Judge Dan Mancini is itchin' to slice up something, because HVE's efforts on the Ichi films just don't deserve the edge of a sword.
Your alertness is not that of a normal blind person. That is why the blind fear you and will not befriend you. And normal people only look down on you as a cripple. Therefore, you're not at home among blind people nor among normal people. You're an in-betweener.—Blind priest
The blind swordsman's 13th adventure opens with the slaying of a dice cheat by a wandering ronin-for-hire named Genpachiro Kurobe. In short order, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) stumbles upon the dying man, who presses a bag full of money into his hand, asks that he take it to someone named Taichi, then promptly expires. Unsure who this Taichi is or where he might be found, Ichi continues his wandering and happens upon a blind priest who makes his living as a wandering biwa musician. The priest has uncanny wisdom and insight, but rubs Ichi the wrong way because of his recognition that Ichi is no ordinary blind man but a gifted outcast, and, later, because of his disapproval of the swordsman's violent life.
The two blind men find their way to a town called Ichinomiya where Ichi almost immediately runs into a young boy named Taichi (Ichi believes the spirit of the slain cheat must have guided him to the town; I tended to think it was the neat calculus of melodrama that got the job done), where he lives in an inn run by his grandmother. Taichi, it turns out, is the dead man's son, and the old lady his mother.
Ichinomiya was once a small and peaceful town, free of yakuza, but recent months have seen a shakedown of all the businesses by a thug named Boss Gonzo. Among Gonzo's victim's is a beauty named Cho who's been pressed into service at the Fujinora whorehouse in order to pay off a debt. Ichi befriends her and sets his resolve to rid the town of Gonzo and his clan, but the blind priest convinces him that violence only begets violence and he must put aside his sword and provide a good example to the impressionable boy, Taichi.
Meanwhile, the scruffy ronin Kurobe arrives in town looking for Cho, his former lover. He agrees to kill Ichi on Gonzo's behalf for a payment of 50 ryo, the amount it will take to buy Cho out of bondage. The question is, will Zatoichi take up his sword again in order to defend himself from the ronin and make a stand for the exploited merchants of Ichinomiya?
Convoluted as all that sounds, Zatoichi's Vengeance is a return to the simpler formulas of the earliest films in the franchise. The first Ichi flicks usually found our hero caught in the middle of a turf war in which innocent merchants or farmers suffered at the hands of cruel yakuza bosses; having to address the specific problems of a vulnerable woman or child caught in the turf war's crossfire; and forced to face off against a deadly samurai-for-hire with dark motives of his own. As the series progressed, bells and whistles were added to this basic formula, or it was subverted in order to foster audience delight. So, 13 movies into the series, the return to old form is sort of refreshing. The presence of the blind biwa priest is particularly welcome as he returns to Ichi the deep sense of conscience and regret that helped defined the character in The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. He's sort of the Jiminy Cricket of this tale, putting a lid on our hero's darkest instincts and coaxing him to more moral, pacifist ground. The film doesn't, by a long shot, advocate the non-violent resolution of conflict, however, as Ichi begins trying to strike back at the Gonzo clan early on—so long as Taichi isn't around to see it. Moreover, the priest's pacifist sensibilities don't appear particularly offended when Ichi finally hands the baddies their asses at film's end. Ichi was such a reluctant killer in his earliest adventures that the body count was usually pretty low—a handful of retainers, a yakuza boss, and the requisite menacing ronin. But in Zatoichi's Vengeance he churns through jittery, wide-eyed yakuza thugs by the dozen. And once he gets going, he performs his task with a relish equal to any of the later adventures.
The return to a simpler narrative through-line contrasts nicely with the film's technical beauty and precision. Zatoichi's Vengeance was shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, probably the most famous cinematographer in the history of Japanese cinema. Among his many achievements, Miyagawa lensed Kurosawa's Rashomon and Yojimbo; Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff; Uzo's Floating Weeds; and Kon Ichikawa's chronicle of the 1964 Olympic summer games, Tokyo Olympiad. Zatoichi's Vengeance was the second of six Ichi flicks Miyagawa photographed, and it has some stylish and beautiful visuals. Particularly gorgeous is the silhouetted final showdown between Ichi and Gonzo's thugs, choreographed on a narrow bridge with fighters coming at our hero from both sides.
As with Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (released at the same time as this title), Zatoichi's Vengeance is among the best-looking of Home Vision Entertainment's line of Ichi DVD releases. Detail and color are superb, and dirt and damage are minimal. When they're at the top of their game, HVE delivers transfers that look like beautiful, 35mm film. Zatoichi's Vengeance is HVE at the top of their game.
HVE has done an admirable job with the existing audio source. The original Japanese soundtrack has been mastered in a two-channel mono mix that delivers clear dialogue but is otherwise fairly flat and has a tendency to distort during spikes in volume (this is typical of Japanese optical tracks of the period). Optional English subtitles are provided, of course.
Extras on the disc are limited to trailers for episodes 12, 13, and 15 in the series, plus a brief trailer for HVE's line of Zatoichi DVD releases, housed as an easy-to-find Easter egg. A 14x22 collectible poster and a four-page insert booklet with a brief essay by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck are also offered for your perusal.
Zatoichi's Vengeance isn't among the best in the blind swordsman series, but its simple narrative approach is bound to stir nostalgia for the series' roots in any Ichi fan. Plus, Kazuo Miyagawa's beautiful photography is worth the price of admission.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Insert Essay by Film Scholar Michael Jeck
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