easy to settle into a comfortable viewing experience.
While hardly reference quality in the grand scheme of things, anyone familiar with Japanese films of this period, and the usually shoddy storage to which the source materials have been subjected, is likely to be impressed with the presentation on these discs. This is the best these pictures are likely to ever look or sound.
If you're an Ichi fan, these latest volumes of the series won't disappoint. They match the quality of HVE's previous Zatoichi releases. If you're new to Zatoichi, I suggest you start at the beginning of the series with The Tale of Zatoichi, but each film is sufficiently stand-alone you won't be lost or disappointed if you choose to pick up any or all of the titles covered in this review.
Zatoichi is guilty of delivering formulaic entertainment that is charming and addictive. He's hereby sentenced to wander the earth, kicking ass on behalf of the downtrodden.
And HVE: 17 volumes of Zatoichi is great, but howzabout working on procuring the rights to episodes 18 through 26? Pretty please, with sugar on top?
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