"Your character, it seems, won't improve until you're reborn."
Between 1962 and 1974 there were 25 Zatoichi films made. A final Zatoichi film was made in 1989. Add to that a successful television series and a current remake by Beat Takashi, and, obviously, with that many hours of entertainment devoted to one character, what was created was nothing less than a beloved cultural icon. Set in the age of rouge samurai, Shintaro Katsu stars as Ichi, a blind masseur, gambler, gangster, lady charmer, deadly swordsman, and all around kind-hearted scoundrel. Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973) is the twenty-fifth film, the last in the decade long run of the series.
Ichi returns to his hometown after a twenty year (+) absence. He finds the woman that raised him has died, but he meets a sweet girl, Omiyo, who also had the same "auntie", and befriends her and her grandfather (Akira Kurosawa fave, veteran Takashi Shimura- Ikiru, Seven Samurai). He also crosses paths with a childhood friend, Shinbei, though Shinbei is less enthusiastic about meeting his old friend. Shinbei has become a powerful man, but he is abusing with that power.
Shinbei, in what seems to be a gesture of good faith, has agreed to pay off the towns tax debts. The villagers happiness over this is shattered when Shinbei uses his clout to move in on the local quarry, one that the townspeople have used (in a emergency/casual traditional manner) for generations. Shinbei, along with some strong-arm yakuza, takes over the quarry and puts the villagers to work, not e caring for their safety, causing the loss of lives all in a pursuit of quick profit. Because Shinbei was his childhood friend and because, if worse comes to worse, he knows how to deal with gangsters, Ichi takes up the villagers cause and delivers an ultimatum.
With Zatoichi On the Road, Zatoichi's Cane Sword and Zatoichi Vs. The One-Armed Swordsman director Yasuda Kimiyoshi behind the camera, Zatoichi's Conspiracy is a decent end to the films original cycle. All of the familiar themes are touched upon, Ichi connecting with the purehearted, like Omiyo, and begrudgingly having to confront oppressors with his sword when they won't back down. The action is pretty much saved for the final third of the film, the bulk of the film carried by Ichi's interaction with the ghosts of his past. The violence is probably the most gruesome of the series, including some severed limbs and arterial blood spray which were the hallmarks of the samurai films of the time.
Looking back, one of the most amazing things (that, if you think about it, shouldn't really be amazing) about the Zatoichi film series, is the pure commitment behind every entry. Yes, it was formulaic. Yes, there are some lesser films. But, throughout, one thing remains steadfast and reliable- Shintaro Katsu's performance. Here it is, the twenty-fifth film, the twenty-fifth time he has played the character in just over a decade, and his characterization is as true and nuanced and wonderful as the first, second, third, or tenth film. You cannot say that for most series. Just look at Bond, with five different actors, even the best of which, by the end of their course, just phone it in. Not so with Zatoichi, which is why the series remains one of the most endearing in the history of cinema.
The DVD: Animeigo
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Once again, like all of their Zatoichi and 60's/70's samurai releases, Animeigo have done a very good job and selected a good source print for their transfer. The color and contract details are very nice, rich hues and deep blacks. However, there is some softness present on the image, not enough to really harm the film too much, but enough that fans will make note it is one of the softer Zatoichi releases. Still, it is a good job and is remarkable improvement over the previous worn out, dirty, spotty prints that chambara fans had to contend with.
Sound: Dolby "Stereo", Japanese language with optional English subtitles. I put stereo in quotes because, although it is a two-channel mix, there really isn't any noticeable separation. So, it appears that the mono track has just been given a push into two channels, making it fuller, but not true, by the strictest definition, stereo. Free of any glaring distortions like drop off or hiss which are common with films of the era. The dual subtitle options (Definitions and Dialogue or just Definitions) are very well done, going the extra mile by having different colors to further distinguish lines during multiple character scenes.
Extras: Liner/Program Notes— Character Bios— Trailers for Zatoichi's conspiracy, Zatoichi Vs. The One-Armed Swordsman, Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance.
Conclusion: Animeigo does a fine job and present the film with a very good transfer sure to please everyone who is a fan of this series.