First appearing in Kan Shimozawa's 1948 short story, the character of Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman went on to become a folk hero and entertainment franchise thanks in large part to Shintaru Katsu's charismatic portrayal in 26 films and 100 television episodes. The Criterion Collection's 'Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman' is an impressive set that presents the 25 films that debuted from 1962 to 1973 in the longest-running action series in Japanese cinema.
'The Tale of Zatoichi' (1962) introduces our hero. Zato is the lowest rank for a blind person and Ichi is his name. He wanders the countryside of 1840s Japan at a time when every village, at least every one he passes through, is run by a corrupt crime boss or official. He appears harmless at first glance. He has a portly shape and is mistreated by cruel people because of his blindness, which requires him to use a cane, but within that cane is his sword. His skill is unparalleled thanks in part to his other senses compensating for his lack of vision. He slices through all those that stand in his way and has a cool move, sheathing his blade before anyone else including the viewer knows it is safe to do so. He is frequently referred to as a yakuza and even calls himself one, but at every opportunity through the series, he reveals he has very little in common with those criminals other than occasionally crossing paths with them.
Ichi claims to work as a blind masseuse, but that's just a ruse for the most part so he can get close to people to learn information. His real profession is gambler/con man. His game of choice involves dice as people bet on the number of two dice under a cup being odd or even. In this film and many others, he takes advantage of people who try to take advantage of him. Yet, he is an honorable man and believes even yakuza have a code. When he kills people he respects, he visits their graves as seen in 'The Tale of Zatoichi Continues' (1962), the most direct sequel of the series with many characters returning, and 'Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold' (1964). In 'Zatoichi the Fugitive' (1963), he not only apologizes to a woman for killing her son who attacked him, but gives her the bounty he would have earned because she needs it.
After two films in black and white, the rest are in color, starting with 'The New Tale Of Zatoichi' (1963). Yasuhiko, the brother of Boss Kanbei from the previous film seeks revenge against Ichi. Over the course of the series, revenge and the increasing bounty on his head keep him from giving up his sword. Yet, once he meets and falls in love with the sister of his former sword-fighting teacher, Banno, he promises to give up his sword and yakuza life for her. But women are commodities, many are seen as prostitutes throughout the series, and Banno has other plans for her.
Most of the films in the series have a basic template as Ichi helps people, both entire villages and individuals, overcome their oppressors. The writers change the scenarios enough that though similar they don't feel repetitive. For example, to get Ichi to a village in 'Fight, Zatoichi, Fight' (1964), a woman is killed because she is mistaken for him and he feels compelled to returns her infant son to his father. They approach the fight scenes the same way, and the directors and stunt teams help keep them fresh. In "Zatoichi's Pilgrimage" (1966), the main Boss uses arrows. In "Zatoichi's Vengeance" (1966), the villains distract his hearing with drums to make their attacks easier.
Although Ichi fought hundreds of nameless thugs, he was challenged greatly by many skilled fighters. Early on, there was Hirate from 'The Tale of Zatoichi' and the titular Chess Expert from another film. Towards the end of the run, the two most notable occur when ' Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo' (1970) and '…Meets the One-Armed Swordsman' (1971). Toshiro Mifune stars in the former, and while he is playing a yojimbo, I don't believe it's the yojimbo character Mifune played in Kurosawa's film. Still, he's a great presence on screen and makes a great obstacle for Ichi. The latter film is an international production that finds Jimmy Wang bringing his Hong Kong character and martial arts style to Japan. The cross-culture team-up has fun moments but Wang was done with the character and doesn't come across as an equal of Ichi in terms of screen time or results.
The 'Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman' set ends with 'Zatoichi's Conspiracy' (1973), but there's no sense of closure like a book as the character moved onto television from 1974 to 1979, and then Katsu returned to the role one last time in 'Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman' (1989). Hopefully, they gave the character a proper send-off. The 25 adventures available here deliver a great deal of entertainment in terms of action, drama, and humor, because at its core it’s the character viewers grow to care about.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Housed in a decorated slipcase, 'Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman' (#679 in The Criterion Collection) presents the 25 films across 9 50GB Region A Blu-ray discs as well as 18 DVDs. They are housed in the pockets of a cardboard book's pages, which will likely tear at some point while sliding them in and out. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 95-page booklet containing featuring Geoffrey O’Brien's essay "On the Road with Zatoichi," notes on each film by Chris D., and Shimozawa's "The Tale of Zatoichi"
The video from the 25 films has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.35:1. The liner notes reveal, "The digital transfer of 'The Tale of Zatoichi' was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics film scanner from a 35mm print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
"The digital transfers of 'The Tale of Zatoichi Continues'; 'New Tale of Zatoichi'; 'Zatoichi the Fugitive'; 'Zatoichi on the Road'; 'Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold'; 'Zatoichi's Flashing Sword'; 'Fight, Zatoichi, Fight'; 'Adventures of Zatoichi'; 'Zatoichi's Revenge'; 'Zatoichi and the Doomed Man'; 'Zatoichi and the Chess Expert'; 'Zatoichi's Vengeance'; 'Zatoichi's Pilgrimage'; 'Zatoichi's Cane Sword'; 'Zatoichi Challenged'; 'Zatoichi and the Fugitives'; and 'Samaritan Zatoichi' were created in high-definition on a Spirit DataCine from the 35mm low-contrast composite prints. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
The digital transfers of 'Zatoichi the Outlaw', 'Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo', 'Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival', 'Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman', 'Zatoichi at Large', 'Zatoichi in Desperation', and 'Zatoichi's Conspiracy' were created in 2K resolution on a SCANITY film scanner from 35mm prints. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Digital Vision's DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management.
During 'The Tale of Zatoichi' and The Tale…Continues', blacks are deep and there is a wide range of grays coming through. Detail is sharp and textures are fine. Pores and strands of facial hair on Katsu's face can be seen in the close-ups. The one negative is the use of either lights or reflectors on actors loses detail in spots. In the former film, there are bits of dirt and flicker, the frame wobbles momentarily, and whites are a little too bright in the scene when Ichi chastises people after the fight.
Colors are strong throughout the remaining films. Grain is more noticeable, as seen against the outdoor sky in 'New Tale'. Day-for-night shots exhibit extra grain and loss of detail. 'The Fugitive' also suffers from directed light causing too-bright white spots. This film had the worst visual issues. There was a scratch running down right side of the frame during two scenes. There was also aliasing occurring on bad guys' jacket pattens and frames wobbling. Starting with 'Chest of Gold', the films aren't as bright in appearance. In low-lit scenes, hues lean towards black. Detail, contrast, and depth become diminished.
The audio for all 25 films is available in Japanese LPCM 1.0 and "the original monaural tracks were remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
Dialogue sounded clean throughout. During the opening credits of 'The Tale' and 'Pilgrimage', the music was distorted as if recorded too loud at the source. This was a frequent occurrence, as loud sounds, from clanging of cymbals and drums during 'Vengeance' to children screaming in 'Adventures of Zatoichi' (1962), tended to distort, diminishing the dynamic range.
Softer sounds, from higher pitch ones like Ichi's sword slicing through the air and lower ones like dice rolling around a cup and Ochiki's breaths and footsteps running while running through a forest in 'Vengeance', came through with greater clarity.
After making my way through the 'Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman' set, I am definitely a fan of the character and the franchise. Considering the sources, the Blu-rays deliver very good video and adequate audio. Though informative, having little more than two video features accompany the set doesn't feel adequate for such an important series. Recommended.