Sure, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is impressed that Zatoichi can beat sighted men in combat and dice games, but can he wail on the blues harp?
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 Four) (published July 12th, 2006), and Zatoichi: The Television Series (Volume Three) (published June 21st, 2006) are also available.
"Seems like everywhere you go, wicked plots spring up like weeds."—Ichi
Everyone's favorite blind swordsman/masseur/gambler returns for five more small-screen adventures.
Facts of the Case
This sixth volume of Zatoichi is a two-disc set that contains the final batch of episodes from the series' first season:
• Episode 23: "Suicide Song of Lovers"
• Episode 24: "The Coming of Spring"
• Episode 26: "Traveling Alone"
This sixth volume of Zatoichi: The Television Series offers the best collection of episodes so far. It's not that each and every episode is superior to anything that's come before, but that the tonal ebb and flow from episode to episode on this set is very satisfying. The plot intricacies of "Song of the Father and Son" are followed by the deep melancholy of "Suicide Song of Lovers," which is followed in turn by the rousing old-school Zatoichi action of "Coming of Spring" and "Way of the Yakuza." If all that weren't enough, "Traveling Alone" caps off the first season of the show with style and grace.
The best thing about "Song of the Father and Son" is character actor Kunie Tanaka's turn as villain Boss Genzo. Tanaka has a special talent for playing comedy, villainy, or both (as evidenced by the fact that he's probably most recognizable as either the calculating Makihara, who rises through the yakuza ranks throughout four of Kinji Fukasaku's five Battles Without Honor and Humanity flicks, or as maybe the most bumbling of Toshiro Mifune's nine bumbling protégés in Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro). Tanaka's droopy face can be either comic or menacing, depending on how he uses it. In "Song of the Father and Son," it's a little of both. The episode is also refreshing because it's the only one in the series' first season in which Ichi takes no part in the final duel. He only observes passively, taking subtle action to move the plot towards its climax.
"Suicide Song of Lovers" is the finest piece of direction I've ever seen by Shintaro Katsu (including the handful of Zatoichi features he helmed). The episode benefits from a lush snowbound setting and some beautiful shamisen playing that enhance its elegiac tone. Katsu shoots the exciting final duel with a maximum of energy of visual panache. For once, Ichi's opponent seems worthy and formidable; his end is laced with a bleak irony. I can't decide whether the episode's title gives too much away, or perfectly weights the tale from its beginning with the appropriate level of hopeless melancholy. Either way, "Suicide Song of Lovers" is maybe the best episode of the series' first season.
Watched by itself, or among the collection of episodes on previous volumes, "The Coming of Spring" would be a mediocre affair; but context is everything. Placed as it is in Volume Six directly after "Suicide Song of Lovers," its lighter tone and crisp pace offer a welcome dose of fun. It doesn't matter a bit that Omitsu, the kidnappers who pursue her, and Boss Kagotome are all types we've seen before in various Ichi flicks or even other episodes of this series.
"Way of the Yakuza" is also a straight-ahead Ichi actioner, though it marks a turn away from a conceit of the later movies and the TV series in which Ichi is a near mythical figure whose prowess is feared by all but the greatest swordsmen. Here, as in the earliest films in the series, he's respected as a warrior but also hunted for the bounty on his head. It's an approach that serves the character well by making him more harried, vulnerable, and sympathetic. All in all, "Way of the Yakuza" is a fresh twist on one of the oldest Zatoichi plot formulas.
"Traveling Alone" bears a faint resemblance to Zatoichi's Cane Sword, the fifteenth entry in the film series, in which Ichi interprets a crack in the blade of his beloved cane sword as a sign that it is time for him to become a man of peace. The plot of "Traveling Alone" is just different enough from that of the feature that it doesn't feel like a complete rehash. The episode makes a fitting finale to the television series (at least its makers considered it a finale when they made it, not knowing the show would return for three more seasons).
As with the previous releases of Zatoichi: The Television Series, Volume Six's episodes appear unrestored but well-preserved considering their age. Dirt, damage, and coarse grain are abundant in some shots, but not prevalent enough throughout to be bothersome so long as one has reasonable expectations. Color and detail vary from shot to shot, but none of the shots are faded or hazy enough to annoy.
The audio is in keeping with the video. The presentation is two-channel mono in Japanese. Hiss and other distractions are minimal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Allow me to offer up a little math. If you were to pay MSRP for each of the six volumes of Zatoichi: The Television Series, it would cost you $179.70 (U.S.) to own all 26 episodes of the series' first season. Even at discounted prices, you're looking at shelling out around $150.00. That's pretty steep for a single-season collection. In fairness to Media Blasters, that price isn't out of line when compared with anime releases, the cost of which is driven skyward by hefty licensing fees. Still, it's something to consider if you're thinking about taking the plunge into Zatoichi: The Television Series.
I said the following in my review of the first volume of Zatoichi:
"This set won't hold much appeal to anyone but the Zatoichi completist. Newcomers and those with a mild interest in the series are better off buying any (and all) of the features before investing in the television show.
"That said, the Zatoichi fanatic will like what he or she finds here. The show is an excellent continuation of the blind swordsman's big-screen adventures, perfectly reproducing the beats and conventions of the films. And like the movies, its greatest asset is Shintaro Katsu's regular-guy charm and skill as a comedian."
Five volumes later, having come to the end of the series' first season, my initial assessment still holds. If you're a hardcore Zatoichi freak, the TV shows are must-own; if you aren't, they're must-avoid (at least until you become a hardcore fan). Still, Zatoichi is an enormously entertaining pulp action television series. As of this writing, there is no indication that Media Blasters has plans to release any of the remaining 74 episodes of the show. On behalf of Ichi nuts everywhere, let me just say that I hope they do.
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