Sword fights. Gambling. Geishas. Tap dancing. 'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi' has it all...
The Japanese samurai hero who began his adventures on the silver screen in the sixties (starring in twenty six full length features, including a crossover with samurai staple Yojimbo) also had a career on the small screen in the seventies before falling off the map. His tales relegated to weekend cable television, the blind masseuse/swordsman (an effective combination, for sure) wasn't in the limelight again until 2003, when Takeshi "Beat" Kitano announced he'd be bringing the legend back to the big screen, directing and starring as the title character.
This is no origin story. In this tale, Zatoichi is already a legend, of sorts, much like Clark Kent, but instead of removing a pair of glasses, all he has to do is slide his sword out from its hiding place in his cane. In his travels, he wanders into a town overrun by gangsters where he also encounters a pair of sibling Geishas with a vendetta, and a skilled ronin seeking employment as a bodyguard to pay for his wife's health needs.
One needn't be familiar with the history of the character, or any of his past adventures, to get a kick out of this tale. Really, all the backstory needed is in the title of the film. He's blind. He's a swordsman. Naturally, by association, he's also a bad ass. Case closed.
Kitano does a wonderful job portraying the stoic hero, portraying the blindness believably in his limited mobility, and I can't imagine this was an easy job, directing while unable to see events around him. Tadanobu Asano (as Hattori Genosuke, the bodyguard) is convincingly cold, brutal, and arrogant. Sadly, Aunt Oume (Michiyo Ookusu) and Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) were less than believable, playing their secondary roles with excessive vigor.
The action is the strong point of the film, from the flashback confrontation that introduces Zatoichi's talents, to the varied one-against-many confrontations that litter the film. Fights are short and sweet, and as merciless as the steel of the blades in combat. Sadly, the fights are also subject to some aesthetic choices that transform the film into a cartoon of sorts, with arterial sprays that would make Takashi Miike and Quentin Tarantino proud.
The film also has a not too subtle mix of comedy, mostly from Zatoichi and Shinkichi, that didn't help to ground the project in reality. Also troubling is the randomness of a few sequences, particularly in the ending, that had no place in the film whatsoever. This is clearly a case when additional editing would have tightened up the story and increase the film's effectiveness. Samurai films should end in triumph or tragedy, not massively choreographed dance sequences that include the cast and dramatically change the mood of the film, sapping the drama from the final confrontation.
'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi' isn't the best samurai film to use as an introduction to the genre (that honor goes to Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai'), but those familiar with the themes and cultural backdrop may find this a worthy addition to their film libraries... that or they'll never want to watch it again.
'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi' arrives on Blu-ray on a dual layer disc from Miramax, sporting an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.85:1 original aspect ratio.
It seems we can't get enough controversy these days. This Blu-ray of 'Zatoichi' sports an enriched color scheme, deviating from the source material (the natural subdued colors can be seen in the supplements on this release), that has its ups and downs. On the plus side, blues and reds fill out gorgeously, as do the green foliage backgrounds. On the minus side, skin tones don't look too accurate (remember: this is Japan, not Miami), and black levels look a hair too bright at times. Bottom line, authentic is authentic, and this is not. I'll destroy a disc for not presenting the film in the natural aspect ratio, and altering the entire aesthetic of the film in this manner is no less excusable in my book.
It also doesn't help matters that CG in this film stands out like a thumb that's been hit with a hammer a few times. Blood splatters look as if a container of fruit punch exploded, and even have the same thin consistency. While this is an intentional move by Kitano, it isn't pretty. CG wounds have the same appearance as a thick red sharpie pen, sometimes moving on bodies. Worse yet are the CG swords that look ridiculous, especially in high def. They wobble in place, have unnatural reflection and lighting patterns, and sport a solid, clunky movement, rather than the fluidity one would expect from a master swordsman.
Contrast can be strong, but it often nearly disappears, while edge enhancement is light, but frequently evident. There is also a hint of DNR that isn't a killing blow (the other issues are more egregious), but it's certainly an additional insult. While detail is often strong, this transfer, as a whole, certainly is not.
What's that? You want more controversy? To quote Michelle Tanner, "You got it, dude!"
There are three audio options for 'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,' and none are definitive. Take your pick, between a (lossy) Dolby Digital 5.1 track in the native Japanese, a (lossless) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English dub (which is the default for the disc, no less!), or a (lossy) Stereo Spanish track.
Since I, like any film fan, prefer the authentic experience, with lossy I went. The Japanese track isn't all that bad, honestly. The score is very active, and displays great range. Dialogue rumbles with a tint of ferocity early, and is always clear. Sword swinging creates nice ringing effects, while bass can be strong, especially during the thunderstorm sequence. Surround usage isn't exhaustive, with some (less than seamless) bits of movement, localized dialogue, and ambient effects. Sadly, there were a few points in the film where an awkward cut would lead to an audio pop of sorts, due to transitioning from near silence to random activity improperly.
Random samplings of the action (non-dialogue) sequences in the lossless dub track show a distinct difference, with a cleaner high end, deeper bass level, and more distinction to sounds, like the splitting of bamboo by Ichi's blade. So fans in search of what could have been on the Japanese track can just press a button to see how badly Miramax botched this job.
The supplement package for 'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi' directly mirrors the previous DVD release, including:
Blu-ray isn't Baskin Robbins. We don't need 31 flavors, we don't truly need choice. What we need is lossless tracks for the languages that are native to the film, not for localized dubs. Miramax has gone 0/4 with the "Ultimate" Force of Four films, in this regard. Add in puzzling video choices that deviate from the source material, and a souped up MSRP for the individual release (inside the box set the price is far more reasonable), and you have a disc that should be bought by fans only. Fans who will, no doubt, be very, very upset.
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