It's a little-known fact that Appellate Judge Dan Mancini once got beat up after trying to cheat Ronnie Milsap in a game of craps.
Our reviews of Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume One) (published February 1st, 2006), Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume 5) (published January 10th, 2007), Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Six) (published March 21st, 2007), Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Four) (published July 12th, 2006), and Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Three) (published June 21st, 2006) are also available.
Everyone's favorite blind swordsman/masseur/gambler returns for four more small-screen adventures.
Facts of the Case
This second volume of Zatoichi is a two-disc set that contains the following episodes from the series' first season:
• Episode 6: "The Pouring Rain"
• Episode 7: "A Bird Lands on Ichi"
• Episode 8: "An Unforgettable Flower"
• Episode 9: "The Two Zatoichis"
As formulaic as Ichi's adventures can be, the feature films are almost uniformly stylish on the visual front. Solid journeymen action directors from Kenji Misumi (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance) to Tokuzo Tanaka (Tough Guy) to Kimiyoshi Yasuda (Daimajin) helmed entries in the series. Even Kihachi Okamoto (Sword of Doom, Kill!) contributed to the franchise, directing the 1970 episode that brought the blind swordsman face to face with Toshiro Mifune's flea-bitten ronin (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Each director brought his own flair for composition to the party, lending the series much visual dynamism. Moreover, the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio was the format for all of the features made prior to the TV show—a perfect canvas for capturing the Japanese country side, the grimy interiors of brothels and gambling houses, and the blind swordsman's deadly IAI combat acrobatics.
One would assume the biggest hurdle faced by the television incarnation of Zatoichi's adventures would be the size and ratio of the boob tube itself, that the show's visual style would pale in comparison to the 25 big screen outings that preceded it. Surprisingly, the series represents a perfect translation of the films' visual aesthetics to the small screen. Each episode was shot on film with one camera, like a mini-movie. Of the four episodes in Volume Two, "The Pouring Rain" and "A Bird Lands on Ichi" were directed by Tokuzo Tanaka, who helmed three of the feature films, including 1963's New Tale of Zatoichi, the first to be shot in color. The other two episodes were directed by Ichi himself, Shintaro Katsu, who'd directed the 24th episode in the franchise, Zatoichi in Desperation. Fujio Morita was cinematographer on three of the episodes ("The Pouring Rain," "The Two Zatoichis," and "An Unforgettable Flower"). Morita lensed five of the Zatoichi feature films, and was also a camera operator on Kurosawa's Rashomon. "A Bird Lands on Ichi" was lensed by Chishi Makura, a veteran of eight Zatoichi features, including the first entry in the series.
Tanaka, Katsu, Morita, and Makura aren't exactly masters of Japanese cinema, but they're solid workmen with a depth of technical understanding. The mise-en-scène is necessarily more cramped in the flat ratio, but use of fore-, middle-, and background is significantly more artful than a typical made-for-TV production. It's not uncommon for the show to offer deep-focus shots with important things happening in more than one plane, or for the camera operator to rack focus from one plane to another in order to reveal important visual information. Use of light and shadow is equally impressive, especially during scenes set in candlelit gambling houses, or during fight sequences in which combatants appear in silhouette. These may be the television adventures of the blind swordsman, but they still have a cinematic feel.
As for the episodes themselves, they're better overall than those of Volume One. "The Pouring Rain" offers complex, intertwined relationships of family and business, double-crosses, entertaining use of happenstance, and a villain named Karakkaze who evokes (probably purposely) Tatsuya Nakadai's sneering, gun-wielding Unosuke in Yojimbo. On top of all that, Ichi is all skill and cold menace in the episode, making it an action-packed good time.
By contract, "The Two Zatoichis" reminds us of our hero's graceful humility. The fake Zatoichi is all bluster as he uses threats of violence to bilk dangerous yakuza. He is the anti-Zatoichi in every way. That Ichi is patient with the man, going out of his way to steer the fool clear of the trouble so clearly headed his way, not only paints the blind swordsman in an admirable light but gives the episode an unexpected narrative subtlety.
"A Bird Lands on Ichi" and "An Unforgettable Flower" offer a chance to the see the more human and humane side of our hero. The former is the weakest episode of this batch, but still a solid outing. Ichi's unwanted apprentice is there for comic relief, proving otherwise unnecessary to the story. But the blossoming friendship between Ichi and Misawa is charming and realistic. Thankfully, their time together doesn't end in the way Ichi's friendships with fellow warriors typically end. "An Unforgettable Flower" offers great pathos, and a rare presentation of Ichi as something other than a fighter. Throughout the episode, he's awkward and vulnerable, outclassed and out of his depth in every way as his relationship with a prostitute blossoms into love. The episode's action (there's plenty) plays second fiddle to the romance but still keeps the pace brisk and exciting.
As with the first volume of Zatoichi, Volume Two's episodes appear unrestored but in solid shape considering their age. Dirt, damage, and coarse grain are abundant in some shots, but not prevalent enough throughout to ruin one's enjoyment. Colors are mostly accurate and well-preserved. Digital artifacts are minimal. The transfer could look better, but it could also look worse.
Audio fares slightly better this time. The presentation is still single-channel mono in Japanese. Hiss and other distractions are minimal. The heavier damage in isolated spots on Volume One's episodes is absent on this batch of four.
The only supplements are trailers for Media Blasters' DVD releases of 7 Grandmasters, Red Shadow, Samurai Reincarnation, and 1989's Zatoichi, which marked Shintaro Katsu's big-screen return to his most famous role ten years after the end of the television show.
Zatoichi: The Television Series, Volume Two finds the series improving over the introductory episodes in Volume One. That's as it should be. Here's hoping the trend continues.
Bring on Volume Three.
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