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ZatoichiFollowing the success of the first two chapters in the Zatoichi saga, Home Vision Entertainment has released three new DVDs of Japan's most celebrated blind masseur swordsman. For those who may not be familiar with the legendary character, Zatoichi is a blind ronin, a samurai without a master who travels throughout Japan making ends meet as a masseur and hiring himself out as an assassin when he has to. Despite his blindness, Zatoichi is a master swordsman, a brutal killer who is able to slash, stab, and strike with deadly accuracy by using his well-trained sense of almost superhuman hearing. To the casual observer Zatoichi may look like nothing more than a rotund harmless blind man; good with his hands and nothing more. He's anything but that.

Beginning in 1962 with The Tale of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman immediately captured the public's imagination and spawned over 26 film sequels spanning three decades. The series produced a number of imitators, such as Shochiku Studio's Crimson Bat films or the Daiei produced Kyoshiro Nemurai Samurai films that lasted for eleven dark episodes. Although successful in their own ways, neither series could match the hold that Shintaro Katsu's portrayal of the blind swordsman had on the public.

Most of the Zatoichi films follow a simple formula of the blind masseur defending the honor of some young woman or child (sometimes both in the same film) by battling it out with the local Yakuza or even another lone ronin like himself. Although there is a narrative thread linking all of the films (e.g. characters from earlier films sometimes make appearances in later ones, etc.), each entry in the series plays well on its own, which is great for those of you who don't necessarily want to start at the beginning.

Commonly known as chambara (swordfighting/Samurai Film), these films are more or less like Westerns -- Good Guy vs. Bad Guy, with the Good Guy more or less prevailing. But despite the series' unapologetic stance in regards to genre conventions, the overall mood of the films is one of melancholy. Zatoichi is a lonely man who ultimately wants what most people want -- love, security, and happiness. Unfortunately, because he's also a deadly swordsman, he's constantly being challenged to prove his martial abilities over and over again. Zatoichi's almost supernatural way with the sword is his curse, but it is subsequently our viewing pleasure.

Released in 1963, New Tale of Zatoichi is the first of the series to be filmed in color. It's also one of the more somber of the early films, as our favorite blind swordsman discovers that the man who taught him how to fight has now sold-out to a bunch of Yakuza thugs. Zatoichi, of course, tries to help his sensei, but the latter man is too shamed and humiliated to accept his pupil's help. He's also too far gone. So instead, pupil and master do the only thing two dangerous ronin can do -- battle on. The finale is swift and brutal, and carries with it a heavy emotional punch. The film is complicated by a love story, as well. Zatoichi is deeply in love with his sensei's sister. Of course, Zatoichi is unable to marry the woman unless he renounces the wayward life of the sword. Lonely and more than a little battle worn, Zatoichi is happy to surrender his weapon. Unfortunately, surrendering to domesticity is a lot easier said than done.

This third installment is melodramatic and exciting throughout and it even contains a fabulous scene wherein we watch Zatoichi perform a brilliant new sword trick. The film also ties up a few plot threads that were left dangling from the satisfying yet abrupt finale of The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. But despite its portentous and doom-heavy tone, the film does contain some nice lighter moments, like watching Shintaro Katsu pluck the shamisen while warbling out a sad ballad. Well, then again, that's a pretty melancholic scene also. Never mind.

For the next film in the series, and thus far the best, Zatoichi: The Fugitive is a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much. After winning a sumo wrestling match (Zatoichi in fact beats a number of opponents over the course of a long hot afternoon), the blind swordsman is attacked by a total stranger while enjoying some nourishment on the banks of a tranquil stream. Zatoichi kills the young man and subsequently learns that there is a bounty on his head. Troubled by the young attacker's carelessness and desperate need for such a trifle bounty, Zatoichi goes to the village where the young man's mother lives to tell her what has happened. The old woman forgives Zatoichi, but when others hear about the blind swordsman's arrival all hell breaks loose. And when a dissipated drunken samurai, hired by some gangsters to kill Zatoichi, severely wounds the blind swordsman in the wrist during an ambush, things get even worse. The film's violent showdown in an abandoned house on the banks of a marsh is fantastic, culminating in an appropriately brutal ending.

Much of the film's power resides in its atmosphere. From the opening moments when we see Zatoichi walking through the marsh while the sounds of insects buzz in the fetid air around him to the film's dire carnage-fueled finale in the same area, Zatoichi: The Fugitive casts an almost feverish existential spell over us. Isolated from the rules and the moral strictures of the community around him, Zatoichi repeatedly has to ask himself why so much death hounds him. Why can't he just get a little peace?

After such a high note with the fourth film in the series, Zatoichi: On the Road doesn't sustain the previous entry's brilliant mood or pacing. Much of the film simply gets bogged down in too much talk and not enough action. It does contain some great villains, most notably a beautiful though treacherous female kidnapper named Hisa, and when the action does rear its battle-weary head it's good. It's just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.

Some of the problem also stems from Shintaro Katsu's take on the character. At this point in the series perhaps Katsu wanted to liven things up a little. Who knows? But the changes are strangely off putting and seem a bit out of character. Zatoichi was always rough around the edges, but here he's coarse and obnoxious as he stuffs his face full of food and orders people around. He comes off as more killer than a man who is forced to kill. Perhaps all the heat and the carnage from the last film simply took a toll on the poor fella, turning him from a noble swordsman into one pissed off blind man.

The film does contain a savage climax when Zatoichi makes like Sanjuro from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and pits one vile Yakuza gang against each other. Though exciting to watch, it nevertheless lacks an emotional weight that previous entries in the series eagerly dished out.

All three Home Vision Entertainment discs are in their proper widescreen aspect ratios (2.35:1 enhanced) and contain galleries of original theatrical stills. Each disc also contains four trading cards showing scenes from different episodes. Zatoichi: The Tale of Zatoichi also contains a brief summary of the two previous episodes and trivia on the films, Zatoichi: The Fugitive includes liner notes about Shintaro Katsu, and Zatoichi: On the Road contains a handy complete filmography of the series.


New Tale of Zatoichi, The Fugitive, and On the Road are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. Each disc includes a small stills gallery and an essay about the Zatoichi series. Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.
 


 

Photos courtesy of Home Vision Entertainment.