Movie: In the history of Japanese cinema, there are only a few true icons that have been all but universally loved. The two I'll discuss today, Shintaro Katsu, a man who played the lead in a long running series, Zatoichi, a story about a blind masseur and the other being Toshiro Mifune, a man well known throughout the world for the variety of roles he played, including many Samurai of incredible skill.
Katsu's character, Ichi (called Zatoichi as a traditional title of a blind man trained in the art of massage) goes from place to place offering his services as masseur to those who can afford it. This simple profession also allows the blind man to assist people using his other skills. You see, Zatoichi is also one of the most lethal swordsmen ever to walk the Earth. He roams about as he sees fit and gets sucked into just about every confrontation possible in medieval Japan, a dangerous place for someone who meddles in the affairs of others. Those who underestimate him, and there are many such people, often find themselves lying on the ground before the seasoned masseuse, bleeding to death. Zatoichi lives by a code of honor though so he only harms those who seek to harm him first, typically acting in a humble manner that belies his skills as well.
Mifune's characters tend to be swordsmen of unquestionable power and skill. When he walks into a situation, his command presence alone is enough to force his enemies to attack in mass quantity, knowing that none defy his will for long. One of his most formidable characters was that of a yojimbo, a masterless Samurai, who sells his services to the highest bidder. Such characters were considered somewhat tainted under societal rules that dictated position in a hierarchal situation, such as working for a powerful lord, as being the ideal place for those of skill. Over the years, Mifune played many characters of this type and played them well enough that he was in great demand by the Japanese public.
At some point in the past, 1970 to be exact, it was thought that combining these two cultural treasures would be a good idea so the movie Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo was born. Katsu played the usual Zatoichi character he was loved for, bumbling through life (to further disarm his opponents) and Mifune played a yojimbo by the name of Sassa, a devilishly skilled samurai who liked fast women and hard drinking. The results were less than fully satisfying for the viewing audience, for whatever reasons, because the story seemed somewhat of a replay of several previous efforts at the time.
Zatoichi was on the run from the law, having upset the wrong people at the wrong time, and he sought the refuge of a pleasant little town he had visited years before, one that welcomed him with open arms. When he arrives in town, he finds that all is not as he left it and there is danger everywhere. There are two groups fighting it out for control over some gold that was skimmed off the top of some official coinage, a big mistake in Shogunate Japan. One side hires a yojimbo, a wandering samurai to assist them in their attempt to uncover the gold and the two famous swordsmen meet under less than auspicious circumstances.
Each play of the weaknesses of the other, the bold, brash Sassa not taking Zatoichi serious at first until he finds the price on the masseur's head to be worth every ryo (a form of money). Deciding to work at odds to one another yet in their own best interests, the two follow their own paths, leaving a bloody trail of bodies at every turn. Who does Sassa really work for and what is actually going on is something you'll have to watch the movie to find out.
This has been called the weakest of the long-running Zatoichi films yet there was still a lot to like. Mifune and Katsu both added their blend of humor and if it wasn't perfectly blended, it was still worth many repeated viewings for fans of either. There was a lot going on, even if the surface story appeared to be routine, and while it wasn't nearly as well planned out and written as one of Mifune's collaborations with Kurasawa, that'd be a tough act to follow, if you catch my drift. The basic story was good and the intrigues offered played to the strengths of the characters so you can see why I'd want to give this one a look.
Fans of Zatoichi can rejoice that DVD Talk has quite an expert on its hands with regard to the exploits of the character in John Wallis (who also seems knowledgeable in martial art films as a whole too) but several other reviewers have been addressing the recent releases as well and I encourage you to check out their reviews. That said, I'm going to rate this one as Recommended since I had a lot of fun with it and will be playing it again really soon. It might not have been the best work either of these two stars has done but it was good fun. I only wish they lived long enough to make a few more movies (both died in 1997) and I look forward to seeing more of their work given the AnimEigo treatment.
Picture: The picture was presented in an anamorphic widescreen print with the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as expected. For such an old movie, great care needed to be excised and AnimEigo worked their wonders. They started with a new low-contrast, wet-gate 35-millimeter print made from the original film print. They made a transfer to a Hi-definition master tape, using color correction and Revival software to remove most of the dirt, noise and debris. The bottom line of all this techno-babble from the liner notes is that AnimEigo spent a lot of time and energy making this the best DVD possible. While there was some grain and the occasional print scratch, this looked far better than a tape version I saw in the 1980's.
Sound: The audio was presented in monaural Japanese as processed through a Dolby Digital stereo process to keep the audio clean. It sounded very clear and crisp with none of the problems associated with older movies (at least by comparison). The subtitles were offered in two versions, full or limited, with one having the explanation to words and the other just the language itself. I really liked how they were in dual color, allowing for more than one speaker to be recognized at a time, something few companies do competently at this time, which allows for better understanding of what takes place.
Extras: For such a great restoration, you'd think extras would be blown off but AnimEigo spent some effort here too. There was a trailer for Lone Wolf and Cub (a series produced by Katsu), some detailed character biographies, and best of all, some extensive liner notes. The liner notes were on the DVD as well as a paper insert included in the DVD, both addressing some of the currency issues the plot was based on, some of the cultural terms used, a memorial to Katsu Shintaro (although strangely missing an opportunity to provide one for Toshiro Mifune), and on the political structure of medieval Japan.
Final Thoughts: I think AnimEigo is to be commended for the overall quality of this release. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo may not be the best is the Zatoichi series, but it was far better than the scores of imitators it spawned throughout the years. Both actors in this movie can rest peacefully knowing their legacy was treated as well as it has been here. I only wish other companies would put in at least half the effort AnimEigo has done with this one.