Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says you really can't go wrong with Zatoichi.
Our reviews of Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Two) (published March 22nd, 2006), 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), and Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Three) (published June 21st, 2006) are also available.
"You see, I'm blind but I can see through people's hearts."—Ichi
Zatoichi Monogatari launched on Japanese television in 1974, only a year after the theatrical release of the 25th of 26 blind swordsman features starring Shintaro Katsu (the final Katsu-led Ichi flick was released in 1989, ten years after end of the television run). The show was as successful as the features that preceded it, running for 100 episodes across four seasons.
Media Blasters has obtained the North American rights to the 26 episodes that comprise the show's first season (hopefully sales are brisk enough that subsequent seasons will follow), which they've spread across six two-disc volumes to be released throughout this year.
Facts of the Case
Volume Four of Zatoichi contains four 45-minute episodes from the series:
• Episode 15: "Festival Song of the Raven"
• Episode 17: "Burning Sunset in Bridal Pass"
When last we left the blind swordsman, his television adventures appeared to be on an upswing. Volume Three closed out with two of the best episodes of the series so far. "Humanity and Justice" and "The 1,000 Ryo Raffler" were refreshingly free of many of the films' more tired plot formulas. My expectations were high for the episodes on Volume Four, which is why "Fighting Journey with Baby in Tow" is such a disappointment. Episode 14 is a naked remake of Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, the eight feature in the film series. Ichi's being thrust into caring for an infant, his attempt to return the child to its father, and his blossoming relationship with a pickpocket woman who begins to fantasize about herself, Ichi, and the infant forming a little family are all lifted directly from Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.
If the television show's makers were going to faithfully remake one of the features, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight isn't a bad choice. It's action-packed and full of pathos. It's also the film that launched the oft-used convention of putting an infant or child in Ichi's care. Because of its shorter running time, "Fighting Journey with Baby in Tow" has far less emotional weight than the feature that inspired it, though. It's also marred by some lame humor (this isn't a huge surprise as the episode was directed by Katsu himself, and his directorial efforts often include silly and sometimes crude comic setpieces). The worst of the comedy is a scene in which the infant attempts to feed from the blind swordsman's manboob. It's not funny or cute. In fact, it's fairly gross.
Volume Four begins to look considerably better with " Festival Song of the Raven." The episode affects a serious tone without being mopey. Its story is rich and complex. The three parallel plotlines—Boss Manjiro's clan machinations, the shy love between Itaro and the dead man's sister, and the assassins' pursuit of Ichi—run parallel to one another and appear unrelated until they begin to merge during the episode's final ten minutes. The smart and tidy ending ensures that the episode entertains across its entire 45 minutes, and pays off on a viewer's time spent. Well written and acted, the episode is remarkable for both its restrained emotion, and for the complete absence of a venal, evil villain. It is easily among the best of the series' adventures so far.
"The Winds from Mount Akagi" exploits a rather obvious up-ending of the classic Ichi plot formula. Instead of an evil yakuza boss who exploits villagers, farmers, or low-level merchants, the episodes offers a kindly boss who is himself the victim of the Bukufu's exploitation. It's a smart, deliberately constructed episode that reels out for a full nine minutes before Ichi makes his first appearance. The story is about duty, loyalty, and betrayal, and offers a number of complex, intertwined relationships. Too often in Ichi stories, sentimentality stands in for emotion. "The Winds from Mount Akagi" is honestly emotional, its characters swept up in a swirl of fatalistic clan politics. Both Chuji and Kansuke are decent men, in conflict with each other because of their roles within clan and government, not out of personal animosity. Their battle is intensified by the fact that Kansuke's nephew is one of the young yakuza devoted to Chuji. The tension between loyalty to his uncle and loyalty to his Boss finally has tragic consequences for the young man.
Directed by Katsu, the episode has very little in the way of swordplay, but is still the most compelling of the series so far. It offers some haunting cinematography as when Chuji's beloved presses her cheek against a shoji screen on the other side of which we can see Chuji's silhouette. The lovers linger cheek to cheek, though separated by thin paper, as their relationship dissolves in the reality of the tragedy all about them. The episode even offers an artsy black-and-white coda that is as beautifully shot as it is heartbreaking.
"Burning Sunset in Bridal Pass" is a decent enough episode, but is marred a bit by the one-dimensionality of Isozaki. He's a moustache-twirling baddie sans the moustache. Moreover, the government's use of taxation to oppress and cow farmers is a too-often used formula in Ichi's adventures. That said, the fears and frustrations of the bridegroom, bride, and her father Yozaemon feel very real, upping the ante on a viewer's investment in the story. "Burning Sunset in Bridal Pass" offers a rote Ichi plotline, but one that works well enough.
Video is in keeping with previous volumes of the show. Color reproduction is solid, as is detail. Grain is heavy at times, and minor source damage is prevalent. Still, the video is impressive considering the age and origin of the show. The original Japanese audio track is presented in a two-channel mono mix. Dialogue is more muted in episodes 17 and 19 than in episodes from previous volumes, but the difference in overall quality is negligible.
As with previous volumes, there are no supplements related to the series itself. Disc Two does contain a quartet of trailers for other Media Blasters DVD releases: Baian the Assassin, Goyokin,Sukeban, and Zatoichi (the aforementioned 26th feature in the big-screen series). In addition to the trailer gallery, the set also comes with a separate mini-disc that contains theatrical and promotional trailers (read: electronic press kits) for Death Trance, Shadow: Dead Riot, Flesh for the Beast, andThe Neighbor No. Thirteen.
Judging from the episodes on Volume Four of Zatoichi: The Television Series, as well as those on the previous volume, the show's makers are engaged in equal parts innovation and pilfering from the long-running film series. While this is a slight disappointment, the truth is that even the derivative episodes are entertaining. This volume—like those that preceded it—is a must-own for Ichi fanatics.
To be continued…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
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