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Blu-Ray : Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: April 5th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 2003

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi - Imprint Asia (AU Import)

Overview -

Blu-ray Review By: Matthew Hartman
The incredible action legend lives on in Takeshi Kitano’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. Kitano stars and directs in this exciting 2003 relaunch of the iconic franchise. Briskly paced with some amazing fight sequences and intriguing plot developments, the CGI blood effects may be a bit jarring but Kitano keeps the show grounded and thrilling. Australia’s Imprint Asia brings the film to Blu-ray with a dated transfer, solid audio options, and some great extra features. Recommended.

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Length:
116
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.85:1
Audio Formats:
Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1, Japanese LPCM 2.0
Subtitles/Captions:
English Subtitles (Hard-coded)
Release Date:
April 5th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

26 films, 100 television episodes, and a 2003 relaunch with another film in 2010, Zatoichi is arguably one of the most famous and unique cinematic action characters. Initially played by Shintaro Katsu, the tale of a blind swordsman working as a masseur traveling from village to village and helping the downtrodden provided countless hours of entertainment and inspired a legion of imitations. But when Shintaro Katsu passed away and samurai swordsman films were no longer in vogue, the franchise was left to drift. That is until Takeshi Kitano picked up the blade and breathed new life into the character for 2003’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi - not to be confused with Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman television series. (Other territories this film was simply known as Zatoichi)

Like many Zatoichi films, we find our titular blind hero (Takeshi Kitano) on the road drifting from one town to the next looking for work or a game he can gamble on. When a group of bandits sets upon him, his simple walking cane is revealed as a deadly Shikomizue, and the blind man is exposed as a deadly hand with a blade. When he arrives in the next town, Zatoichi finds he’s caught in the middle of a brutal gang war and two siblings' quest for vengeance. As he helps the innocent, the blind swordsman must cross blades with the lethal ronin warrior Hattori Gennosuke (Tadanobu Asano). 

Full disclosure, this film was my first true introduction to the world of Zatoichi. I’d seen the films around at video stores but I never had the chance to sit down and watch one until Kitano’s 2003 film hit my local arthouse theater. As soon as the house lights came up I stormed out of that theater and zipped down to my local Hollywood Video to get caught up on everything I’d missed. Even owning the amazing Criterion set, I still don’t think I’ve seen all the films and haven’t given the time to the television series. But I love the world of Zatoichi

As for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,It’s somewhat difficult to classify. It’s not a remake exactly, and it’s not a continuation either. I like to think of this effort along the lines of when James Bond is recast. The Sean Connery and Roger Moore films didn’t disappear when Timothy Dalton was issued his license to kill. The face changes, the locations and villains change but the character at heart is the same man Kan Shimozawa created decades ago. And like the Bond films, I don’t like to compare the actors playing our titular blind swordsman. Katsu’s portrayal was iconic and nearly impossible to follow or top. Kitano’s version is distinctly his and I think it’s a great return for the character. 

While the plot of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi doesn’t offer many surprises or deviations from the two-dozen-plus previous films, it’s a fun, engaging new take. At almost two hours, the film moves fast but doesn’t shortchange characters or plot structure. We’re quickly introduced to our new Zatoichi, shown the new town he’s going to save, meet some new friends, and discover new enemies. I particularly like how Hattori Gennosuke was introduced as Zatoichi’s primary ronin nemesis. Without a lord to serve, he has a family to take care of so he hires out his blade to the highest bidder. Even with the conceit that he’s acting out of desperation and for bad men, his pride won’t allow him to step aside when facing our unsuspecting blind warrior acting on the side of good. 

Now the use of CGI for blood effects and all sorts of bodily dismemberment can be a bit jarring, they are, at the very least, effective. Some shots simply don’t age well, but others add a gnarly quality to the proceedings. Even without the CGI, the action sequences are thrilling ballets of blood and are still exciting to see twenty years later. And speaking of ballets, you get that wild dance number from The Stripes to close out the film. There's a lot to be said about what Takeshi Kitano brought to Zatoichi, but boring isn't in the discussion! 4/5




Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Australia’s Via Vision delivers The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi as one of the introductory titles for their new Imprint Asia line of disc releases. Pressed on a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a clear case with a paper book-style slipcase. The disc loads to a standard main menu with traditional navigation options.  

Video Review

Ranking:

A big fan of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi I’ve been hoping for something of a definitive release of this film on disc. While this transfer is pretty good, it’s the same dated HD master that’s traveled the world for a while now. It’s not terrible or unwatchable, but it’s also one that was pretty clearly mastered for the DVD market and just keeps getting recycled. The details are decent, but not razor-sharp and clean. Edge enhancement is apparent throughout leading to some notable visual anomalies. Colors are vibrant with healthy primaries. Black levels are bit iffy at times, for the most part they’re pretty good and there’s some image depth to appreciate, but at this point, I can’t help but wonder how much better this film could look. A true 2K or 4K restoration would be wonderful. 3/5

Audio Review

Ranking:

On the audio front, Zatoichi enjoys excellent Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 Stereo listing options with English subtitles. Both are great options, but I prefer the 5.1 over the 2.0 track. Kitano’s use of sound was very exciting and I felt like the DTS track fully captures the soundscape. Between music cues, blades clashing, or even the use of raindrops or the active gambling halls, the sound design for this film keeps you immersed in the action on screen. To that end, the LPCM 2.0 is still very good. If you’re not fully rigged for surround sound or enjoy your films with headphones in the dead of night, it’s a great track too with well-prioritized dialog, music, and key sound effects. 

Special Features

Ranking:

On the special features front, this edition comes with a fine selection of new and archival materials. Leading the pack for new extras is a great audio commentary with author and historian Sean Redmond. The commentary is an engaging listen, with lots of trivia and insight, it can sound a bit scripted but well worth it. For the archival pieces, we have a very good Making-Of piece with six crew interviews to pick through. The making-of might be a bit of puff about getting the film to theaters and so forth, but there are some good behind-the-scenes pieces. The various interviews are the most insightful. 3.5/5

  • Audio Commentary featuring Sean Redmond
  • The Making of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (SD 39:57)
  • Crew Interviews: (SD 38:41 Total In Japanese with English Subtitles)
    • Tatsumi Nikamoto and Hiroaki Tokoro
    • Kazuko Kurosawa
    • Katsumi Yanagishima
    • Hideboh (The Stripes)
    • Keiichi Suzuki
    • Senji Horiuchi

While the Zatoichi franchise continued after this film, I was disappointed that Takeshi Kitano didn’t keep going with the character himself. This should have been the first chapter of a new series of films. 2010’s Zatoichi: The Last is in fact, the last film featuring the character. Maybe someday soon we’ll see someone get the urge for more blind fury swordsman action and see it through for numerous films. Thanks to Australian distributor Via Vision’s new label Imprint Asia, we have a very nice Blu-ray release of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. While I hope we get a fully restored video transfer someday, this disc sports a pair of excellent audio options and a healthy assortment of new and archival extras to slice through. Recommended 

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